To Decide or Not to Decide; That is the Question

“Where you are today, in your personal and professional life, is the result of decisions you once made. Where you will be in the future depends on the decisions you are about to take.” Author and consultant Joseph Bikart has helped individuals and companies make hundreds of important decisions, and he believes that making good decisions is a science and an art. That’s why he titled his book The Art of Decision Making; How We Move from Indecision to Smart Decision Making.

He says about the book: “The Art of Decision Making is your guidebook to transform will into action. Whether it is career change, choice of partner (or the decision to go your separate ways), or even coping with the middle-age malaise of having made all the wrong decisions, you will be asked the right questions to pull you out of the purgatory of indecision to confronting difficult choices and dealing with their outcomes.”

Bikart writes that one reason for the pains we experience when making decisions is confirmed by the word itself. Caedere, the Latin root of the word “decision”, literally means “to cut off.” Making a decision is about, in part, cutting off other possibilities. That can make us reluctant to commit to a final choice. In fact, for some people, it’s nearly impossible to commit to a choice.

For indecisive people, the need to make an important decision feels overwhelming. Bikart says that’s not surprising, considering the ancient Greek word for decision is none other than krisis. He says, “If decisions are a type of crisis, our struggles to deal with them may not be so surprising after all.”

“Indecisiveness can result when we have two desires in conflict with each other”, Bikart writes. “The head/heart opposition is best known, but other binaries are also possible, such as work/play, long-term/short-term or affordability/quality. Careful weighing of true priorities, applying intuition as well as logic, is the optimum way forward.”

But not making a decision can create problems of its own. For one thing, not all options will be waiting there for you when you finally decide. Conditions change, people change, and someone more decisive might scoop out your first choice from under you. It’s foolish to cling to the idea that as long as you don’t make a choice, all your choices are still possibilities.

Making a decision, by definition, means that something will change, even if it’s simply that you’ve decided that the status quo is now permanent. Change is hard, and it’s very human to fear the unknown. If we can’t be sure we’re making the right decision, we’re inclined to think no decision is better than choosing the wrong option.

So we develop lots of defense mechanisms that keep us from making a decision. Bikart examines all of them.

One method of putting off the pain of deciding is outsourcing. ToymakerMattel even made a fortune off the idea with its “Magic 8-Ball.” I’m a baby boomer, and I remember that almost every kid had one of these toys growing up; Mattel says it still sells over a million a year. You pose a question to the plastic ball, then turn it over to reveal a written answer. Today the slogan reads: “It makes decisions for you! It offers 20 potential outcomes, of which 10 are positive, and the rest are either neutral or negative.” Responses include: “Without a doubt”, “Most likely”, “Ask again later” and “Don’t count on it.”  We may not roll dice or use the Magic 8-Ball to make important decisions, but lots of us blame fate when we make a decision that doesn’t turn out well. That’s why, Bikart says, all our important decisions should contain a contingency plan for worst-case scenarios.

Sometimes, instead of outsourcing to fate, we outsource the decision to another person. From where to eat lunch to which house to buy, we’ve all invited someone else to decide for us. Bikart says that this method can be a problem if your other person has the same problem committing.

“Moreover, when the other party is equally indecisive, this can lead to a comical bout of ping pong until exhaustion takes hold, and a decision is finally made by default.”

More on how we put off decisions (and how to fix it) in future posts.

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