Why can't I make decisions?
September 29, 2011 7:54 AM   Subscribe

I find it nearly impossible to make decisions, particularly if I have two equally good options. I always regret whichever one I choose. I'm a graphics student and yesterday I had to choose whether to take illustration or film this semester. After hours of weighing pros and cons I went with illustration, then I spent the rest of the day convincing myself I should've picked film. Now I've been given the option to switch, and I still can't decide! How do I stop driving myself crazy whenever I have to make an important decision?
posted by Chenko to Grab Bag (28 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Two equally good options? Flip a coin and forget about it.
posted by Cuspidx at 7:59 AM on September 29, 2011

Buridan's Ass
posted by Cerulean at 7:59 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not to avoid your question, but in my experience, this symptom probably reflects an anxiety that is likely impacting your life in other ways too. It's worth addressing the whole package with a therapist while you have student health insurance.

But tactically, one thing you can do is to focus on the impossibility of knowing the future. You really cannot know which decision is better. All you can do is guess. Make peace with the fact that it's inevitably nothing more than a decision formed with the limited information you have at the time.
posted by salvia at 8:00 AM on September 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I feel like I've read somewhere that the less time you spend agonizing over a decision, the less likely you are to regret it (and vice versa). Consider reading The Paradox of Choice and maybe some of the fun current cognitive science stuff, like Dan Ariely's books. It might give you some insight.

One thing you can do is designate a period of time during which you're going to gather evidence with a deadline for making the decision.

If you really can't make the decision, one thing some people do is flip a coin, then, if they're really unhappy about how the coin flip went, they go with the opposite choice (if that makes sense).
posted by mskyle at 8:02 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Actually I guess Dan Ariely is more Behavioral Economics than Cognitive Science. But regardless, I find his experiments oddly soothing.
posted by mskyle at 8:03 AM on September 29, 2011

Kind of sounds like analysis paralysis. I think part of it is having the wrong perspective on what you are trying to do when you make a decision. One way to look at it is to say "How can I make this decision so that it results in the best possible outcome?" This sounds like common sense, but really in a lot of situations you have no possible way to ensure that the best possible outcome happens. Another way to think about it that is more practical is "Given what I know and what options I have, which decision has a better chance of being a good decision?" Playing poker is helpful for getting into the second mindset. If you play enough poker, there will be tons of times when you will make what actually is the best possible decision from your perspective, and end up losing the game because of a random being dealt or some other information you had no way of knowing. If you beat yourself up every time a decision ends up resulting in a bad situation, or are not confident enough to go with the decision that you feel is best, then you won't be able to focus on taking what information you do have and using it to make the decision you think is right. At some point you have to just go with a choice and then focus on doing the best you can after the choice is made, rather than second-guessing everything.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:18 AM on September 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thirding flip a coin. As Piet Hein (and probably others) said, when that coin falls and you go "oh s**t"(or not,as the case may be) you'll find out what you really wanted.

Of course it may also prove to you that you really don't know what you want, but in that case it probably doesn't matter which you choose.
posted by Logophiliac at 8:20 AM on September 29, 2011

To get a different perspective on the problem, consider what the worst possible outcome of being wrong in your choice is.
posted by cardboard at 8:25 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

realize that every decision can be changed, that's what helped me.
posted by sincerely-s at 8:36 AM on September 29, 2011

well not EVERY decision, but many decisions in life can be changed.
posted by sincerely-s at 8:36 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you want to learn about film, you can still learn about film outside of courses. Nothing prevents one from picking up a book about a subject outside of university or college.
posted by DetriusXii at 8:47 AM on September 29, 2011

Seconding treatment for anxiety/intrusive thoughts.

And seconding poker, whose players have an adage: "The hardest decisions matter the least". (You see why, right? Suppose Class A has expected lifetime returns of $1k, Class B has expected lifetime returns of $5.3k, and Class C has expected lifetime returns of $5.2k. It's easy to reject A, for precisely the same reason that it's important to reject A. Meanwhile the choice between B and C is difficult, but that's precisely because neither is an especially poor choice.)

And seconding behavioral economics, although an academic understanding of a fallacy is a long way from a practical solution.
posted by foursentences at 8:47 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the coin toss and seconding that this sounds slightly OCD. When you don't really have enough info to make a decision (and it isn't a life or death choice), toss a coin and leave it up to the universe.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:51 AM on September 29, 2011

Best answer: Basically I think your fretting isn't about the *choice* so much as you don't trust yourself to enjoy the outcome of your action.

Illustration and film - both would be great. Seriously. You would probably like both. You know this. But instead of going forth and immersing the one you decided on to the fullest and getting everything out of the class that you can, you hold yourself back from living in the moment and having possibly great, possibly terrible, most likely delightfully contradictory but overall satisfying experiences by staying at a distance from it, protected by your doubt.

