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« The Procrastination Buster Improved | Main | Noguchi Filing System »

Overcoming Procrastination Over Decisions

 This is the reply I sent to someone who wrote to me saying they had a problem with making even simple decisions:
Making decisions is a behaviour which can be learned, just like any other behaviour. You can train yourself to make big decisions by practising making small decisions.
Before you do that, a couple of principles:
1. There are no right or wrong decisions, only decisions with different consequences. You need to train yourself to stop looking for the perfect decision. Instead your attitude needs to be that you take decisions and deal with the consequences.
2. Doing nothing is a decision in itself. You need to train yourself to think that the choice is not between A and B, but between A, B and C where C is doing nothing.
So train yourself starting with small things. For example, what are you going to eat for supper tonight? Remember the choice is between a) having something for supper and b) having nothing for supper. How are you going to decide which to have? I suggest you flip a coin. That helps you to realise 1) there is no “correct” choice; 2) that doing nothing is a choice like any other and has consequences like any other.
If the “something for supper” choice comes up, then how do you decide what to eat? Again I suggest you decide entirely at random. Flip a coin, throw dice, whatever. What you are training yourself in here is again that there is no “correct” choice.
When you’ve got used to making simple decisions at random, then you can try a slight variation on this. Flip a coin and stick with the answer unless you really want to overrule it. That helps you to identify your own preferences in the matter.
Remember, the aim of this is to practise making decisions. Like any practise it takes a lot of repetition before the behaviour becomes learned. So don’t just do it once or twice and then forget about it. Consciously look out for small decisions you can make during the day and do it often.

Reader Comments (14)

Yes.I too agree with you. But,it doesnt happen all the time. After taking a decision, if something goes wrong with it, then we spend time on repenting for that decision instead of handling the consequences. What you suggest for handling these situations ?
June 20, 2008 at 11:55 | Unregistered CommenterPras
Hi Pras

That's another thing we can learn and practise.

Instead of saying "If only I hadn't...", say "Next time I will..."

So for example, don't say "If only I had remembered to shut the stable door". Instead say "Next time I will make sure the stable door is securely bolted".
June 20, 2008 at 13:58 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Problem with making decisions can also be caused by any of a variety of diseases. Although in that case it's likely that you also have others problems, such as fatigue, brain fog and the like.
June 21, 2008 at 10:06 | Unregistered CommenterXY

What you say is absolutely right, and the recommendations I make above are important for the rehabilitation of people with disease-caused difficulty in making decisions.
June 21, 2008 at 22:18 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
OK, I didn't mean to question the principles, I'm sure they're valuable in many cases. But if it's caused by a disease, and I mean a somatic disease (infection, defiency in a certain hormone etc), that need to be addressed too, as it may require a (non-psychological) treatment of some kind.
June 22, 2008 at 4:34 | Unregistered CommenterXY
Yes, I agree. Anyone suffering from fatigue and brainfog, combined with difficulty in making decisions, would be well advised to consult a physician.
June 22, 2008 at 12:48 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I liked your post on decisions, but it struck a nerve when you stated "there are no right or wrong decisions". I imagine your intent is to take some of the pressure off of the indecisive. I do think most of us struggle with making decisions because we're avoiding the pressure. But I also believe that is the wrong decision. Choosing to drive drunk for example is a wrong decision. Dealing with that item that just hit my inbox that will only get worse if I dont address it is the right decision. Likewise, there is a right way to deal with it (more than one probably) and a wrong way (probably more than one).
June 29, 2008 at 15:24 | Unregistered CommenterMark in Texas
Mark in Texas:

Labelling the decision to drive drunk as a "wrong decision" doesn't in itself achieve anything. The reason it's a decision most of us wouldn't wish to make is because of its consequences - loss of licence, danger to life and limb, imprisonment, etc. Sometimes, even in this case, there might be consequences which would justify the decision, e.g. if it were the only way of getting a critically ill person to hospital.

The mature decision maker looks at the likely consequences of their actions and makes a decision, knowing that even if it goes wrong they can handle it.
June 30, 2008 at 12:12 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Another thing that can affect one's view of whether a decision is "right" or "wrong" is perspective. Something that at the time it happened seemed a completely wrong (or right) decision can, from the perspective of some months or years down the line, appear completely different. I expect most people can think of decisions they have made, which later on they change their view about.

