Flickr/seaternity
Source: Flickr/seaternity

There's a reason my apartment has been immaculate since I became self-employed. And there's a reason I know how many Instagram followers I gained but not how much money I made last month.

We all know this kind of procrastination: We prefer menial tasks to hard ones; we underestimate how much time we need; we don't act on our intentions; we focus on the past and forget the future.

Procrastination plagues our work force. Between 20 to 40 percent of adults consider themselves to be chronic procrastinators. But according to one estimate, only 18 percent of procrastination could be attributed to "task aversiveness"—i.e. just not wanting to do something. In other words, most of us aren't procrastinating out of laziness.

Instead, many of us accidentally procrastinate by agonizing over the right choice.

While behavioral procrastination (the type described above) is characterized by irrational delay and distraction, decisional procrastination seems rational and intentional.

When suffering from decisional procrastination, we feel like we're gathering all the evidence we need to proceed, like we're taking a healthy sum of time to make an important choice, like we're being sensible, thoughtful humans.

Decisional procrastinators are "actively, consciously, strategically postponing," says DePaul University research psychologist Joseph Ferrari. Indeed, most of us deliberately defer decisions every day, but few of us view it as procrastination or detrimental.

Decisional procrastinators take longer than behavioral procrastinators and non-procrastinators to decide between tasks. They also seek a larger amount of information about alternatives, requiring an unnecessary degree of certainty before proceeding. This behavior postures like wisdom. In truth, decisional procrastination is a form of neurotic close-mindedness.

Ironically, decisional procrastinators often use narrower, more rigid, less rational criteria for their choices. They "exhaustively search within a small subset of options to avoid completing their search, never 'getting around to' exploring all choices," one study explains. In short, despite the excessive time they spend evaluating information, decisional procrastinators typically assess a smaller pool of options. Their perfectionism is paralyzing, and they wind up making worse decisions—if they make them at all.

For this reason, one study concluded, decisional procrastination "can be disastrous in the context of making impactful choices, such as in careers or relationships." It's also associated with cognitive failures (like forgetfulness and poor memory), low self-esteem, and excess worry.

As modern options increase as quickly as Google search results, decisional procrastination can debilitate our workdays.

The most critical step to avoiding it is recognizing it. Here are three more ways to mitigate its effects:

1. Give yourself more options.

Counterintuitively, giving yourself more options can jar circular thinking. Too few options, on the other hand, can produce a false stalemate: "Should I move to Denver or not?" "Should I break up with Terry?" In fact, you may have more choices—and an easier decision—than you think.

Therese Huston, the author of How Women Decide, recommends forcing yourself to devise additional possibilities and choose between three or more options.

2. Don't lose momentum.

We often procrastinate on important decisions because there are other decisions to make, like how to color code the Post-It notes we don't even use. Just starting is sometimes enough to kill procrastination. Schedule a time to make a decision. Employ an alarm, arrange a meeting time, or decide when you'll make decisions every day (I recommend the morning).

Ben Chestnut, CEO of MailChimp, explained in a recent New York Times interview that simply moving forward is sometimes more important than the direction you're going. "I might know a better path, but if we've got a lot of momentum, if everyone's united and they're marching together and the path is OK, just go with the flow," he said. Run with your decisions. Sustained effort trumps perfect planning.

3. Ask why.

Sometimes decisions are unduly hard because we haven't answered "Why?" Why does this matter? Why am I making this decision? Our oversight obscures our goals, confuses the tasks needed to make them happen, and stunts our progress. If we don't know why, we'll likely never get it done. And maybe we shouldn't.

By contrast, we become more invested in decisions when we know their purpose. While half-heartedness is strongly correlated with procrastination, committed action is negatively correlated with it.

Think of your decisional procrastinator side as a helicopter parent. Constant, anxious hovering impedes the basic conditions choices need to thrive, like space and perspective.

Analyze your options. Then, before you suffocate it, release your decision to the wild.

Caroline Beaton is a journalist covering modern work, culture and psychology. Sign up for her newsletter to get her latest articles to your inbox. 

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