Indecisive? Write Things Down.

by Jess Whittlestone
Originally Published: 

That’s not surprising. The truth is that I can be indecisive. Take online shopping, for example: At first I’m optimistic, maybe even excited about being able to purchase something I want without leaving my bed. Then I start browsing, and I begin to realize just how many different options there are. I get overwhelmed. This one is cheaper, but that one has better reviews. Another one still seems to be of better quality. More often than not, I end up so overwhelmed by all the choices that I give up.

©Rob Smith/Flickr

This happened recently when I was looking to book a vacation. I spent hours trawling through different websites, looking at different options and packages, and generally feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of decisions I had to make. Which country did we want to visit? Which resort? Did we want to get an all-inclusive package (cheap, easy) or book everything ourselves (much more effort, but likely less tacky)?

I finally managed to narrow it down to two different holiday packages, but I couldn’t choose between them. The first hotel was cheaper, but the second had better reviews. The first was closer to the airport and the website looked nicer, but the second had tennis courts. I was practically tearing my hair out by this point and ready to give up. I was starting to feel like I didn’t really want to go on holiday, after all.

Why Is It So Hard to Make Decisions?

How is it that we can sometimes find apparently simple decisions so incredibly difficult? A big part of the problem is the fact that our brains aren’t very good at comparing more than one thing at a time. Normally when we’re choosing between two or more things—two holidays, say—we have lots of different criteria that we care about: price, location, reviews, facilities, and probably many more besides. It’s practically impossible for our brains to look at the two options and see which one is better across all these criteria at once. Instead, we can only think about the different criteria one by one: this one is better on price, but this other one is better on location, and so on. Integrating all these smaller comparisons into a final decision is tricky because our brains simply can’t hold them all together at the same time. Making this all even worse is the fact that often we don’t even know what all the different criteria we care about are.

So are we doomed to constant indecision? I don’t think so. Going back to my holiday example, I felt like it was impossibly difficult to figure out which option was better, because each was good in different ways. Then I had an idea.

I sat down and wrote out all the different criteria that were important to me: price, closeness to a beach, proximity to a town, reviews, facilities, and a few more. I then went through each of these criteria and wrote down how each of the two hotels I was considering fared on them, and ultimately, which one seemed to “win” on each of the criteria. As soon as I’d done this, it was completely obvious which of the two I should pick: one of the options completely dominated on all of my criteria but two. But somehow, without going through this explicit process, I couldn’t see it.

Just Write Things Down

I was amazed how much this process—simply writing down the important factors and how each option weighed against the other based on different metrics—helped me to make my decision. And it took a grand total of about five minutes.

©Dave King/Flickr

I’m not saying this is a miraculous cure for every case of indecision in life. But even if it doesn’t completely solve the problem, it can shed some light on where you’re most uncertain or what you need to get more information about. I’ve also used this exact process when deciding between two different career options. Even though there wasn’t an obvious “best” option like there was with the vacation packages, doing so allowed me to see more precisely where my uncertainty and indecision lay, which in turn made it much easier to take steps to resolve it.

Of course, for decisions that aren’t all that important, this might not be worth the time: Imagine trying to do this for every item you buy in the supermarket, for example! But when you find yourself faced with a decision that really matters (like which career to pursue) or so paralyzed by indecision you might end up doing nothing (like me in my vacation search, which was sold out by the time I finally went to book it), take five minutes and try this little trick. It’s a small price to pay, and it might end up making a huge difference.

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