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When you don't want to decide

You should have a reaction immediately, one way or another. If you have to think about a dress to say you like it or not, then the dress doesn't really mean anythying. I make up my mind very, very fast about things, because anything that takes long thinking doesn't really interest me. -- Oscar de la Renta, on dress shopping in Time Tactics of Very Successful People


Have you had the following happen? You have a decision to make, but you don't want to make it, so you put it off or avoid it, but it leaves you unsettled and disturbed until you deal with it. This had come up because I have two such decisions pending right now - committing to some relatively minor surgery, and whether to accept someone's application for a project.

Of course the right thing to do is buck it up and make the damn decisions, so why do we torture ourselves? Two general categories come to mind: a) We don't know what we want to do, or b) we know it, but we're putting off taking action. In my two cases, I have one of each. I know I want to undergo the procedure, but it's expensive, unpleasant, and time-consuming - I'm nervous committing. I.e., category b. For the second one, I'm not sure whether I want to turn the person down or not, i.e., category a.

For decisions we aren't ready to make yet, make sure there are good reasons to put them off. There are a few situations where it's valid to do so, mainly when you need more information. But that can be a trap. Will gathering more information really significantly alter what you decide? (There's definitely an opportunity for 80-20 decision making here.) Beyond gathering information, "I just need more time" is also valid and also a trap. Why do you need more time? A good heuristic I share with clients is the "one-time pass" to put things off. Push it out as far as you need, but when it comes back you have to decide.

Of course there are many techniques to help make decisions, from love/hate at first sight (like de la Renta) to "T-tables" comparing alternatives across binary dimensions. That's a book chapter.

I'm curious: Do the two cases above cover the spectrum? Do you have trouble making decisions? What techniques do you use? When has putting off a decision helped a lot, and why?

Reader Comments (4)

I think there's another category: the "I don't care one way or another" decisions.

For the "I don't know what I want" or the "I don't think I care" decisions, I sometimes flip a coin: "Heads I buy the donuts, Tails I buy the cheesecake."

The trick is to flip the coin, look at the result, and then see how you feel. If you're pleased, then do what the coin says. If you feel disappointed, then do the opposite-- turns out you DO care, and you probably have a good reason that you just can't put into words. And if you don't care... then do what the coin says.

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGavin Andresen

That's an awesome point, Gavin. A friend uses something similar, and it's sweet. The Coin Test. Thanks for your comment.

November 18, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

A coincidence, but I also tend to flip a coin when I find that I’m at an impasse. I usually follow what the coin decides, since I apply this method to the more trivial decisions — as opposed to life-changing ones. :-)

For the bigger issues, I’m more a fan of putting off making a decision until it comes back and I really have to. Being somewhat cautious, I find that it’s easier when I’ve taken a step back to consider all the options and really think on the situation before deciding. I get to live life more this way and such decisions have even led me to make more at my job.

P.S. Check out how you can fight mind viruses such as doubt and indecision here http://budurl.com/79e2.

December 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTeresa

I agree re: its being a technique for trivial issues, Teresa. I also analyze the big ones carefully, as you suggest. I take them seriously, probably too much so.

I love your site. Your take on [ Chronos and kairos | http://www.makemorelivemoregivemore.com/?p=398 ] got me thinking. Thanks!

P.S. Teresa = Liz?

December 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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