To say that I’m indecisive is putting it mildly—to admit that it’s one of my defining characteristics is much more accurate. In fact, I just spent a good chunk of time sitting here, struggling to decide how to start this story. I’ve infuriated countless family members and friends with my inability to choose everything from restaurants to movies to my next steps in life. It’s frustrating, embarrassing, and I’m officially over it.
Rather than continue buckling from the pressure of choice, I’m making an important decision—no more indecisiveness! And since most people struggle with this issue on some level—just try asking a group of friends what they feel like doing on a Friday night—I know there are quite a few out there who could benefit from making that same decision. But to overcome indecisiveness, we need to acknowledge and move past what causes it in the first place: fear.
When Weighing Options Weighs Us Down
Ultimately, what prevents us from making decisions is anxiety over making the wrong decision, of experiencing regret, of missing out on something better. So we agonize over every choice, weighing our options and researching as much as we can so that our decision is an educated, calculated one, which we think minimizes the risk of future disappointment. This might be a practical idea when shopping for big-ticket items like cars or trying to decide whether to change careers, but some of us transfer that process to matters of minor consequence, like deciding what to have for dinner. And even though we think going over each option in our head is the surest way to make the most optimal choice, giving so much thought to what we don’t end up choosing just increases the chances of buyer’s remorse.
A Tale of Two Types: Satisficers and Maximizers
In a 2004 issue of Scientific American, Barry Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore College, wrote an article called “The Tyranny of Choice.” In it, he argues that the plethora of choices afforded to most members of prosperous societies has actually led to higher rates of depression. In other words, the fact that we have so much to choose from in the U.S.—which many of us indecisive folks see as a good thing—is causing serious blows to our overall happiness.
Schwartz divides people into two categories, satisficers (those who make decisions without dwelling on them) and maximizers (people who constantly focus on making the best decision). To find out how their decision-making abilities related to their quality of life, he surveyed a group of people. To figure out their proper category, he had them rate questions like “I often find it difficult to shop for a gift for a friend” on a scale of “completely disagree” to “completely agree.” (By the way, according to his test, I’m a severe maximizer.) Schwartz found that maximizers are generally less happy, more bogged down by regret, and harder to satisfy than their decisive peers. The reason for this, he suggests, is that thinking too much about the different “what ifs”—or opportunity costs, as he calls them—makes it that much harder to let go of once we finally choose.
Pinpointing the Traits of the Decisive
Now that we know that being indecisive is not only annoying but bad for our health, too, how do we go from hesitant to certain? According to Bill Baren, business coach and founder of BillBaren.com, indecisiveness is a faulty pattern we need to break away from actively. “Every time you’re indecisive,” he advises, “you’re exercising the muscle of indecisiveness and that muscle becomes stronger and stronger.” To make our minds more resolute, we need to work out our decisive muscle.
Get over being right.
Here’s the fundamental lesson indecisive people need to learn in order to overcome it—there is no one right choice. And any choice we do make will never seem like the best ones if we’re always thinking about what could’ve been. Besides, if we never made mistakes, we’d never learn and grow from them.
Acknowledge what’s really holding you up.
According to San Francisco-based life coach Kirsten Mahoney of Insight Out Life Coaching, what holds many of her clients up isn’t the actual choosing, but taking the action that follows it. “They may be weighing the pros and cons,” she explains, “but what they’re hesitating on is taking the next step.” She emphasizes the importance of exploring the emotions surrounding the decision. “It doesn’t mean the feelings are going to go away, but the awareness of them will help you deal [with the choice] on a more honest level,” she says.
Put everything in perspective.
How much will whatever decisions we’re grappling with affect our lives in the long run? To figure out whether the issue is worth thinking about, ask yourself if it’ll matter in five or ten years. It makes having a twenty-minute discussion about what movie to see seem downright silly.
Realize that nothing is set in stone.
Some believe that finalizing all decisions encourages resolve, but as someone who’s plagued by indecisiveness, I think knowing that I have the power to choose differently in the future helps immensely. “[People] get caught up about it being the right decision, feeling like it’s irreversible,” Kirsten says. “But each step you take doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind.”
Embrace small choices; reject regret.
The best way to make permanent changes in life is to start small and work our way up to the bigger decisions. Practice making choices that have minimal impact and keep track of how many you successfully make in a week. Bill even recommends flipping a coin: “Starting—even if it’s in the wrong direction—gets our movement going,” he says. “Then you continue to make adjustments to your course and eventually, not only will you get better at making decisions, you’ll also get where you want to go much faster.” Adopt a reward system for being decisive—without regretting any of your selections.
If the idea of leaving fate to a coin toss is too scary, there are a variety of other ways to make decisions more easily:
- Make a list of the positives and negatives of each choice.
- Only ask a few experienced people for advice.
- Remain cognizant of how each choice brings you closer to your goals.
- Stop comparing decisions and their outcomes to that of other people.
- Envision the worst possible outcome and come up with a plan of action.
Overcoming an indecisive mind requires relying on instincts, taking risks, and perhaps the hardest part, learning to live in the present rather than worrying about disappointment down the line. Above all, it’s about taking initiative in our lives and gaining confidence. And when it comes to choosing between lives riddled with anxiety and constant wavering versus lives marked by fortitude and overall satisfaction, doesn’t the decision seem easy?