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 we can use a ready-fire-aim approach, and sometimes we can take our sweet time. I can decide from a restaurant menu pretty quickly, but lately it seems I stew unendingly over where to put the smallest things in my new office.

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 the thousands of seemingly small, plus a few momentous, decisions confronting us at those times.

To compound the problem further, every indecision is also 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 on my file cabinet. Empty boxes stacked in my garage. The “miscellaneous drawer” in my old kitchen. The “junk room” I helped to clear at a friend’s house last weekend. Or, in the case of a few people I have met recently, a panoply of investment and bank accounts scattered across several financial institutions. With a finite amount of mental energy at hand, who can blame any of us for having a to-be-decided pile/stack/assortment of some shape and size hanging over us all the time?

What to do about it? It’s probably best for me not to make complete elimination of indecisions my end goal, but rather to automate them, delegate them, calendar them, or, failing those three, get help with them.

Asking for help with decisions which I am perfectly, rationally capable of making is not something I would have entertained in the past. Recently, however, I had significant success with hiring a friend to help me organize my office. At the same time, I had my 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.)

And there is a spiraling effect – the fewer decisions I have left to make, the more I know my contingency plan is covered, the more time I feel I have to do what I do best – create, advise, and contemplate issues that help others. This is far better than a daily slog through the indecision-infused mud.

At this point, I feel ready to give back what I got. Someone close to me was recently suddenly widowed, and lost her mother, within a three month period. She has an overwhelming number of decisions to make about seemingly small stuff, and is in a grief-stricken state to be doing so. I feel I have capacity to help her, when she is ready. I could not have made that statement a couple of months ago.

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

Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® runs an hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice virtually from her Tampa Bay, Florida office. She also works with clients throughout the U.S. (except Texas) interested in retirement and tax planning advice without product sales or investment management. Holly 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."

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