We’ve all been in one of those meetings, brainstorming sessions, or calls that end up sounding like you’re listening to a broken record.
“What do you think we should do?”
“I don’t know. What do you think we should do?”
“I’m not sure. What do you think is the right decision?”
Inevitably, someone chimes in with a “Let’s circle back next week…” and you all walk away feeling like you made progress. But let’s be honest. You didn’t.
Whether you’re a team lead, manager, or just trying to move a project forward, being indecisive at work means you’re holding everyone back.
How can you prioritize features, choose which bug to fix, tackle your go-to-market strategy or literally any of the 1,000s of things you need to do to make your business successful if you can’t make a decision?
As Farnam Street’s Shane Parrish puts it:
Good decisions don't ensure success but bad ones almost always ensure failure.
If you want to take it a step further, we’d say that not making a decision is the surest way to ensure failure.
So why do we become indecisive? And is there a way to break out of our indecisiveness and become confident and clear in our decision making? Let’s dig into the science of decision-making and then look at a framework for breaking out of indecision and feeling confident in your choice—no matter how big it is.
The psychology of indecision: Why we have such a hard time making easy decisions
When it comes down to it, life is basically just a series of choices. Some are mundane (what to eat for breakfast, what movie to watch, where do get your coffee from). While others are more serious (like what clients to take on or what product to build).
It’s fine to want to make the right decision. The problem is when we let the fear of making the wrong decision paralyze us into becoming indecisive. However, indecision isn’t just about fear. Researchers have spent years trying to understand the psychology of decision-making and have come up with more than a few reasons why you might be feeling stuck.
Before we look at ways to get over your indecisiveness, let’s look at where it might be coming from.
You’re afraid or not confident in your own abilities (i.e. you’re feeling the effects of imposter syndrome)
Breaking out of indecisiveness usually means having some level of confidence in your choices. You want to feel that you have the knowledge and skill to make an informed decision, rather than just flipping a coin or leaving it to chance.
However, even the most talented people have moments of not feeling confident in their abilities.
Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern where you continually doubt your accomplishments and have an internalized fear of being seen as a “fraud.” Imposter syndrome hits almost everyone at some point, with people as celebrated as Michelle Obama and Tom Hanks openly admitting to feeling it. It is usually accompanied by stress, anxiety, and paralyzing periods of self-doubt.
When it comes to indecision, it’s easy to fall into this trap and assume someone else is more capable of making the “right” choice.
You’re hitting “Decision fatigue”
We all have limited willpower each day. And each decision you have to make slowly chips away at that energy. Eventually, you hit what’s called Decision Fatigue—a condition where our ability to weigh all the options and make educated, research-backed decisions deteriorates.
Here’s an example. In one study of more than 1,100 parole hearings, researchers found that prisoners who appeared earlier in the day received parole 70% of the time. Whereas those who appeared later (after the judges had been making decisions all day) were paroled less than 10% of the time.
And unlike physical fatigue, which we’re consciously aware of, decision fatigue happens without us even realizing it.
You don’t want to take responsibility for the outcome of your choice
Psychological biases aside, there’s probably an even more obvious reason you’re so indecisive: You’re afraid of the outcome. When a project doesn’t turn out as planned, no one wants to be the person who sent the company down the wrong path. Instead, we love to play the blame game. But all this does is make people more afraid to voice their opinions.
As Dr. Ilene Strauss Cohen writes in Psychology Today:
If you don’t start to take initiative in your own life, you’ll end up becoming a prisoner of your indecisiveness. You’ll limit your future opportunities, not allowing yourself to be open to changes that could enhance your life based on what you want.
Ultimately, it’s fine to have a fear of making the wrong choice. But letting that fear paralyze you means you’ll never truly grow.
You always think there’s a better option out there and are hitting “analysis paralysis”
The opposite of the fear of making the wrong decision is the fear of making a good decision (but not a great one). We live in a time of too many options. And when you’re faced with picking the best one, it can often feel debilitating.
Psychologists call this “analysis paralysis”, where you get overcome with analyzing all the options and end up putting off making a decision for a later date.
For example, let’s say you’re brainstorming ideas for a new feature. But your team comes up with so many good ones that you can’t decide. There’s no clear winner. So you put off making any decision. You might think you’re just doing your due diligence, but there’s a point where that tips over into indecision.
The New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Rubin calls this the difference between people who are satisficers and those who are maximizers.
Satisficers are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met. Whereas maximizers are obsessed with making the optimal decision. They need to examine every single option before they’ll feel satisfied–a practice that isn’t just impractical, but impossible.
You’re a procrastinator
Lastly, you might be indecisive because you’re also a procrastinator.
You might think procrastinating is just about being bad at time management and putting things off. But it’s really an emotional problem. We procrastinate because we feel anxious or nervous. And what is more nerve-wracking than making an important decision?
Procrastination is just one of the many things that get in the way of being productive. Supercharge your focus and time management with our massive Guide to Becoming a More Productive Software Engineer.
