How can I become more decisive?
August 7, 2011 4:52 PM   Subscribe

Are you someone who has had trouble being indecisive and has improved their condition? How did you do it?

I have a trouble making decisions. I spend way too much time collecting data, going over all possible outcomes, hemming and hawing, and second guessing myself.

A typical example: my TV broke so I need a new TV. I research brands and models, read Amazon reviews, go over user forums, watch youtube reviews. This takes weeks and weeks. Just as I get close to a decision, I second guess myself or I learn about some new technology or feature that's coming soon and the whole waiting/ deliberating process starts all over. End result: I haven't had a TV for three years.

Of course it's wise to put some thought into such a big purchase, but my decision making problems aren't limited to that. I once spent fifteen minutes staring at coffee in the supermarket trying to make a decision. Fifteen minutes for stupid coffee.

It seems to be rooted in some sort of fear of failure, making a mistake, wasting money in any way. I think feeling like I'm wasting money is a big part of it-- fearing I'll make a mistake and buy something crappy and feel stupid on top of losing the money.

The problem is, of course, not making a decision is making a decision-- it's a decision to waste time and not have the enjoyment of a TV for three years and to slowly go crazy second guessing myself.

Still... I can't seem to break out of the cycle. Help?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, honey. That's what returns are for!

(including at the supermarket if I am not happy with the freshness or taste of a packaged item. People do it all the time...)

Also. The benefits of a Amex card will do wonders for you here.

Always check the return policy. Never be afraid to return an item.

(As for the TV, Samsung LED. The biggest you can afford. Will have mine 'til my newborn goes to college. LOVE IT.)
posted by jbenben at 5:06 PM on August 7, 2011

It won't necessarily help change who you are, but The Paradox of Choice could be very useful in helping you understand at least one theory of what drives decisionmaking paralysis (and a sympathetic one at that).
posted by mauvest at 5:10 PM on August 7, 2011

I did this. I DID THIS! Therapy helped me. My therapist and I didn't even talk about the indecisive purchasing all that much. We got my overall anxiety down, and the indecisiveness about purchasing sorted itself out.

Yeah, it sounds like something you could solve with a return policy, but at the level you're describing (I haven't had a TV for three years) it's anxiety.
posted by sweetkid at 5:11 PM on August 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, I read the Paradox of Choice before the therapy and threw it across the room, because it told me all about why people have trouble making choices, but not really how to stop. So therapy!
posted by sweetkid at 5:12 PM on August 7, 2011

For electronics, go for single feature items. No DVD/VHS combo-type things. When one feature breaks, you are so pissed!

The only combo item I own is a wireless Brother scanner/printer/fax. I had another brand scanner/printer/fax 4 years ago that was TOTAL crap. I can't even remember the brand now. (hate made me forget!)

I still have the super simple old school 20 year old Brother phone/fax (also does simple printing, tucked away in my closet) in case the new model takes a dump. That old school simple machine is a workhorse. Used it whenever that other combo machine was on the fritz.

But yeah. You don't want a TV that includes a blu-ray + blender for smoothies. Just make sure whatever you buy has plenty of ports so you can hook in other devices.

You want to stay fluid when it comes to electronics. There are no shortcuts. The shortcut combos cost money down the road...


My best friend is like you. He's so careful it is painful. 3 years to buy the right couch. 15 years to finally commit to a live-in girlfriend. God bless him. He's doing just fine, always makes the right choice in the end, or corrects it when he doesn't.

I mean, yeah, sure, - anxiety. Just saying you are not the only one who proceeds with caution.

If you feel this is primarily a financial issue, then try self-help and therapy. Relationships with money are complicated. Every other relationship can be absolved by the words, "No Thank You", a legal divorce or dissolution of contract with a little negotiation, or by a store return policy. Your relationship with money, however, is an evolving thing. It takes finesse. Self-help books or therapy.
posted by jbenben at 5:21 PM on August 7, 2011

Maybe try closing your eyes and going "enny meeny miney mo" on coffee selections. Or handing a friend of yours a certain amount of money and telling them to buy you a TV as a gift. Seriously, if you have THIS much trouble deciding, maybe you need to loosen up (eeny meeny for trivial situations) or lessen your ability to control the situation, for a change.

