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Tips for Overcoming Indecision

How to resolve indecision through science-backed tools.

Key points

  • Indecision refers to when individuals delay making important and stressful decisions or obsess over a few choices.
  • Some strategies for dealing with indecision include making a plan for the task of decision-making and monitoring one's self-talk when making decisions.
  • It can help to limit the number of options under consideration, weigh the pros and cons of each choice, set aside time to consider your options, and keep moving forward.

In my last post, I invited my research colleague and friend Reza Feyzi Behnagh, assistant professor of Education at SUNY, Albany, to co-write on what indecision (also called in psych research, “decisional procrastination”) is and is not — discussing its causes and consequences.

In this post, we continue where we left off and present some "data-driven" ways of reducing indecision. Indecision refers to when individuals tend to delay making important and stressful decisions, obsess over only a few choices, and end up either not deciding or making one and later blame outside factors if their decision leads to unfavorable consequences. From this definition, indecision sounds like a self-defeating behavior, and research shows that it certainly is (see Ferrari, 2010, and Ferrari, Johnson & McCown, 1995, for both practical solutions and scientific understanding, respectively). If you are curious about what you might do to reduce indecision and become better at handling stress-laden decision-making scenarios, you are in the right place. Here, we offer a few practical "indecision interventions": We are trying to get you to decide, then do.

How to Get Better at Making Decisions

Make a plan. As you remember from the last post, indecisive individuals procrastinate behaviorally in making important decisions (Ferrari, 2010). Researchers found that setting a feasible, concrete, short-term, and step-by-step plan for the task of decision-making greatly reduces procrastination and promotes success (“I’m going to spend five hours tomorrow to decide what to do with my old car”), rather than thinking and vaguely planning to make that decision at some point in future (“I’ll get to it when the time comes”) (McCrea, Liberman, Trope, & Sherman, 2009).

Monitor self-talk. One of the important causes of indecision is low self-confidence and having negative and self-critical thoughts, doubting one’s competence. As with everything else in life, we get better by practice and starting small, making smaller decisions, and consciously and deliberately observing the positive outcomes helps in building self-confidence, promoting a sense of self-efficacy, and expectation of success. Monitoring and listening to one’s thoughts and self-doubts while decision-making is equally important. Research suggests that using internal self-talk can help to argue away the daunting feelings and unrealistic beliefs that overwhelm the individual when they think of making a stressful decision (Schouwenburg, Lay, Pychyl, & Ferrari, 2004).

Limit your choices. Another recommendation from research as an indecision intervention is to limit your options. Choice overload can easily overwhelm us and make it very difficult to even begin considering the available options. If an option is not even close to meeting your needs, eliminate it now. Do not spend time Googling all the details about it. Next, journal your thoughts: As we recommended earlier, listen to your inner self-talk. What are you telling yourself when you have to decide between different equally enticing alternatives? Does your mind fill with “what ifs” about choosing one alternative and missing out on what would have happened if you had chosen the other? Becoming self-aware of these thoughts is the first important step in changing them (by positive self-talk).

Do the math. Bring out the old notepad and list the pros and cons of each choice and consider what you value most. This tool serves as a reminder later if you ever doubt your choice in the future, and you can review it to remember why you made the decision you did and avoid your future self from regretting and asking all kinds of “what ifs." But notice the pros and cons. Sometimes, our cons (or pros) mean more to us than the pros (or cons), so consider the personal value of items you list.

Take your time. This tool might seem odd, but make enough time to decide, but do not stall! Do gather all the information you need to make an informed decision, plan enough time in advance for carefully considering the options. (This suggestion supports our claim, that procrastination is not delaying or waiting – because if you are gathering info to act and decide you are not procrastinating.) It is too easy to just avoid, stall, and watch Netflix and eat popcorn instead; but tough decisions need to be made and avoiding them will only put a dent in your self-confidence.

Keep moving forward. Last but not least, don’t look back! Once you have made a decision, move on and move forward. Our heads are not designed to turn all the way 180 degrees back: We are designed to move forward…decide and move forward without looking back.

A reminder about not looking back, for us, is this quote from the 1972 musical, Man of La Mancha, where Don Quixote says in his soliloquy as a knight before going into battle: “Look always forward: in last year’s nest there are no birds this year." We move forward, we cannot return to the past as time only flows in one direction. Birds do not return to the same nest, and neither should we.

Summary: So What?

In short, decide and do. Will you fail? Well, maybe – but so what? Did the world end? Was someone “murdered”? Most likely, no. We are made to be creatures that fail, but we are creatures that rise from the failure and move forward. Decide, and then address – do – what you can. We hope this helps. Live, based on science.

References

Ferrari, J.R. (2010). Still procrastinating? The no regrets for getting it done. John Wiley & Sons.

Ferrari, J.R., Johnson, J.L., & McCown, W.G. (1995). Procrastination and task avoidance: Theory, research, and treatment. New York: Springer Publications.

McCrea, S. M., Liberman, N., Trope, Y., & Sherman, S. J. (2008). Construal level and procrastination. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1308-1314.

Schouwenburg, H. C., Lay, C. H., Pychyl, T. A., & Ferrari, J. R. (Eds.) (2004). Counselling the procrastinator in academic settings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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