A man facing the sunset with his hands on the back of his head

Embracing Life’s What-ifs in Decisions

It doesn’t take much today, a simple question placed in my lap, yet it traps me in an irrational paralysis. Walking out the door, my partner has asked me to send him a list of ingredients for dinner. “Or, I can pick up some takeaway on the way home,” he says, “just let me know what you feel like”. He kisses me in blissful ignorance, the front door settles in its frame, and I remain frozen in the hallway stifled by all the many options I must choose from.

For the next hour, I play out all the possible options in my mind, including the drinks that might accompany these options, the length of the meal, how I might feel after eating it, and if the choice would allow for ice-cream afterwards. I locate a recipe for an anchovy spaghetti and suggest a dry Italian white wine. As soon as I send this off, my mind fills with pizza and suddenly I want nothing else. I send another message explaining the new plan, along with the pizza place I had in mind, as well as a light red wine. Now content with the updated decision, I recline into an armchair and open my book.

It’s a chilly Monday evening and the rain patters against the window. The words of the book blur on the page. Instead, an option I hadn’t considered occurs to me: warm Indian curry, rich red wine. I immediately make for my phone to inform my partner of this wonderful insight. After I have sent two more messages, I scroll up and see there are eleven erratic blue bubbles belonging to me and none from him in the past hour. I have achieved none of the reading I had intended in his absence.

FOBO: The relentless pursuit of all possible options

Researchers have coined this behaviour ‘decisional procrastination’, or, more commonly, indecision. Plainly put, it is a failure to comprehend and execute one’s genuine desires with conviction. Researchers believe it correlates with the personality trait ‘neuroticism’, and occurs in response to an abundance of choice in our environment.

Individuals with high levels of trait neuroticism tend to have rich imaginations, in which they explore (vividly) anything and everything that could go right and wrong in each situation. For 20% of the population, the fear associated with this imagining is crippling. In the most extreme of these, a person might be considered to have aboulomania; a disorder whose etymological roots come from Greek a– ‘without’, and boulē ‘will’.

Aboulomania describes a pathological level of indecisiveness, in which the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which controls rational decision making, is easily overwhelmed. In these rare cases, the individual will over-analyse the situation until they are paralysed by their own analysis. Patrick McGinnis, who coined the term FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), has also described ‘FOBO’, or Fear of Better Options. The close cousin of FOMO, FOBO describes the relentless pursuit of all possible options. However, unlike FOMO, which can be useful in indicating what we want in our lives, FOBO offers very little psychological benefit.

 There is potential harm in not trusting one’s own instincts

Psychologist and philosopher William James once said, There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.” Before I researched indecision, I thought my own struggle rather harmless. However, indecision can inhibit one’s ability to move forward in life as the abundance of choice keeps us stagnant and unfulfilled, ironically, in the desperate pursuit of fulfilment.

Some of the webpages and peer-reviewed articles I come across are startling in their descriptions of the consequences of chronic indecision:

  • Limiting future opportunities by not settling on one preference
  • Resisting positive, life-altering changes
  • Limiting your career, relationships and health
  • Not satisfying your own needs because you do not know what they are

This last point really hits home for me. It highlights why you can’t trust your own instincts on how to make the right choice; you can’t identify what you need in the first place, so how do you know which option is the choice that will ultimately make you happy? Clearly, this is no way to live.

Indecision is a product of unfounded fear and worry

Rationally, I know this dinner on this inconspicuous Monday evening in August will mean little to my future self; I probably won’t even remember it. Yet still, I panic as if my future happiness and self-worth rests on the outcome of this dinner. So where does it come from?

Indecision has several causes;

  • Having too many options, and hence decision fatigue (trying to decide on a movie on Netflix, anyone?!)
  • Wishing to please another person involved in the decision
  • Cultural and social expectations that may contradict the decision you want to make
  • Internal psychological patterns of the decision maker

For many of us, the internal patterns are the most pertinent. These might include a fear of regret or failure to make the right decision, a lack of self-confidence, perfectionism, an over-active imagination, and a tendency to ruminate or worry once a decision is made.

Can’t decide? Remind yourself you are experiencing an ‘affliction of affluence’

It is important to recognise perspective when ruminating over the many possible outcomes, Patrick McGinnis advises. He highlights that FOBO is symptomatic of privilege; indecision is, according to McGinnis, an “affliction of affluence”. This is a result of the hyper-connected, hyper-busy contemporary world where we are told we can have it all.

On Monday evening when I was walking around the house continuously changing my mind, we had a car, money, a proficient kitchen, time, and space available to us. It was for these reasons that nothing was out of the question. In these moments where we find ourselves deep in the pit of FOBO, browsing movies on a streaming service for an hour too long or not knowing which menu item to order, we are literally being spoiled by choice.

Start small, and reflect on what makes you happy

If you’re at all like me and your indecision is like having hazel eyes or a beauty spot on your nose, it’s going to be harder than simply saying “I’m going to be more decisive”. However, it is something you can put into practice immediately, as a decision is likely just about to be required of you. Right now, as I write this, I’m sitting at the car wash waiting for my car to be cleaned. The man asked me when I arrive, “which service do you want?” and waved towards a board full of price tags and cleaning jargon I didn’t understand. I gazed over the board and refrained from Googling, umming or ahhing and picked the $69 one because that seemed like a satisfactory transaction given the state of the car. Start with the little things, the experts say.

Another helpful tactic is to consciously reflect on what makes you happy and, conversely, what makes you anxious or unsatisfied. Locating your happiness will serve as a reference point for confident decision making. It may also be worth identifying your fears and rules influenced by others, either by your upbringing, or the culture at large. Then, by emancipating yourself from old, rigid habits and beliefs, you can become the proper author of your life, a more active participant. McGinnis emphasises the importance of this when he says “spending too much time worrying over what you’re having for lunch, you are robbing yourself of the energy to focus on things that matter”.

Detach yourself from the idea there is a ‘right’ decision

Finally, Yale Professor Laurie Paul advises that in these decision intersections, we cannot know in advance which path is the correct one to take, because the one that feels correct in the future depends on the choice you make in the present. This is to say, there is no point trying to anticipate outcomes with lists of pros, cons, and what ifs, because the person we become by making the decision may well weigh different things as pros and cons. This commitment to the present is refreshing, where the decision is not for our future self, but creates our future self.

I have realised, one must detach from the idea that there is a ‘right’ decision. Even when reflecting with hindsight, it is very difficult to trace the current moment back to one specific decision. Instead, I try to see that making any decision is better than no decision, and understand that it’s impossible to know with 100% certainty in the moment which option will make you happy. All we can do is follow our intuition. I will leave you with the wise words of Ekhart Tolle who surmises the importance of this more succinctly than I…

‘Any action is often better than no action, especially if you have been stuck in an unhappy situation for a long time. If it is a mistake, at least you learn something, in which case it’s no longer a mistake.’

You can read more about making decisions here, and managing anxiety here.