Make A Decision Already: The Dangers of Keeping your Options Open

Little Bit had to make an important decision.

Her Daisy troop scheduled a Saturday trip to the Museum of Life and Science in Durham for a Girl Scout Animal Adventure. Not only would Little Bit hang out with her buddies, she’d also work towards a new patch and enjoy the kid-friendly museum activities. So, we committed to go.

Only 8 days before the outing, she came home from school with one of those little colored envelopes. Sure enough, a classmate had invited her to attend his birthday party for the same morning.

She grinned and told me how excited she was to attend the birthday party.

Well, these things happen.

“You have to make a decision. You can go to the party or you can go to the museum.”

“But I want to do both!”

“They’re at the same time. You have to make a choice.

She chose to go to the museum. I thought that was the end.

Decision Crisis

Of course, that wasn’t the end. The next day, Little Bit waffled as we drove to her troop for a corn maze.

“Maybe I should go to the party.”

“Maybe you should, but you need to make a decision. You can go to the party or you can go to the museum.”

We drove across town to the farm with the corn maze, and Little Bit had a terrific time with her troop getting lost in the stalks, munching on kettle corn and bouncing on inflatables. As we left, she said

“I think I want to go to the museum.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Museum.”

Sunday, we had the same conversation, again concluding with “I want to go to the Museum.” Monday, ditto.

Tuesday came and the troop leaders confirmed attendance and sent details. So of course, Tuesday night, we got “I want to go to the party.”

“Sorry, Honey. It’s too late. You’ve said all week that you chose the museum, so now we are committed to the museum.”

“I WANNA GO TO THE PARTY!” Stomp, Stomp, Stomp, SLAM!

Make a Decision Already: The dangers of keeping your options open

Not Making a Decision

There was a time for making a decision. Unfortunately for Little Bit, that time had already passed.

Of course, if she told us that she really wanted to go to the party earlier, we would have cancelled her spot for the museum and that avenue would have closed instead. Whatever choice she made, the other avenue eventually closed down.

I doubt this will be the last time Little Bit finds herself stuck by her inability to make a decision. I certainly find myself stuck just as often, even if I don’t react in full tantrum mode anymore.

As an adult, I’m probably a little better at weighing my options, a bit more experienced at living with my choices.

But how often have I found myself left with a bad choice because I wanted to leave my options open too long?

Take for instance my first house hunt. I really liked a particular house in a nice cozy neighborhood, but it was just a little further away from work than I wanted. I dithered and didn’t commit, but I kept thinking about that house. A week and a half later when I decided “Yes, I want to buy that one,” it was under contract.

I bought another house, slightly less nice, that was just as much of a commute. It wasn’t a bad choice, but I still think about the house that slipped away.

And how many memberships and subscriptions have I fallen into because I didn’t really make a decision during a trial period? The cost of not making a decision can add up.

The Danger of Keeping Options Open

It’s not unusual to try to get your best result by keeping your options open, particularly on big decisions.

It’s not necessarily the best policy, though. Psychological studies have shown keeping your options open has some problems:

Counter to your inclination, keeping your options open means your less happy and less effective.

Now, not every decision has as high a stakes as whether to go to a birthday party or a kid’s museum for the day. If you decide to go out to dinner and decide to eat tacos instead of pizza at the last minute, no big deal. But there are plenty of decisions with a lot more impact, and where full commitment needs to happen, at least for a while.

Your romantic relationships. Who wants to be with someone who’s always checking other people out?

Your job. You aren’t going to build good professional connections and development if you’re always looking for the next thing and not doing a solid job where you are.

An exercise program. It’s going to take time to get results, and that won’t happen if you get sidetracked on a regular basis.

And no, that doesn’t mean you should stay in a bad relationship or a bad job forever, but you have to follow through, to give yourself a chance to overcome some bumps along the way, before you call it quits.

You have to accept that you’ve made a decision.  

And move on.

What’s Your System?

But what if you’ve accepted that you need to make a decision, and just can’t do it? I mean, chocolate’s awesome. Pretzels are awesome. Chocolate pretzels give you both, so yeah, let’s have those!

Okay, sometimes you don’t have to make a decision. Sometimes you can choose both options. Salty-sweet. Double major. Horror-comedies.

But sometimes you can’t. Then you need to have a strategy to help you….poop or get off the pot.

Do you work through the pros and cons of each decision in a rational and systematic way?

Does your decision-making system include seeking alternate voices for advice and perspective? 

Are you a work-backwards type of person?  Do you think about the implications and the best and worst case scenarios?

Or do you just go with your gut? While some may discount intuition, it can work out just as effective if you are willing to examine WHY you feel you should make one choice or the other. 

Look, there are better and worse ways to make decisions. And even ways to Make Smarter Decisions (with Vickie! Her decision matrix approach is hugely useful.) But ultimately, you have to go with a system that works for you even if it relies more on intuition than not.

Make a Decision Already

However you make a decision, once you know you need to make one, it’s probably a good idea to set a timeline or deadline for making it. 

So first, know how long you have until you have to make the decision. You may not have as many options when you need to make your decision immediately.

Your deadline is already here? You might need to depend on your snap judgement..

You have a couple of months? Then you have time to get more information, explore the ramifications of your decisions, and maybe ask some people for their advice.

But even if you have a while before you make a call, it can be better to make your decision and commit. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time and effort  second-guessing the option you pick instead of anticipating and maximizing the rewards of your choice.

The Fallout

Little Bit had a terrific time at the museum. And how could she not? She got to pet a snake and a salamander, hang out with her scouting buddies and play in the Triangle’s best tree house.

Little Bit enjoys the museum

Little Bit enjoys the museum

On Monday, though, she started talking about the birthday party she’d missed instead of the museum excursion she enjoyed. “Everyone else went to the party,” she told me on the way home from school.

