I am good at making decisions, but have trouble sticking with things. I often choose one path, and then not long after am second-guessing and flip-flopping. I end up getting stuck and not really moving forward long term with anything. Why do I do this and how can I change?
- Katie in Seattle
Decisiveness is not an indicator of confident decision making. You might feel confident about your choice, but unless you've gone through the right steps to make sure you've decided thoughtfully, you may end up with doubt - and a lot of second guessing.
If you're good at deciding but not comfortable with your choice, a couple of things could possibly be going on.
You're not clear on your endgame.
You'd be surprised at how many people make choices without thinking about how each choice might impact the quality of their options down the line. If you choose a job at a small company, your options for job advancement might be different than if you choose a job at a large company. If you choose to go to community college, your career options would probably be different than if you applied and attended a state university.
This doesn't mean one choice is better than the other. It just means your whole life trajectory could depend on a single decision made at the initial stages of your journey.
But we don't usually think that the choice that's sitting right in front of us could be a critical life-altering choice. It might not be; whether or not it is isn't the point. The point is that we don't usually think about our decisions this way, one way or the other. We don't connect each choice to a string of future options.
At least not until it's too late.
Once we make a decision, the consequences can become much clearer and the implications much more obvious. Some of those implications have to do with how the choice we made has constrained our future options. Each decision opens doors, but each decision also closes them. When we realize what we're potentially closed off to, we may second guess our choice. We might want to back track and start over.
Unless we know how each choice lines up to our end game.
When advising clients, I very often ask them to start at the end. I ask them to clarify for themselves where they want to end up - in their lives, relationships, careers, retirement... all of it. Then I encourage them to consider how each big choice they make, starting with their very next decision, could get them closer to that end game if they play their cards right, and how each choice can get them off track if they're not careful.
I have yet to meet someone who can truly predict the future with absolute accuracy, so you're off the hook for knowing exactly what the implications of your decisions might be. But I am going to push you to at least think about them. To try your best to forecast them. To take the time to gather information and calculate risk at least to some extent, to where you're paying attention to how your choice could potentially impact future choices.
If you're great at being decisive but not great at sticking with it, it may be because you have no idea where you're going, and so you have no way of knowing whether the choices you make will get you there. Once you make a decision, and become aware of the constraints that choice has placed on your future, you can feel disempowered. The only way to take that power back is to make sure your decisions are relevant to getting you to where you want to go.
Which means you've got to have an idea of how you want to end up.
Once you know, you can make choices not based on what feels right but based on what will open doors that can get you to your end game.
You're not comfortable with the process.
Decision making sucks sometimes, and a big reason is anticipated regret. So much mental energy can be spent wondering whether the choice you make will be one you'll want to take back. No one wants to make mistakes, and if your decision will impact other people, or potentially set you up for judgment, then the anticipation of possible regret can be greater.
Sometimes we anticipate regret so much that we put off making a decision. If we're prone to delay discounting (over-valuing short-term rewards and under-valuing long term ones), we may manage icky feelings by making a decision too quickly. We feel decisive when we're really being impulsive.
But it's often hard to tell the difference between making a good decision and feeling good about putting the decision making behind us.
Decision making can be uncomfortable, but it doesn't have to be that bad. If you can take some of the edge off - if you can minimize your feelings of anticipated regret - then you may be able to make choices you'd stand behind, choices you won't want to take back.
More times than not, decision making feels uncomfortable when we don't have enough information to make a choice. we lay out your options then go back and forth, not sure which is best. After awhile, the process becomes frustrating and we might just decide to get it over with, whether our choice is the best one or not.
Next time you're faced with a big decision, ask yourself what information you don't have but need to know. Then ask yourself where you can find that information. Sometimes we're stuck because we assume we already have the information we need, and it only takes a second to think it through before we realize how wrong we are. So slow down a moment and consider whether you're making your decision fully informed. Chances are you're not. And chances are that the more information you gather, the less painful decision-making can get.
Give yourself a break.
Whatever you do, it's important to cut yourself some slack. The more stressed you get about making a decision, the more likely you'll choose impulsively and then second-guess your choice.
Like I said, the future is hard to predict. Regret is bound to happen sometimes, and the real danger comes when you wrap it up in meaning. We humans love to find meaning in things; it's how we make sense of the world in an effort to feel in control and avoid negative outcomes. Meaning-making may be natural, and it may have some up sides, but it can be damaging too, especially when you take a bad decision to mean you're a failure, stupid, a loser, or a host of other conclusions we draw about ourselves when we mess up.
You're not a loser or a failure if you make bad choices. If people around you give you the impression that you are, then your environment may be largely why you're not comfortable with decision making. The meanings we place on things are often made up. They can be arbitrary and random. Putting too much weight on them is respecting them way too much. It also causes unnecessary stress, which makes good decision making that much harder.
Making bad choices is part of being human. As long as you set yourself up for the best chances possible, by gathering sufficient information and paying attention to biases and social influences, you'll be ok.
For more help on making decisions you can stand behind and stick with, reach out for a conversation with Nika.