The secrets to making better decisions as a group (9 ways to stop being indecisive today)
Whatever the reason for your indecision, you need to be able to recognize it and then act on it if you want to move your career and your company forward. As author Denis Waitley writes:
Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.
So how do you go about making better decisions? Here’s a 9-step plan to help you and your team some being so indecisive today.
Step 1. Understand the scope of the decision
Not every decision needs to be handled like it’s life-or-death. Yet as we’ve seen, treating them like they are is the easiest way to become indecisive. Instead, getting realistic about the scope of the project can help you determine how much information you need, how much work should go into it, and who to get involved.
Here are a few questions to help you determine your decision’s scope:
- Is this a situation where you want to be a satisficer or a maximizer? Do you have clear criteria set where you’ll be happy when they’re met? Or is this something more nebulous and potentially more impactful that requires finding the absolute best solution?
- Is this a reversible decision or an irreversible one? Some decisions can be quickly changed if you realize they’re not bringing you the outcomes you want while others can’t.
- How will this decision affect you/your business in the next 10 days, 10 months, and 10 years? Using what’s called the 10/10/10 rule can help you understand the scope of your choice and how far reaching it is.
Especially in the early days of your company where every small choice feels life-changing, it’s important to be realistic about just how important this choice is. As Shopify’s GM of Platform, Brandon Chu, writes:
Deciding how important a decision is, is the most important decision you can make. For people that make decisions for a living, understanding when one is really important vs. not-that-important is the most critical skill.
Step 2. Make a plan for how you’ll approach it
Now that you’ve got a concrete problem to solve it’s time to come up with a concrete solution.
First off, set some ground rules for how you’re going to approach this decision. This doesn’t mean diving in right away, but rather establishing “critical norms”—guidelines around how groups question and use both shared and unshared information, such as:
- Who gets a say?
- Where will the research come from?
- How will we handle objections?
Studies have found that when your group establishes these norms, they not only make better decisions but also feel more comfortable speaking up. This is more important than we give it credit.
When Google undertook a massive study to find out what the best teams have in common, one thing stood out above all: Psychological safety. As Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson writes, psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.’’
The more your team understands the rules of the game and feels safe to take part, the less indecisive they’ll be.
Step 3. Set a realistic (yet strict) deadline
One of the other “rules” you need to break free from indecision is a deadline.
Parkinson’s Law says that work will expand to fill the time given to it, and making a decision is no different. Give yourself unlimited time to choose and you’ll end up sitting around forever.
This doesn’t mean you should rush to make a decision. Based on the scope, you need to set a deadline that is realistic yet strict. As Tamara Nall of The Leading Niche writes,
“To move past indecision, I give myself a realistic deadline. My time frame includes the ability to conduct and evaluate analyses that impact my decision making. If I need to gather input from others, I factor that into my deadlines as well. If I need to make a quick decision, I go with my gut and business instinct.”
Again, use your critical norms to help answer this question. Knowing who you have to talk to, who gets a say, and where your research will come from should give you the knowledge you need to set an educated deadline.
Step 4. Know who makes the final decision (and why)
If you’re indecisive in your own life you know who needs to make the final call. But when you’re in a group setting, this isn’t always totally clear. Before you can truly tackle a big decision, everyone needs to be clear about who gets the final say, why, and how they play a part in that choice.
And while everyone should be able to play their part, this doesn’t mean your decision-making should be by committee. As Square’s Gokul Rajaram writes:
Consensus means no ownership. What’s important is not that everyone agrees, but that everyone is heard and then the right person makes a decision.
While picking the “right person” is easy (it’s usually leadership), making sure everyone feels acknowledged and heard isn’t. This is especially true when the decision-making process gets heated.
To help make this easier for everyone, it’s good to outline how the decision is going to be made and the role the decision-maker will play early on. Here are a few different methods to consider:
- Decide: The decision-maker uses other group members as sources of information, but makes the final decision independently. There’s no real appeal process here as the decision-maker takes full responsibility.
- Consult individual/group: The decision-maker talks to either each individual separately or to the group as a whole and then bases their choice off that.
- Facilitate: This is the closest to finding a true “consensus” as you can get. The decision-maker collaborates with the group as a whole and helps keep the conversation moving forward rather than imposing a direction or opinion. In the end, the decision is made by the group, not the leader.
- Delegate: The leader takes a backseat approach and instead passes the problem to the group and acts as support. In the end, the group decides how to come up with the final decision.
Step 5. Use the 40/70 rule to curb perfectionism
The majority of the causes of indecisiveness come down to some form of not setting boundaries to our research (analysis paralysis, decision fatigue, perfectionism, etc…) We think more information will help us make better decisions. And it will to a point.
However, just like you need a clear deadline to keep your timeline from creeping, you need to set similarly strict yet reasonable limits on your research.
First, start by asking why this decision matters. What brought you to this point in the first place? What do you know about the context and setting of what you’re doing? When you feel like you’re being pulled into the weeds, step back and think about how you got here.
