Why We Can’t Decide

We can’t seem to decide what we want. In the winter, we wished it were warmer. In the summer, we wished it were cooler. We are surrounded by an abundance of food, people, and ideas but struggle to find something to eat, someone to talk to, or a book worth reading.

The running thread in our procrastination is decision-making. Sounds fancy, but it just means making a choice. Salad or fries for lunch? Cancun or Hawaii for vacation? Person A or Person B for your new role? Choices surround us like air. They are essential to life yet don’t always see their full impact.

There are three reasons why we continually procrastinate on making important decisions. 

  • We don’t believe in our plan
  • We are zoomed in 10x
  • We are conspiring against ourselves

We Don’t Believe in Our Plan

Something funny happens when we are coming up with plans and ideas. In the moment, anything feels possible. We could learn multiple languages, scale any mountain or perhaps sweep the dust off our basketball and become an NBA player—despite being 5’9 and out of shape.

You then go to sleep, and reality asserts itself throughout the night. The “perfect” plan now seems impossible. The lack of belief undermines our efforts, chipping away like a river to the bank.

The answer isn’t to push harder or will yourself to believe. Instead, the solution is to design plans you trust even after the adrenaline has worn off. A good plan can withstand the waves of reality that will buffet us.

Inside companies, it is easy to give lip service to a strategy. You don’t want blind allegiance to a plan, you want honest support. If your team doesn’t believe in your plan, they won’t protect it from the inevitable winds of adversity. 

In my strategy work with clients, we generate belief by allowing all key stakeholders to contribute their ideas and clearly show the compromises that everyone has to make. The final strategy has been “spiced” by everyone. Companies cannot do everything, but they can do two or three things really well.

We Are Zoomed In 10x

Next time you’re taking a photo, try zooming in as much as possible. The beautiful picture will become a blurry and unrecognizable mess in front of you. The same happens when you focus too closely on decisions.

By seeking to be informed on every detail and possible obstacle, we end up drowning in minutia. It’s impossible to tell what a blurry picture is without context. In decisions, there’s a sweet spot of focus. Once you cross that, you’re dealing with decreased benefits and increased opportunities for procrastination. 

To find your sweet spot, notice when you start to go around in circles mentally. You’ll begin to second guess points that you have already considered. At this point, you’re ready to decide and move forward.

Think of why Blockbuster didn’t become Netflix. They were too focused on how to run their nationwide stores successfully. Why would they mail movies when customers could come to them? Beyond that, why would they invest in digital streaming at a time when internet speeds weren’t fast enough for it? This paradox is the crux of strategy.

When you’re too zoomed in on the details, you can’t see the background changing. You can only see the tiny pixelated and blurry spot in front of you. Innovation means avoiding getting lost in the blurriness and making consequential decisions. 

We Conspire Against Ourselves

Life is one big marshmallow test where we are forced to choose between immediate gratification and long-term rewards. Our world is full of marshmallows: social media, junk food, our phones, silver bullets, and so forth. 

By indulging in marshmallows, we conspire against our ability to make decisions. Good decision-making requires clarity of mind.  Try the following experiment. Go binge on fast food or watch an entire TV season in one sitting. How are effective are you at making decisions after? My guess is that you’re aren’t very good. 

I noticed the difference in my ability to decide before and after eating a big breakfast. The rush of carbs can shut down the processing part of my brain. As a result, simple decisions can become agonizing. 

How we feel makes a huge difference in our ability to make decisions. It changes what we perceive, what we retrieve from our memory, and how we make sense of our thoughts. “Sleeping on a decision” is how our body reboots and clears the mental junk obstructing our decision-making.

The ability to make rapid and effective decisions is like a superpower. It’s highly valued in business, socially, and in our modern world. To do that, we need a plan that we believe in, stop zooming in to 10x, and stop conspiring against ourselves. 

Featured Image by Victoriano Izquierdo

One more thing before you go!

I send a weekly newsletter called the Growth Needle. It's short, sweet, and full of interesting—and dare I say provocative—ideas. It's the best way to access my latest thinking and share your own thoughts. The next edition will be out on Tuesday, and you can receive it by subscribing below.

Want to see the goods before signing up? No problem! Here are a few of the recent editions: