Death By A Thousand Indecisions

“Then indecision brings its own delays, And days are lost lamenting over lost days. Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute; What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

Are you “in earnest”? When it comes to decisionmaking, sometimes it’s quick like Ready-Fire-Aim. With other decisions, we take our sweet time. For example, I can decide from a restaurant menu pretty quickly, but stew over where to put the smallest things in my new office.

Decisions are Draining

Neuropsychologists like Dr. Moira Somers tell us that decisionmaking is one of the biggest drains on our mental energy. The reason that transition times are so stressful and exhausting – a move, a death, retirement, a divorce – is that the thousands of seemingly small, plus a few momentous, decisions at that time demand energy.

According to Dr. Somers, every day we wake up with a finite amount of mental energy available for decision making. As the day goes by, the more decisions we make, the less energy we have for more of them. Bigger decisions take more energy.

Our finite store of energy can also start off in a depleted state, due to lack of sleep; hunger; or emotions like grief as well as excitement.

Further, every indecision is a decision. In fact, a pattern of indecisions can take physical form, and stress us out every time we see it. What does not-deciding look like? A pile of unfiled papers. Empty boxes stacked in the garage. The “miscellaneous drawer” in the kitchen. The “junk room.” Or a panoply of scattered investment and bank accounts. With a finite amount of mental energy at hand, who can blame any of us for having some kind of to-be-decided pile/stack/assortment hanging over us all the time?

Dealing with Indecision

What to do about it? It’s probably best not to make elimination of indecisions the end goal. From a professional organizer, Laura LoPresti, I learned to take a decision and come up with 1 of 4 actions for it: Automate (can I use technology to take care of this decision automatically every time it comes up?), Eliminate (how important is this stupid decision anyway?), Date-Activate (Is there a block of time I can set aside to deal with it and be done with it?), or Delegate (hire or ask for help).

The last option, asking for help with decisions I am perfectly, rationally capable of making is not something I entertained in the past. However, after a divorce, I had significant success with hiring a friend to help organize. At the same time, I had estate planning documents and business succession plan updated with a local attorney. With my friend’s insight, coordination, and diligence, I now have an uber-organized office AND an updated “emergency box.” It turns out that hiring help made my decisions go much faster. (Perhaps this is what Goethe meant by the boldness in beginning it.)

Getting Better and Better

Further, there is a spiraling effect – the fewer decisions I have left to make, the more time I feel I have to do what I do best. This is far better than a daily slog through the indecision-infused mud.

At some point, I felt ready to give back what I’d received. Someone close to me was suddenly widowed, and lost her mother, within a three month period. She had an overwhelming number of decisions to make about seemingly small stuff, and was in a grief-stricken state to be doing so. I feIt more capacity to help her on both a financial and emotional level. I could not have made that statement before I had my own house in order.

Inspiration Out of Indecision

Goethe’s quotation has been an inspirational one for me, egging me on to do things like start my own business, write a book, and move to a new office on nearly a moment’s notice. This was because I reduced my costs of IN-decisionmaking by simply asking for help. That freed me to be of better help to others.

What About You?

What if you took an indecision pile and automated, delegated, calendared, or, failing those three, hired help with it? What activities could you replace it with instead? Who might you now be available to help instead? There might be genius, power, and magic waiting, if you have the boldness to begin.

Holly Donaldson

Holly P. Donaldson, CFP® writes and consults on the psychology of money. Her fee-only, product-free financial planning practice focuses on increasing financial self-efficacy for those seeking a financial navigator to help them make good decisions. She is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch." With a fully virtual practice in Seminole, Florida, she primarily serves clients located in the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater areas. Holly will also work with clients who are a good fit located elsewhere in the United States.

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