For you, each opportunity to choose is an over-magnified referendum on whether or not you will disappoint yourself. You've kind of prematurely decided that surely you will, and so no choice is never good enough, and once you've made it, you beat yourself up for it.

Most blatant, obvious decisions can be changed, most are not as momentous as we think they are, and the course of our lives is more often determined by the actions we don't consciously select. I try to go forth with the idea that it's not the decision that matters so much as how I commit and plunge my hands into to what I've chosen.
posted by sestaaak at 8:54 AM on September 29, 2011 [11 favorites]

Being a person who agonizes over decisions , I found this recent post interesting and realized that if I had applied the test "is this really me" to recent decisions I may have made a better choice.
posted by canoehead at 9:14 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Any decision is better than no decision, apparently.
posted by trogdole at 9:24 AM on September 29, 2011

One more perspective: assuming that you like both options equally, and that you can always enroll in a future offering of either course, then make your decision based on other factors, such as:

- Do you have any friends taking one of the courses, that you'd like to be in the course with?
- Does one of the courses fall at a time or day of the week that will work out better with your current schedule?
- Etc...
posted by see_change at 9:31 AM on September 29, 2011

Best answer: Your whole life is a series of choices and your reaction to those choices. That is what life is, it is the content, the meat. So you have to ask yourself what kind of life you want? The kind where you are constantly second guessing yourself and imagining the worst, or the kind where you are being bold and taking risks and owning your successes and failures and learning from both.

One of the sweet, seductive traps of being indecisive about everything is that you can forever defer responsibility--if things go bad you can tell yourself that you didn't really want to make that choice anyway while the same time beating yourself up about not making the other choice so you can continue to be indecisive in the future. And while you're spending time being indecisive about life, you're avoiding figuring out who you are and what you really want out life.

The reality is there are very few choices in life that are so big that they actually affect the rest of your life. Most things can be undone or reshaped or re-imagined and if you spend time really owning the little choices you make, when you come across the big choices that will have an impact on your life you will have more tools to cope with them.

So maybe your next decision is that you are going to stop worrying about what might have been or what will be and instead start feeling good about what you're doing and where you're headed. You can start small with this class and the choice you made with your gut. You picked illustration which sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to do in terms of your focus and you can know that you will have other opportunities in life to study film. And then choose to feel really good about picking illustration and start looking forward to the class and all the things you will learn and how the class will inform how you work in the future.
posted by Kimberly at 10:17 AM on September 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds to me like you're making decisions from a place of fear, not a place of peace / joy / positive expectation. So instead of making a decision - any decision - and making it right for you, you worry that you are getting it wrong. And guess what - there's no such thing as a wrong decision. No really, they are just actions that get you from one place to the next. Sometimes it takes longer to get there, but you pick up a lot along the way.

Chose film class and realized halfway through you'd rather do art? Great, now you know and next time you will choose art. Or give film class a try and decide you do like it. Either way, it's not about getting it right or wrong, but about enjoying the journey. This life - your whole life - is about you, about you choosing your experiences. You cannot get it wrong. No, really!

I'll close this with some of my favorite quotes that I think are relevant here:

- Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must first be overcome. -- Samuel Johnson

- Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right. -- Henry Ford

- If you have made mistakes...there is always another chance for you...you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call "failure" is not the falling down, but the staying down. -- Mary Pickford

- I think of life itself now as a wonderful play that I've written for myself... and so my purpose is to have the utmost fun playing my part. -- Shirley MacLaine

- The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time. -- Jack London
posted by widdershins at 10:25 AM on September 29, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Something that helped me was to learn about how we make decisions - and how 'we' aren't so in charge of the decisions we make.

The RadioLab episode on Choice is actually pretty enlightening. When you learn to give up a little belief in will, you start to see the fallacy of spending so much time worrying over things that aren't even really in 'your' control.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:27 AM on September 29, 2011

10 second countdown. You have 10 seconds to choose or it's the coin's deciision. Or, as I tell kids, you have 10 seconds until I choose for you.
posted by jander03 at 11:38 AM on September 29, 2011

Reading The Happiness Myth by Jennifer Michael Hecht was lifechanging for me.

Hecht spells out how research shows that 1) nothing really changes our happiness very much or for very long; even very happy and very sad events tend to alter our happiness very little, and then we return to the original level quickly, and 2) we are really rotten at predicting what will make us happy or sad in the future.