It reminds me of the Chinese proverb where, when events happen in the story, others say to the protagonist that's bad or that's good and all he says is "maybe". With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see that the consequences of a decision can be completely different in their effect than we had at first thought. Therefore it is not really that valuable to be judging whether a decision is 'right' or 'wrong' but far more useful to just deal with whatever happens as a consequence and to bear in mind that sometimes we won't know for quite some time if those consequences were helpful to us or not.
June 30, 2008 at 16:20 | Unregistered CommenterHannah
Yes, indeed, Hannah. I've written before (e.g. ) about how we may still be living with decisions we made years ago when our whole attitude to life may well have been entirely different.
June 30, 2008 at 16:56 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark

That's an interesting point and one I hadn't really thought about in that way before.

What I meant was somewhat different though, in that often when we make a decision in life and then have to experience the consequences, we tend to judge it at the time as either good or bad. However, what I meant is that, at least in my experience, some of the things that at the time seemed to be pretty bad, due to what they then lead on to turn out to be some of the best things that happen - i.e. if x hadn't happened which seemed bad at the time, then y couldn't have happened and y was exceptionally good.

One quick example: I trained in filmmaking when at college but for financial reasons (e.g. London rents too high) I went back home for the last year of my course and after graduating found a temporary (as I intended anyway) job in a totally unrelated trade. The manager of my branch went on to become my husband and I never went back to filmmaking! Had I not decided to a) return home to finish my degree and b) get a temporary job not in the trade I was trying to enter, then I would never have met my husband. So something that at the time seemed a decision that was taking me away from what I wanted (leaving London, the centre of the film industry at the time and getting a job outside of the industry), turned out to get me exactly what I want from my current perspective.

I hope this clarifies what I meant. I'll try to track down the Chinese proverb which explains this whole thing even better and shows how our judgement of a situation is always based on partial knowledge since we can't know the future and see things from that perspective. But your idea of picturing a future desired outcome then working back to see what decisions would be needed does go part of the way. Reminds me of the future self/present self dialoguing in "How to Make Your Dreams Come True"!!
July 1, 2008 at 14:25 | Unregistered CommenterHannah
Hi, Hannah

Yes, I understood exactly what you meant. My point was intended to be moving on from what you said rather than commenting on it.

I know the Chinese proverb well. It goes something like this:

A poor farmer had one horse and one day a herd of wild horses passed by and his horse broke out of the field and went off with them.

His neighbours all gathered around and commiserated with him on his bad luck. He replied "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"

Then a few days later, his horse came back and led the entire herd of wild horses into the field.

All the neighbours gathered around and congratulated him on his good luck. He replied "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"

Then a few days later his son fell off one of the wild horses while he was trying to tame it. His son's leg was very badly broken so that he was left a cripple for life.

The farmer's neighbours all gathered around and commiserated with him on his bad luck. He replied "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"

Then some time later the Army marched past on the way to war and conscripted all the young men of the village, except for his crippled son. They marched off and were never seen again.

"Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"
July 1, 2008 at 14:57 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Dear Mark,

At the risk of belaboring the point, I have to ask are there right and wrong (or good and bad) consequences? I dont see the damage in saying a decision is right or wrong. Maybe I'm an immature decision maker, but I have no problem being wrong about making a decision and I generally prefer to be right.

If you're supposed to be headed east and you're headed west you've probably made a wrong decision somewhere along the way. I cant imagine trying to teach my kids that there are no right or wrong decisions. I dont think that achieves anything either. I'm all for considering the consequences though.

In your example, driving someone critically ill to the hospital would to me be the right decision if one were able.
July 1, 2008 at 22:05 | Unregistered CommenterMark in Texas
Ok, I acknowledge you're right as far as semantics go. But the article is not about the meaning of words, it is about changing the attitude of people who have difficulty making decisions. The trouble is that they are already thinking in terms of "right" and "wrong" and that's what's crippling them. Their version of the first principle goes something like this:

"There are right and wrong decisions, and if you make the wrong decision you're going to have to face the consequences. You need to train yourself to look for for the best possible decision. Your attitude needs to be that if you make a mistake and make the wrong decision it's going to be a disaster."

This manner of thinking is exactly what needs to change. And it can be done by getting away from the "right" and "wrong" concept.
July 1, 2008 at 22:38 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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