To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.
– Yann Martel, The Life of Pi
If the people I hang out with are any guide, my generation suffers from an epidemic of indecisiveness. Many of us even seem to be proud of being indecisive. Until recently, I was guilty too. I have opted out of group decision-making countless times, proudly admitting that I was too indecisive to pick an option.
Although indecisiveness was just a benign half-joke to me initially, I've come to realize that it is far more pernicious than that. When indecision strikes, it grinds my mind to a complete halt, and it feels like I'm mentally suffocating. And if indecision strikes multiple times a day–as it does for me–it becomes a source of real stress and suffering.
To understand why I'm so indecisive, I began enumerating all the instances in recent memory where I had been indecisive–from deciding what to eat for dinner to whether or not I should spend thousands of dollars on an online course. I discovered that the root cause was always one or both of two factors. First, perfectionism and second, the desire to conserve mental energy, or more succinctly, mental laziness.
The Two Factors
The telltale sign of indecisiveness due to perfectionism is paralysis through analysis. When presented with an array of options, we're unable to pick one because no one option is clearly better than the rest. Like Buridan's ass, we're completely paralyzed trying to determine which option is the perfect one. In reality, the perfect or the best option rarely exists, and there's always some compromise. But compromise is antithetical to the perfectionist in us.
Mental laziness is easy to understand. What is 37 times 7? Odds are that you could have computed that mentally but chose not to (it's 249). You/your brain did not want to waste energy on a pointless computation (it's actually 259; brownie points if you caught my lie). Mental math and decision-making are often effortful, and we, as living organisms, would rather conserve our energy than not. So, when faced with an array of options, we postpone or avoid making any decisions; we might even play the "Sorry, I'm indecisive" card with other people.
To make things worse, the two factors feed off each other, creating a positive feedback loop. The more we're inclined to analyze our options to find the perfect one, the more the mental effort required and the higher the likelihood that we will be mentally lazy. And the more mentally lazy we are, the harder it is to accurately pick the best option.
As I mentioned before, indecisiveness has caused me much pain and unnecessary stress. I have tortured myself countless times when deciding between Thai, Indian, or Mexican for dinner. Or deciding whether to read a book, play a video game, meditate, or exercise when faced with a large chunk of free time. Or whether to do spinning, weights training, or yoga for exercise on a given day.
They might sound like trivial problems–and they are trivial in a sense–but when these indecision scenarios present themselves multiple times every day, it can get exhausting. Thus I wage my war against indecisiveness by striking at the twin serpent heads of perfectionism and mental laziness!
To be clear, I believe that the perfectionist in us is our enemy, at least not in most cases. In fact it can often be our most reliable guide. The perfectionist is like the quality assurance department in our brain, making sure that any work we do, whether as part of our day job or otherwise, meets specific standards of excellence.
But there are a lot of scenarios in everyday life where excellence is totally unnecessary and even counterproductive. For example, there is no point in being paralyzed about the perfect thing to eat for dinner. Just as there is no need to spend a given chunk of free time in the best way possible. Any option is just as good as any other. The key here is to pay attention to situations where there is no need to pick the best option and mindfully turn off the perfectionist. In such situations, I remind myself that there is no (or negligible) real cost in picking the suboptimal option.
In other words, I don't believe that perfectionism is bad in and of itself. But it's essential to be able to get off its high horse where it is unwarranted. I submit that being able to turn off your inner perfectionist–especially if it plagues you as much as it does me–is a vital skill.
To better manage analysis paralysis and deal with mental laziness, I have a "toolbox" of mental shortcuts and rules of thumb that, if applicable, can reduce the required mental processing by orders of magnitude. These include harnessing randomness, picking the first good enough option, applying directed focus, and using lazy evaluation.
- Harnessing Randomness: Suppose I feel like ordering one of Pizza or Sushi. If I can't pick one in a few seconds, I'll just toss a coin (or ask Siri to toss a coin) to make the decision. When faced with a chunk of free time, I'll use RANDOM.ORG or ask Siri to pick a random number between one and five to decide between five different activities. A nice side effect of this is that if the options you choose from are more or less consistent over time, then, in expectation, you're going to pick all of them about equally without having to explicitly plan for that. To illustrate, if my free time options are reading, writing, playing video games, meditating, and exercising, on average, I will spend a fifth of my free time playing video games.
- Picking the First Good Enough Option: As I said before, picking the best option is unnecessary in many situations. The first candidate that satisfies all your requirements is often good enough. If you're looking for a new cheap, tasty, and healthy snack, you can just pick the first good enough snack you see at the grocery store. you don't need to search for the tastiest and healthiest snack in the entire store!
- Applying Directed Focus: When I need to make a decision, I drop everything else, focus, make the decision and then resume my work. If I try to multitask and make a decision while I'm already doing something, I tend to keep switching between work and thinking about the decision without making progress in either. This situation is analogous a computer thrashing due to excessive context switching.
- Using Lazy Evaluation: In certain situations, it's possible to postpone the mental processing required to pick an option until you are better positioned to make that decision. For example, just a few weeks ago, I was thinking about whether or not to buy a bicycle. If yes, whether to buy a regular road bike or an e-bike. Since I hadn't used e-bikes before, I decided to lease an e-bike for a year. I'll be better positioned to determine what kind of bike I want at the end of the year. You can also sometimes completely avoid making any decisions but still reap benefits as if you made a decision. I usually never make any plans for the weekend until late in the week; my family or friends often invite me for something, and I'm almost always happy to join them. Thus, I only need to plan/decide (even deciding to do nothing is a decision) for the weeks I'm not invited.
Over the last five or six months, I have been applying the above methods to my life consistently. While indecision still manages to trap me sometimes, I can nip it in the bud an overwhelming majority of the time.