This is an interesting one I read about: muscle testing. That might be an interesting way to try making a decision as well.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:33 PM on August 7, 2011

For appliances and many electronics, I'll look at the Consumer Reports and see what they rated a "best buy" -- usually one or two steps down from top-of-the-line but at a substantial price savings compared to the best-of-the-best. I mean, I don't need Vacuum Cleaner of the Universe, I need one that vacuums and won't immediately crap out. The "best buy" gets me enough quality that it'll last me, but at a good price.

This prevents me from spending months fussing over exactly which dishwasher to get. And you have to figure -- no matter WHAT you buy, from a house or a car to a vacuum cleaner or a spoon, using it over time you will almost certainly find features that you love and features that you hate, and they will be coming out with new features and your needs will be changing -- you ARE trying to hit a moving target, no matter what. So pick a "seems good enough," use it and live with it, and when it wears out or it's time to replace it, you can look for something that fixes the features you don't like and preserves the ones you do.

For art objects, heirlooms, fine jewelry, anything you plan to have forever, feel free to dither until the cows come home and only buy something you absolutely love. But for things that will eventually wear out or break? Go good enough, you'll be replacing it eventually anyway.

A couple of other techniques I use with my own indecisiveness:
*Things that are big, like redecorating or reorganizing a room, I have to do at a slow speed and go one step at a time. I know that the bookshelf has to go over THERE, so I move that, and then I think about it for a while before doing the next step. I often feel paralyzed by deciding ALL AT ONCE how everything will go, but I've learned over time that if I take one step, then the next step will become clear. When I redecorated my living room, I moved the furniture. Then I recovered the couch. Then I bought a chair. Then I made a new valance that coordinated with the couch and chair. Then I got fabric to cover throw pillows. Then I got a media console. Just a month ago I got table linens for the open-plan dining room. This has taken about two years, one step at a time, and I'm comfortable with that. Each step I finish I let it "sink in" and percolate in my subconscious and then I go, "aha! the throw pillows!" and I know what to do next. This drives my husband crazy because he wants The Plan, but I don't know the plan until I get there.

*"What will I be happy I chose in 50 years?" In 50 years, you probably won't remember which TV you bought. You'll be too busy in your holodeck. So pick one that does what you need it to do and move on. Or in 50 years you'll be thrilled you bought that gorgeous vase, so buy it.

*Take a decisive friend who has some patience with your indecisiveness. I often take an honest and decisive friend dress shopping with me. I narrow it down to a few I like, and then have the friend help me choose. There really just ISN'T much qualitative difference between Black Dress A, Green Dress B, and Silver Dress C -- they cost the same, they all look pretty good, they will all work at the event I have to go to -- so I may as well pick based on what my friend likes as anything else. "That sequin detail highlights your bust" or "I like that green with your hair" or "silver is my mom's favorite color" are all fine reasons.

*Try out someone else's. You can always go check out a friend's Kindle, or scotch glasses, or baby carrier options, or whatever, try them out, and see if you like it. That often helps me decide. Hearing their pros and cons is good too.

*Things that don't work out can be returned (as noted above), but also passed on to friends who love them, or donated. Very few decisions are final.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:52 PM on August 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

I like Eyebrows' answer. But to offer you another slant on the topic:

You worry that you'll regret your decision. Does that actually happen? Have you ever genuinely regretted making a purchase? If not, you can reassure yourself that whatever you choose, experience tells you you'll probably be happy enough with it.

That's how it works for me, anyway; and having recognised the pattern, I'm much more relaxed about that sort of decision than I used to be.

Big life decisions are much easier to regret and consequently much much harder to make, but fortunately you weren't really asking about those...
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:08 PM on August 7, 2011

Maybe setting a deadline would help? Set a timer, or put it on your calendar, or tell a friend if you need external accountability. Before you start fretting and researching, think about how much time this decision is worth. Then spend at most that much time and decide. Let go of the fear of making the wrong decision and resolve to just go with whatever you pick. Life goes on, even if the coffee tastes terrible and was a waste of money.

I'm similar, though not so extreme, and this works for me. It's really hard at first but after a few times, you realize that nothing bad happened as a result of your decision and you start feeling less anxious.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:39 PM on August 7, 2011

It got a lot better for me after I started taking SSRIs. I was anxious in many ways, not only about decision-making.
posted by wryly at 6:43 PM on August 7, 2011

I beat on the MBTI drum here all the time, but it is probably worth your time to take it. Here's a link to an online test.

And here's a link to a great page that explains it all and gives you some tips for your individual type.

