How to Be More Decisive

I’ve been known to waffle. I have a decision to make, and I keep looking at the problem from all angles, trying to make the best decision. Since I’m an analytical guy, it’s no surprise to me that I get caught in the waffle trap, which is not as delicious as it sounds. I’ve noticed many other people have trouble making decisions. In fact, it seems to happen to most everyone.

When does waffling occur? I’ve personally found it’s most common when you have an infinite number of options. For example, if you ask yourself, “What should I do with my life?” then there are an infinite number of answers. Most people, if they think about this stuff, mull it over indefinitely. They never decide what they’re going to do with their life. That doesn’t mean life doesn’t happen to THEM, it just means they never actively decide what they’re going to do. I’m certainly guilty of this one myself.

Another common waffling situation if where you have to choose between two unpleasant outcomes. For example, “Should I study for my exam now or later?” Many people avoid making an active decision, and will just check Facebook or do something mindless instead. Again, this doesn’t mean life isn’t forcing these decisions eventually. If you spend all afternoon checking Facebook, then you’ll have to study for that exam later. You never actively decided to study for the exam later, but that’s what happened. I’m guilty of this one too.

Where is waffling least common? I’ve found it’s in situations where you have a limited number of choices, and all of them are relatively pleasant. For example, “What should I eat for lunch?”. Most people, myself included, can decide on what to eat for lunch without endless deliberation.

It’s not necessarily always bad to put off a decision. Sometimes you don’t have all the information you need to make a decision. That information may come to you later and the decision will become easier. Other times when you put off a decision, you’ll get lucky, and a new option will present itself that wasn’t available or apparent when you were first making the decision.

I’ve found, though, that it’s generally helpful to develop decisiveness. If you do this, you can actively steer your life a bit more. You also get to spend less time waffling. This has a couple benefits in its own right. First you get more free time. Instead of spending your time waffling, you can spend it doing something fun. Second, it’s more relaxing. When I waffle, I find it stressful. You’re going over and over something in your mind, often not making any progress. When you decide on something, it frees up your mind for calmer pursuits.

So how do you become more decisive? This is a work in progress for me. I definitely haven’t mastered this yet. But so far I’ve found the most effective formula is as follows.

  1. Consider your options
  2. Pick an option
  3. Stick with it

Ha ha, very simple you say. And it’s true, it’s pretty simple. But each step is more difficult that it might seem at first glance. If it were easy, people would be more decisive, right?

First, consider the act of considering your options. There’s a tendency to get stuck on this step indefinitely, going over all your options repeatedly. The secret is to limit the time you spend on this. Ideally, you want to just spend a few minutes brainstorming possible options. Come up with as many different ideas as you can in a short period of time. Think through the positives and negatives of each. Remember that doing nothing is always an option.

Next, pick an option. Don’t put this part off. After you’ve mulled everything over, pick an option. Even if it’s not a perfect, dreamy, win-win-win option. Stay strong here. Think about how easy it is to decide what you’re going to eat for lunch. Tap into the same reservoir of endless lunch-deciding courage to make whatever other decision is currently in front of you. Don’t be tempted to wimp out just because this decision is a little trickier than lunch. Remember, you can always decide to do nothing, and let life pick for you.

Last, stick with it. After you’ve made your decision, you may later have some “buyer’s remorse” and start waffling again. You may start thinking about how maybe you should have made a different decision. Don’t do this! It’s just depositing you back at step one, placing you back in that stressful loop of going over your options endlessly. You don’t want to purposefully put yourself through that again. Instead, any time you start waffling, redirect all that mental waffling energy into sticking with your decision. You made your decision. It’s done. Don’t let your mind drag you through the same process all over again. Even if you decided to do nothing, stick with that decision!

Am I saying after you’ve made a decision, you should never ever reconsider it? No. That would be stupid. But I find I err far too much on the side of waffling. And I think this is true of most people. So yes, be open to changing directions. But mostly, try to improve at making decisions and sticking to them. And remember: if you pick a new direction, commit to that one fully. Don’t just start waffling all over again.

4 Responses to “How to Be More Decisive”

  1. AMartin
    April 4, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Any suggestions for dating? That is, dating with the purpose of getting married. My problem is that I start to see someone and then I start to see their faults, things to worry about, etc. For example, she used to smoke…will she start smoking again…why did she start smoking in the first place? Is there something deeply wrong with someone like that? I’m too critical…always seeing the things to worry about…which makes me an indecisive dater…thus not yet married.

    • Pierre Bastien
      April 4, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

      Thanks for commenting!

      So, I don’t have direct experience with that. What I mean is I’ve never dated with the purpose of getting married. I am happily married, but I was never concerned about the getting-married part. I don’t know why, but I never was. And I think that was a good approach for me — not to be too worried about the marriage part. I was already quite picky. Worrying about marriage and finding “the one” would be a lot of extra pressure, I think. For me it happened eventually, only after I lucked into a great relationship.

      If I could give my younger self some advice (and let’s say I’m talking to an alternate-universe version of myself with different people in my life, so I can’t just say, “go for Jordan”), I’d say the best approach is to imagine an ideal partner. Down to specifics, wherever they’re important. And then be on the lookout for people roughly matching that description! Trusting that they will show up in my life, or they will already be in my life, just “unseen” as a possible partner. And I would also tell my younger self, don’t rule out people because of little quirks. If they weren’t important specifics in my ideal-woman description, then don’t worry about them! Give people a chance. I had a tendency when I was younger to rule out potential relationships, sometimes for the most flimsy reasons. I’d tell my younger self to be more open and accepting and try out more relationships. They don’t need to be perfect. After all, nobody is.

      Hope those thoughts help!

  2. Carolyn
    September 4, 2011 at 10:14 pm #

    Great post, and such a good point that waffling is stressful, whereas decisiveness gives you more time to do something fun and relaxing. I’ve been working on this one for decades. Which tells you how well it’s been going.

    I just read a terrific novel, Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. One of the themes is that action is by definition imperfect (and also that by acting you narrow your options in life). I think that’s a big part of the problem for me. While I’m waffling, everything is possible, even getting things perfect. But once I start, all I’ve got is what I’ve got, in all its imperfect reality.

    • Pierre Bastien
      September 6, 2011 at 1:10 am #

      Hey Carolyn, I love that, “action is by definition imperfect”. It’s like we need a campaign against striving for perfection. That or we could just give out hugs and beer.