Next, use the 40/70 rule to guide your research. Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell suggests that to stay active and quickly make decisions with “enough” information, you should start thinking about it at 40% and make a choice at 70%:
Some time after you have obtained 40% of all the information you are liable to get, start thinking in terms of making a decision.
When you have about 70% of all the information, you probably ought to decide, because you may lose an opportunity in losing time.
It’s not easy for everyone to make a call knowing there’s still 30% more effort they could put in. However, like most things, our research into decision-making follows a law of diminishing returns. The more time you spend researching the more likely you are to get overwhelmed by the options and become indecisive.
Step 6. Remove options from the table
There’s no shame in shutting down when faced with too many options. As psychologist Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice, too many choices not only leads to analysis paralysis and indecision but can even result in depression and feelings of loneliness.
In one experiment, shoppers at a grocery store were presented with a table of either 24 or 6 different types of jams to sample. In the end, more people stopped by the table with more options, yet only 3% of them purchased compared to 30% at the smaller table.
The same thing happens when you’re feeling indecisive. More options might seem better. But you’re more likely to act when the race is tighter. Before you try to come up with your choice, narrow the field by asking whether each one applies to your “operating principles.”
According to Stripe’s COO, Claire Hughes Johnson, your company (or you as an individual) needs to have a clear lens through which you can make rapid decisions. For example, Stripe’s principles include:
- Users first
- Think rigorously
- Trust and amplify
If your options don’t fit into those frameworks, they can be tossed. What’s great about this is it also allows other people to make choices you agree with. As Johnson explains:
Your principles should be clear and explicit enough that the people who consult them will make the same decisions a founder of your company would.
Step 7. Prioritize using the “Decision-making Matrix”
Now that you’re left with only a few options, it’s time to bring in some decision-making strategies that will break through your indecision.
One method for doing this comes from author Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup. In the book, Chris outlines a simple prioritization process he calls the Decision-Making Matrix.
- List your ideas and score each one on a 1 to 5 scale based on a few categories (Effort, Profitability, Vision, and Impact)
- Sum the total scores and sort from highest to lowest
- Take action on the highest scoring idea
This isn’t the only prioritization technique you can use in these scenarios. And what matters more than how you prioritize is that you find a method that works for you. Here are a few other ones you might want to try if you’re feeling stuck:
- Scoring options on an effort/impact scale
- Breaking down options by feasibility, desirability, and viability
- Using the RICE method (Reach, Impact, Confidence, Effort)
- Prioritizing by delight using the KANO method
Step 8. Ask the “miracle question”
Finally, there are times where all the analytical and logical thinking still won’t break you out of your indecision. At this point, you need to start thinking differently.
When most of us think about setting goals or making decisions, we start from where we are now and look forward. However, working backward is an equally if not more powerful way to overcome your indecision.
According to research from HSBC business school, it can be easier to see the steps you need to take if you start at the end and plan backward. As professor Jooyoung Park explains:
“Backward planning may be beneficial because it requires people to imagine their hypothetical goal achievement as they begin their planning, which makes them feel closer in time to achieving their goals. In our studies, people also tended to perceive that they had a clear view of the steps necessary for their goal achievement when planning backward.”
As Dr. Ilene Strauss Cohen writes in Psychology Today, this is akin to asking yourself the “miracle question”:
“Suppose tonight, while you slept, a miracle occurred. When you awake tomorrow, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?”
If you still can’t commit to a choice, try thinking about what life will be like after you do. That clarity is often enough to help give you the confidence you need to go through with it.
Step 9. Bring in a Barbarian
If your indecision stems from uncertainty and a lack of confidence, you need to work with that not hide from it. Instead of stressing out that you’re making the wrong choice, bring someone in who will force you to justify why your choice is right.
In a meta-analysis of 50 years’ worth of decision-making research published by Harvard Business School, the one piece of advice that came up time and time again was to get an outsider’s opinion. This helps for a number of reasons:
- Reduces your overconfidence about what you know
- Reduces the time it takes to make the decision
- Increases your chance of entrepreneurial success
Who you bring in doesn’t really matter. It could be a friend, colleague, or mentor. However, it just as easily could be someone within your team or even yourself adopting an outsider’s perspective. Some people like to call this approach bringing a “barbarian” to every meeting—someone who will speak awkward truths and force you to overcome your indecision quickly and confidently.
Decision-making can be overwhelming. But being decisive is empowering.
There’s only one thing that’s guaranteed to happen if you’re indecisive. Nothing. While you’re sitting around stressing about getting this “just right,” the rest of the world moves on around you.
Instead, you need to understand why you’re being indecisive and then create a framework to help you act. Set ground rules and build context around your decisions. Set deadlines and know who gets the final say. Reduce your options, prioritize, and then bring in a barbarian to help you feel confident you’re making the right choice.
In the end, everything that brings us personal and professional success comes down to making choices. And the more you feel confident and capable, the further you’ll go.