My guess is that you are near 100% on the Perceiving function - people with that trait tend to struggle to make decisions - leaving your options open leads to more opportunity for spontaneity! You combine that with what I'm guessing is a strong Sensing function and you get someone who cares a lot about minute details but struggles to catagorise or rank them in order to make a decision. Those things can be changed, but realising that it's a function of your personality type changes the discussion from "ZOMG what's wrong with me!1!" to "This is the way I work. Now that I understand that, I can accept it or work to improve my Judging characteristics."
posted by guster4lovers at 7:11 PM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

A combination of things:

1. Shopping from stores with good return policies, in case I end up disliking a product. I almost always end up happy with it, but in case I'm not, I can return it for little or no money.

2. Finding authoritative sources for info/comparisons. For anything you buy, there's going to be an Authoritative Source that can help narrow down the options. Sometimes, the Authoritative Source becomes a specific brand, like Company X for any Category Y widgets (e.g. Intel processors).

3. Outsourcing decisions to a trusted decider, if necessary. My husband is better at deciding. For me, the more choices exist, the harder it is to decide, but for him, having more options helps narrow them down.

Good luck!
posted by bookdragoness at 7:16 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Limit your choices. My takeaway from the period a few years ago when "The Paradox of Choice" was popular was that our puny human brains get overwhelmed by too many choices (the example I read was always toothpaste, but it strikes me that your coffee trouble is a similar problem.), and in the face of seemingly endless choice, our decision-making apparatus short-circuits, leaving us inchoate muttering hulks in the aisles of Albertson's.

The solution to this is to limit our choices. The easiest way to do this is by creating rules for what you will and will not consider. Eyebrows McGee has a great rule in her Consumer Reports "Best Buy" habit. If we apply our new "Best Buy" rule to your TV conundrum, your selection of TVs should go from exactly 759,612 to four. Buy the one that is in-stock at the closest store to you (or the one you can get shipped to for the least amount of money).

You can come up with a bunch of rules like that to help you out in decision making. At different times, I've only purchased clothes in three particular colors, only bought dresses, only bought white socks, only ordered salads at restaurants, only bought Fords, etc.

Anecdotally, I have found it easier to apply these rules with the help of anti-anxiety medicine.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:52 PM on August 7, 2011

It depends what I am deciding about. If it is a small decision -- coffee, where to have lunch, whatever -- I force myself to decide by a certain time. Lunchtime at work, obviously, so I cannot sit and think all day, and I give myself 30 seconds in a grocery store. Now I do not need to do that as much because I have learned that it really never matters which of these minor decisions I make. If I find I dislike something, then I know already for next time, and if I like it, then I know, and if I'm indifferent, then I am neither better nor worse off. These things are pretty automatic now.

For expensive decisions, I research first. Then I look at the options I have decided are reasonable. Then -- unless I fall in love with something immediately -- I sleep on it a night or a week. Then either I know which one feels right, or I know none of them feel right, so I put the decision off until the next time new models of whatever appear. But I have to stop researching and looking at things in that case. Again, with time, and accepting that I always always need to think about purchases before making them (I am now okay with making smaller purchases semi-impulsively), and with making mistakes in purchases and learning from them, I am much better at being decisive.

It doesn't matter what your rules are. Just make rules about decisions and live by them. If you do not like any of the choices, you can stop looking at the options, as long as you stop researching after that until some significant changes in options appear. It really gets easier much faster than you think it would.
posted by jeather at 7:57 PM on August 7, 2011

Hi me.

I am terrible at making decisions. But I've gotten better.

- making pro/con lists with weighted averages helps -- the numbers don't lie
- knowing that for most decisions made, I could always turn around and change my mind if I absolutely had to
- considering what the best and worst possible outcomes are for each possible decision, and knowing that I am capable of handing the worst outcomes for each choice
- acknowledging that my anxiety about decision making is making things worse
posted by k8t at 7:57 PM on August 7, 2011

If you really can't decide between two options, assign one to heads, the other to tails, and flip a coin high in the air. When you catch yourself wishing the coin would fall a certain way, you then know what you want to do; don't bother even looking at the coin. If you're disappointed in how the coin landed, do the other thing. And if you remain ambivalent, follow the result suggested by the coin; any decision is better than none.
posted by carmicha at 8:28 PM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

A few things:

-I find that difficulty making decisions ties in to depression for me. I'm pretty indecisive in general, but it's gotten better as I've found my way out of depression.