Once you've eliminated the choices that have very negative downsides, the more you agonize, the harder the choice becomes—as you've discovered. Rather than spending a lot of mental and emotional energy trying to weigh subtly different pros and cons, you're better off choosing at a whim, or at random.
posted by BrashTech at 2:15 PM on September 29, 2011

Ack, I think I actually learned most of the stuff in the previous answer from Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.

Happiness Myth gives much more of a historical context of how philosophers have thought about happiness, from the ancient world on, and why our current ideas about happiness are kinda messed up. I read them both in quick succession, so they blur together. Both are really, really excellent, though.
posted by BrashTech at 2:35 PM on September 29, 2011

Here is a short term solution to help you cope with your "buyer's remorse"
When you are in the process of making a decision, take two sheets paper - on one make a list of all the good reasons for choosing "A" (say, illustration) and on the second all of the reason for choosing "B" (negatives of A should be put on the B list, so only things that support the choice on that list).
If the choices are close (perhaps, very different consequences but about the same amounts of apparent "goodness") this is NOT going to help you make the final decision. But once you do decide and commit to that decision, take the sheet of paper for the one you didn't choose and tear it up (or burn it). So if you choose film, actively destroy the page with all reasons for choosing illustration. Then, take the one you choose and post your reasons where you will see it. (So put the list of all the reason why you prefered film on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror.) When you start to doubt yourself, review your list of reasons supporting your choice, If you start to ruminate on how the other one might have been better, firmly tell yourself that you don't have the make the best choice, just a good one and then repeat all the reasons why the one you choose was a good choice.
posted by metahawk at 8:31 PM on September 29, 2011

I do a mental version of what metahawk describes if I'm having trouble making a decision. The only difference is that after awhile, my huge lists will boil down to a single reason, which I'll then remember clearly. I start by making a huge list and looking at it all. I might assign number weights; etc. etc. And eventually I usually come to something that is the trump card: "I'd rather deal with this new set of problems rather than the same old boring set of problems," or "I basically don't believe These Guys and my distrust will spoil even the best aspects of working with them," or whatever. It would sound pretty superficial to me if I didn't know it was the kernel that remained after sifting and sifting.

Then when you look back and second guess yourself, you have something that really feels TRUE. "Why did I take this job?? Oh yeah, I thought the people at the other job were sleazy. Which THEY ARE. So yeah, I chose this one. That makes sense."

You may still come to regret the decision. "How did I get myself into this?? Oh yeah, I wanted a new set of problems more than my old boring problems. Which I really did. And which was totally stupid! I had no idea how massive this adventure was! Note to self: next time you want an adventure because you're bored, pick an easier one!!" But then you learned something real about yourself and how you're really making decisions, so you can add checks and balances if necessary. ("Is this just me wanting an adventure?" If yes, "is this adventure too much? should I find an adventure that's more within my skill level?")
posted by salvia at 9:13 PM on September 29, 2011

I just finished listening to an audiobook version of Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide and it gave me some profound insights into both how my own decision-making processes work from a neurological point of view, and why my wife seems to be so differently-wired. I recommend it. Lecture here for a taste of the book upfront.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:24 AM on September 30, 2011

Very short summary: emotions and their neurology are a lot more deeply entwined in decision-making than we normally assume and 'rational' decision-making is a far less powerful engine than we think it is.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:25 AM on September 30, 2011

Best answer: I have a huge problem with this as well. None of the standard suggestions have been any help to me -- I'm just really far gone. I think it's due to OCD/anxiety tendencies that are far out of the norm for what people consider "normal" decision-making angst.

What has helped me so far:

- If you are pursuing these classes primarily for interest, find a way to get *both* things in your life. If you take the illustration class, join the film club. If you take the film class, drop in on the illustration class or download some illustration software or do an internship related to drawing something else that will let you explore illustration as well.

- If you are pursuing these classes for a degree oriented toward a career, do the thing that is more likely to lead to a productive outcome first. In other words, eat your vegetables before your dessert. Take classes that will give you a hard skill of some kind.

- If you don't know which one it is, pursue the one most likely to lead to more options for you, or to lead to money (which can create options).

- Realize that if you love both things, your path will likely include both, and it's just a question of *how* you get exposure to both things, not *if* you get exposure to them. It's a question of what order you do them in, and in what structure. (What widdershins said.)

Also -- and this is one I struggle with a lot -- don't let others, for whom decision making comes easily, shame you into feeling bad about having difficulty making decisions. Some people really like to get things "right" and are motivated very strongly to find the exact most optimal path. This is useful in some circumstances, but not in others. But don't let people shame you into thinking it should be easy, because it comes easily for them. Some people have trouble with weight or anger or alcohol or whatever, and there are systems set up to enable them to grow past these difficulties. There are no similar systems (that I know of) for people with decision problems. That's not your fault.
posted by 3491again at 3:51 AM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

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