Five minutes into our session, Claire dissolved in tears. "I'm so exhausted from making decisions!" she said. Claire did have a lot on her plate. Her boyfriend, Mike, had proposed to her (she loved him but said he was often impatient, so she wasn't sure he was The One). She was looking for a new home (an apartment, actually, in case things with Mike went south) but hadn't found the perfect place. And she was desperate to quit her boring job but was still in the process of zeroing in on a better one. It all sounded normal until we started discussing time frames. "Impatient" Mike had been waiting almost four years for Claire's answer to his proposal. Claire had been house hunting for three of those years. And her career indecision? Almost a decade old. Claire's exhaustion didn't spring from making decisions; it came from not deciding—from vacillating, fretting, seeking endless advice. In a word, dithering.
Now, most of us dither now and again, but there comes a time, as an old translation of Goethe's Faust has it, when "indecision brings its own delays, and days are lost lamenting over lost days." If you ever find yourself singing this particular sad song, it's time to change course—before you hem and haw your life away.
Claire thought her problem was excessive optimism: "I intend to have the perfect man, home, and career," she explained, "so I can't commit to the wrong thing!" But optimists are relaxed, and Claire was anything but. Her whole life was devoted to obsessively avoiding something economists call opportunity cost. Whenever we choose one course of action, we rule out others. Giving up those other options is the opportunity cost of any decision. Claire couldn't bear the thought of losing any opportunity by making a clear choice. She was an opportunity miser.
Just as money misers hoard their wealth, living as if they were poor even when they're rich, opportunity misers hoard their freedom to choose—and end up becoming prisoners of indecision. Because she was unwilling to limit her future opportunities even slightly, Claire was never able to enjoy the opportunities she had. Yet she felt huge pressure to do so, as she admitted during a couples-coaching session with Mike. "I know I need to step up and make the rational choices," she said.
Ironically, that was exactly what she didn't need to do.
Breaking Through Decision Deadlock
From Plato to Star Trek's Mr. Spock, countless wise men have advised us to make rational decisions. Put aside emotion! Compare the costs and benefits of your options! Pick whatever option yields the highest value for the least cost! This seems like pretty logical advice—so how come other cultural icons, such as Captain Kirk, are always boldly going where passion takes them, making decisions based not on reason but on courage, love, loyalty? As it turns out, there are good reasons logical Mr. Spock ranked second in command, while emotional Kirk was captain.
Great strategists trust both intellect and instinct; they gather information until they feel they can make a good decision.
We now know that decision making is an emotional process, not merely a calculation. Brain-damaged patients who can still think rationally but have lost the ability to process emotions can become pathologically indecisive. They may spend hours simply deciding what to wear. (I'm not sure I have this kind of brain damage, but it would explain a lot.) And it's impossible to rationally calculate opportunity costs, because life is unpredictable. So decision making is always a gamble, and gamblers need confidence in both their calculations and their hunches. If that's not logical enough to convince you, take a look at this chart:
People who trust their gut over their brain often take flying leaps with little information—risky, but at least they get somewhere. Folks with no faith in either their intellect or their instincts generally follow the path of least resistance; again, not an optimal strategy, but not paralyzing, either. Great strategists trust both intellect and instinct; they gather information until they feel they can make a good decision. But people who try to decide with the mind alone, who place no faith in their heart's desires, are doomed to stall and fuss, compare and contrast, forever insisting that just a little more knowledge will make the choice clear. It won't. Luckily, the two steps below just might.
Getting Unstuck: Step One
A yogi friend of mine once told me, "The body truth goes ahead of the mind lie." When we dither over a decision, our intellect tries to gain the upper hand, shouting, You'd better be sure! Keep your options open! Have you considered the legal implications? and so on. Fortunately, our bodies patiently persist in telling the truth. All we have to do is listen. Here's how.
1. Think of a time you said yes to something you later regretted. Vividly remember the moment you made the decision. What were you feeling, physically? Did your gut churn? Did your hands feel cold? Did your feet get hot? Even small sensations are significant. Describe them here (choose print above for a version you can write on):
2. Next, think of a time you said no to something and later wished you'd said yes. What physical feelings did you have while you were making that choice?
3. Now recall a time you said no and were later relieved that you'd passed on what would have been a bad experience. What were you feeling physically when you made that choice?
4. Finally, remember a time you said yes to something that turned out to be a great choice. How did you feel, physically, when you were making that choice?
Generally, the sensations of an unwise decision will be consistent, whether your choice was yes or no. A wise yes or no will also have a consistent "body truth." Focus on these sensations until you can tell them apart.
Now think of a decision you're making today—where to buy yogurt, whether to change religions, and so forth. Feel which choice your body wants to make. Thinking about that option will ease your shoulders, open your lungs. The opposite choice will close you up like a clam. Once you're able to sense these feelings, go on to step two.
Getting Unstuck: Step Two
Claire found that her body always felt queasy when she was making an unwise decision, solid and centered when she was choosing well. But when she tried to sense what to do with her many big decisions, everything became a nauseated blur. Nothing felt right.
This wasn't because all of Claire's future options were bad. Her body was reacting, as bodies always do, to the way she was spending her energy in the present moment. Our minds may tell us that deferring a decision can ensure our best possible future—even when doing so is making us crazy right now.
Check in with yourself: Does your life feel meaningful and on-purpose at this moment? If the answer is yes, your energy is invested in living your best life. But to the extent that you feel misery, your energy is asking to be reinvested. Misery literally means "the feeling of being a miser." If you're miserable, stop hoarding your life energy. Spend it now! Make a choice, any choice. If you're still miserable, you can choose again. Eventually, you'll see that all misery is simply life asking you to trade your current course of action—or inaction—for something purposeful and true.
"Are you in earnest?" says my dog-eared copy of Faust. "Seize this very minute. What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." This doesn't mean you'll never misstep. It means that when you trade indecision for choice, you'll be rewarded with either success or education. Guaranteed.
Claire finally said yes to Mike and no to her own apartment. Though her mind yapped like a mad poodle about lost opportunities, her body relaxed. She became less frantic. She hasn't switched jobs, but right now, she says, that feels okay.
Claire discovered the genius, power, and magic that comes with finally, actively choosing. You have the opportunity to discover that for yourself. Feed your mind, but feel your heart. Trust in your truth. It will be the best investment you'll ever make.
Martha Beck's latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press).