-I've heard it said that when decisions (between a few things) are really really hard, that often means that all of the choices are pretty good and it doesn't matter that much which one you pick.

-One of the benefits of buying something in person from a locally-owned store is that there are often fewer choices. I used to rebel against this idea ("I'm not getting the best price! I'm not seeing all the possible options!") but I've learned that sometimes having a pleasant shopping experience (and staring indecisively for hours, stressed out, at all of the options in a big box store or at Amazon is a form of extremely unpleasant shopping experience) is worth it.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:02 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maximizers v Satisficers

Just being aware of this has helped me HUGELY.
posted by Nattie at 9:42 PM on August 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nthing the Barry Schwartz/Paradox of Choice/Maximizers vs. Satisficers recommendations.

For me, the biggest thing was recognizing when I was trying to maximize, and recognizing that you are often maximizing everything but your own time. Once I began to assign a real value to my time and factor that into my internal calculations, it allowed me to recognize when I was about to spiral out of control, time/decision/analysis-wise.

If that sort of self-help doesn't seem to be making a difference, definitely find somebody to talk to.
posted by misterbrandt at 10:15 PM on August 7, 2011

A couple of useful rules:

1. If you can't decide between two things, and you've been trying for a while, you don't want either of them. If you need to pick one, then it literally doesn't matter which one you flip a coin. After the coin flip, if you find you feel immediately disappointed, buy the other one.

2. The delay that comes from indecision can be helpful, in that it can help you figure out exactly what you want, until that thing becomes available.

Beyond that, just remember that only douchebags are going to criticize you for your choices. You make your choice, you live with it, and if it turns out to be the wrong one, you learn from it. Mistakes are fun. Mistakes are how we learn. How good art becomes great art. And so on.

If it helps, go make a purposefully bad decision, and live through it. That'll help. Just don't bankrupt yourself or hurt anyone else.
posted by davejay at 10:20 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Figuring this out helped me tons: If a decision is difficult then it's not important.

Simple -- and it's true!

I suffer decision paralysis too, though not as much any more. What I realised was that my happiness is not going to be substantially affected by choosing A over B, or B over A.

Take the TV example: objectively there will be a 'best' choice, but you have to understand that every second you spend deciding is a second you're not living. Now here's the hack: if the difference between TVs is large then there is no decision. In this case you're not paralyzed by the decision, rather, you're paralyzed by the guilt of having what you want -- and this is a whole different issue that you might want to talk to a therapist about. If the difference between TVs is small enough such that you ARE paralysed over the choice then the choice does not matter. Why? because you cannot control the future. You don't know how your life is going to pan out and you cannot possibly know how choosing A over B will affect your life in 12 months time. So you do what? You chose one for the most trivial reason you can think of and then you get on with your life. And in 12 months time when TV B that you chose breaks and causes you to miss the finale of a show you were watching. . . well, I guarantee that if that happens you won't be cursing yourself for not having chosen TV A.
posted by davidjohnfox at 1:50 AM on August 8, 2011

Once I feel that I have all the useful information I'm going to get, or that I have enough information that I should be able to choose, I just choose. Gut feel, maybe. Random maybe.

I figure, the best way to know is to have experience in this kind of thing. The best way to get experience in this kind of thing is to do it. Maybe I'll choose badly. Next time I'll know.

Obviously, this strategy is more suited to buying things like coffee and even TVs than it is for buying a house or deciding to get married. I can tell you though, I could have chosen a bad TV and bought a new one I like better before you even have one.

And that sometimes, giving up the responsibility to choose right and just saying, "F- it, this one. Done." -- that feels good.
posted by ctmf at 2:47 AM on August 8, 2011

But then, I'm not the kind of person who second-guesses my decisions once I've made them. I bought this TV. Now I don't care in the slightest if there are any better TVs I could have bought. This one is mine.

My wife is the opposite. She will have buyer's remorse no matter what she gets. The funny thing is, it doesn't matter what we choose in that case, either. We just pick something. I'm happy, she wishes we had done something else (but enjoys what we chose anyway), life goes on.
posted by ctmf at 2:53 AM on August 8, 2011

I have some strategies for indecisive moments.

If I can't decide whether to buy something or not, the answer is always "I don't need it.". If it were important, the decision to purchase would be obvious.

If I can't decide whether to buy something, and I am looking at it online, I will not buy it until I can see it in person.

