There are emotional reasons behind indecision—fear of change or intolerance of imperfection and uncertainty—but there are also cognitive ones. The fact is that modern humans have access to more information than ever before. It’s no exaggeration to say that with some avenues of knowledge, no single human being could absorb all the available data in one lifetime.
This makes it difficult to follow the usual algorithm of “seek all the info and then make an informed decision.” It becomes a question, naturally, of when to stop.
We can understand the illusion of completeness in the same way as we understand the illusion of total certainty or total security. The fact is that none of us ever acts with all available information. Life would be very boring if that were the case!
Since we are imperfect organisms who don't come into the world complete and finished, we inevitably need to learn and acquire knowledge during the course of life. And this means that we necessarily have to act even though we’re uncertain, or don’t really know what we’re dealing with. If life wasn’t this way, there would be no such thing as learning at all.
Endlessly combing through information may feel like it soothes a certain kind of anxiety, but it doesn’t really help after a point. Combine this with the self-doubt we explored in the previous chapter, and this drive to gather more and more information could actually end up as self-sabotage.
To avoid the overwhelm that comes with living in a hyper-connected, data-saturated world, we need to have a clear-cut strategy before we start. We need to know what problem we are trying to solve, and what information specifically we are looking for.
Gathering information should not be a passive process, but a guided, deliberate one. Without structuring our search, we have nothing to direct us and risk getting bogged down in irrelevant detail.
If we’re shopping for a new car, deciding where to go on holiday, planning a wedding, wondering what to wear to that interview or even mulling over a potential break-up, we need to understand from the outset that the final goal is always action. To take the first example, what exactly do you need to know before buying a car? That depends on what you’re looking for. Size, type of gear, ground clearance, price, etc., are all elements you can consider. These act as filters and narrow down the options available to you. Once you have a sufficiently small list, your choice is not likely to matter much since all of them fit the criteria you’ve set. In other words, the opportunity cost is very low. By narrowing your choices in this manner, you can ease the burden of deciding between too many alternatives.
To take that final step of choosing, try to reframe what an effective, successful person looks like: not someone who never makes a mistake or experiences uncertainty, but someone who courageously acts with the best of their knowledge, and owns those actions.
The happy truth is that we can always learn, adjust our course or make changes even after we act. It’s not as though the single decision in front of us is the be-all-and-end-all in life; we can continuously fine-tune, enjoying the process of learning rather than experiencing it as a deviation from perfection. It can be difficult at first, but practice being OK with “good enough” decisions. As they say, “Finished is better than perfect”!
In fact, you might find some solace in the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, which teaches us that nothing lasts, nothing is perfect, and nothing is finished. We live in an organic universe that is constantly flowing, moving, changing, growing. Everything is in process, and part of a dynamic cycle. Can we find beauty in imperfection, and joy in incomplete understanding?
If information overload is something you struggle with often, you may also find it helpful to deliberately narrow down your field of perception. This may seem like heresy to those of us who grew up in the digital age, but try to adopt a simpler, slower life. Embrace a little minimalism and do a “digital detox” once in a while where you commit to not flooding your brain with endless stimuli on screens all day.
The mindset of indecision frequently comes down not only to fear and lack of belief in our own competence, but also to overstimulation, confusion and too much choice. The “paradox of choice” acknowledges that sometimes, more options actually leads to more anxiety, hesitation, and dissatisfaction with whatever you do end up choosing.
And the bad thing you worry might happen once you make a decision? It may not be as bad as you’re imagining. Psychologists have found that human beings are actually rather good at justifying the decisions they’ve made after the fact, whatever the decision is.
Think about that: once a decision is made and becomes real and a part of your life, you’re quite likely to roll with it, since the alternatives are no longer available to you. The door of other options closing can paradoxically be the very thing that makes you feel content and satisfied with the reality you find yourself faced with. It may seem strange, but sometimes, making any decision is fine, and often something you’ll be happy with regardless.
Have you ever noticed how many parents say things like, “We didn’t plan on the pregnancy, but we couldn’t be happier now”? Before you take action, you may have an overinflated sense of how important your decision is, or what it means for your happiness and success. You don't get to see what life feels like on the other side of that decision until you actually make it—and then you may discover that it’s not such a big deal after all.
When you’re bombarded with choices, you may feel that your decision holds more weight than it really does. Think about how modern people can swipe past hundreds of potential partners on dating apps and still feel utterly alone, and yet presumably our ancestors reliably found mates when they lived in small groups of one or two hundred people.
If you suffer from indecision, scale things back for yourself. Deliberately give yourself less choice—if you know you only have a choice between meal A or meal B, you spare yourself the agony of weighing up the pros and cons of everything on the menu. You just have your meal and get on with life! Pretty simple.
But if you do make a bad decision, that’s cool too. It means you’ve earned some valuable data (as opposed to just data). Use this to guide your next decision. This little nugget of information is incredibly valuable to you. After all, you can spend hours trying to guess how a certain choice will play out… or you can simply try it, see what happens, and know for sure.