If I can't make a decision on how much of something to buy, I buy too much of it and return what I don't need or can't use.

If I'm at a restaurant, and am waffling on menu items, I will simply pick the "first" on any sub-section.

If I'm with others, and we can't decide what to do, if there is any suggestion at all ("bowling or basket-weaving?) I will pick the first one to move things along.

If I'm with others, and there's a question on what to do ("take the trail to the left or to the right?") I pick the one that I haven't done before or that looks a little daunting.

If you can't decide between two things, as davejay mentioned above, it may indicate that the differences between those two things are unimportant. So say "Heads- basketweaving" and "Tails- bowling", and flip that coin. But I need to add one thing to the equation - if it lands on Tails, but you feel disappointed, it means you wanted to go basketweaving. So do that instead.

These strategies have saved me SO MUCH angsting about decisions, and as a result of the way they work I have tried many interesting foods and done many fun things with other people. I'm also more satisfied with my purchases in general. And more importantly, just making a decision is a satisfying activity, and as you make more of them, more easily, you will find that some of the anxiety building up behind all of them may disappear.
posted by fake at 7:12 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems to be rooted in some sort of fear of failure, making a mistake, wasting money in any way. I think feeling like I'm wasting money is a big part of it-- fearing I'll make a mistake and buy something crappy and feel stupid on top of losing the money.

I feel like this sometimes too. I usually get over this sort of "indecision loop" by telling myself that time = money. I usually use my base hourly wage ($15.00) as a minimum value of time, and do a quick calculation in my head.

So, let's use TVs as an example. Let's say you set a range of prices between $600 and $900. That's a $300 range. Based on my hourly wage, I should spend at most 20 hours researching TVs. If I spend more than that time, not only have I exhausted any potential savings I could have accrued, but I have no TV to enjoy either!

There's also other ways that make the decision easier.

It sounds like you do do the research part. Do you talk to friends that are enthusiasts as certain products to at least narrow down choices? I find that often helps when I have no idea of what to buy.

As for products you use up fairly quickly (like coffee), you have to tell yourself that this decision is never permanent. Down the line you'll make the decision again. So, for now choose one, if you like it stick with it, if not try another. Heck, between making choices you can do some research on the said product to gain more info.
posted by FJT at 7:33 AM on August 8, 2011

I spent my first twenty-five years of life being horrendously indecisive. I'm a LOT better now, but it's been a very gradual process. My big tip, at least for things like picking out the coffee, is running errands with my friends who are brutally quick and decisive shoppers. Over time, their methods have gradually sunk in and it makes my shopping trips so much more pleasant, plus I don't want to be the slowpoke holding everyone else up as I debate the various merits of laundry detergents when it really does not matter in the least. I remember being totally shocked when I was on a grocery store run with my stepmom once, and she needed dishclothes and studied the display for literally not even two seconds before just grabbing a package and moving on! No comparing prices, no debating textures or fabrics or colors, no wavering over how she could probably get a better deal at was so completely foreign to me, and was a good wakeup call that I didn't have to make every retail experience so painful.

Also, I just came across this article that doesn't specifically answer your question, but it seems highly relevant. Reading it totally struck a chord with me and gave me yet another kick in the pants as to why I often just need to get on with things already. The part I quoted below I thought particularly characterizes the unhappiness and stress that accompanies the kind of indecisiveness you describe.

Why Keeping Your Options Open Is a Really, Really Bad Idea: Decisions we can back out of lead to less happiness and success.

Why does keeping our options open make us less happy? Because once we make a final, no-turning-back decision, the psychological immune system kicks in. This is how psychologists like Gilbert refer to the mind's uncanny ability to make us feel good about our decisions. Once we've committed to a course of action, we stop thinking about alternatives. Or, if we do bother to think about them, we think about how lousy they are compared to our clearly superior and awesome choice.

Human beings are particularly good at rearranging and restructuring our thoughts to create the most positive experience possible in any situation. The psychological immune system protects us, to some extent, from the negative consequences of our choices - because after all, almost every choice has a downside. The key to happiness is to dwell as little as possible on that downside.

When you keep your options open, however, you can't stop thinking about the downside - because you're still trying to figure out if you made the right choice. The psychological immune system doesn't kick in, and you're left feeling less happy about whatever choice you end up making.

posted by anderjen at 8:33 PM on August 11, 2011

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