I’m still not sure that she recognizes that the museum was her choice. And we’ll work on that, because the prospect of what she didn’t do robbed her of a bit of the value of the good experience she had.

Don’t let that happen to you.

Make your decisions and move on.

How do you teach kids to make decisions? How do you make decisions yourself? When do you find yourself getting stuck between two or more options?



24 thoughts on “Make A Decision Already: The Dangers of Keeping your Options Open

    • Some regrets are hard to avoid, particularly as our life experiences (and corresponding mistakes) increase. For me, the biggest takeaway is to not let what you didn’t do rob you of the joy of what you have or the possibilities you are creating, while still being aware enough to learn and adjust from your experience.

  1. SO true. Indecision can cause so much trouble, and I find for us it is often rooted in fear; fear of missing out, of regretting and wishing you made the other choice, etc. We just have to make our decisions based on the info we have at the time, and jump.

    • Yep. I think it’s healthy to recognize “I made a mistake”, learn and adjust. But constantly second-guessing yourself is draining and can keep you from being successful.

  2. Oh the joys of parenthood. We haven’t reached the age where they can make their own decisions yet, so it is interesting to hear what we have to look forward to!

    I understand the psychology behind keeping my options open, but for big decisions it is always nice to have some optionality. That doesn’t mean my decision making process isn’t as thorough to begin with, I still want to make sure it is the right choice. But I enjoy having the flexibility down the road.

    Thanks for the post!
    The Green Swan recently posted…Minimalism: The Urge to PurgeMy Profile

    • I think it’s a balancing act, JW, and not every decision needs to be forever. In a world of so many choices, though, it’s good not to have to make too many of them more than once.

  3. I think FOMO is something we all have from time to time, making decisions all that more difficult. As an adult, it’s easier for me to make a decision if I set a deadline for myself. Unless I absolutely have to, I never make spur of the moment decisions – those almost always come back to bite me. After weighing my options (and gathering info), I have to say, it’s almost always my gut feeling that guides me.

    My kids are pretty changeable, even as teens. They’re both trying to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives. It’s funny how they think they have to make that all important decision and that’s simply the path their life will take. I’ve told them over and over, life will change, there will be more options and you can change your mind later. I don’t want them to box themselves into one path if they later feel compelled to do something else.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Confessions of a Personal Finance BloggerMy Profile

    • There are some decisions that take some time to whittle down. Where to go to college, what to major in, what to do for the rest of your life, who to spend your life with. Just deciding “Not That One.” can be enough of a step for certain journeys. And it can take a while for kids to know themselves well enough and gather enough information for the big things (if not the decision of what to do on a given Saturday morning.)

  4. Great article. I believe the part about being less happy. I found the idea that you reduce memory very intriguing and it makes sense. You can only store so much and if you use space to re-decision…makes perfect sense!

    • Thanks Julie! yeah, the redecision, second-guessing aspect takes a lot of extra resources. While you want to learn from experiences and adjust for better results, you don’t want to spin your wheels and not make progress.

  5. I used to worry about regretting my choices but finally started to learn that if I just fully enjoyed the thing I did choose, I wouldn’t give the not-selected path much thought. Occasionally I might reflect on the path but after enough life experience, it’s easier to accept that you can never do it all, all at the same time, and if you did, you’d likely get very little enjoyment out of any of it. This is what happens when I try to visit too many family and friends in the same short time period!
    Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life recently posted…Just a little (link) love: Hamilton Mixtape editionMy Profile

    • Your last statement makes me think of how we spend Christmas day, running from place to place to place. On the one hand, it’s exhausting and I wish we could slow down and enjoy. On the other….our folks are older and three celebrations won’t be an option someday.

      But no, you can’t do it all. Our attempts to do it all are one reason so many people feel tired and stressed all the time, particularly women. Making choices, saying no is a defense mechanism a lot of people seem to have forgotten, and most of us need to refine our skills at self-care.

  6. Something else to consider is the effect our decisions have on others. If we make plans with a friend and then cancel, that friend has missed out on scheduling something else and we’re a bad friend. Of course emergencies arise, but they should be the exception rather than the rule. No one likes knowing that they’re being blown off for something better.
    Once a commitment is made, it should be kept.
    ChooseBetterLife recently posted…Southwest Airlines Mega Points & Companion PassMy Profile

    • Yes. I grew up with a brother who had no qualms about standing me up when I tried to make plans with him, and it was intensely frustrating. I’m an honor my commitments type person. (and in fairness, looking back, he often needs space, but it’s taken him a while to realize that it works better if he mentions that.)

      And, I think I missed that opportunity to discuss honoring commitments with Little Bit in a more explicit way. At 6, she doesn’t get to make many, and she had made one. We’ll need to work on that as she gets older.

  7. I’m usually pretty good with either/or decisions and making them in a timely fashion. It’s the ones that require research that trip me up. Sometimes I have to limit my choices or research time in order to poop or get off the pot. Studies also have shown that you enjoy something less if you’ve belabored over it too long.

    Then, of course, there’s Obamacare. Mr Groovy’s going to write about it. We had an either/or joint decision to make but we were not initially in agreement about the choice.
    Mrs Groovy recently posted…The Burden of GiftsMy Profile

    • If I don’t set a deadline, then i can be really bad about not making the decisions. And I’m much happier after my decisions are made.

      Jon and I have mostly been on board with the same ACA decisions, but gosh, it would be tough if we weren’t. And with the future of the program looking grim, I think it may be harder to come to a consensus in the future than it has been with Obamacare, where we were looking at a limited choice of plans.

    • Good luck on your decisions, Christina. Career decisions can be difficult, particularly if you don’t have a deadline pushing you.

  8. Great post and thanks for the shout out! You make some awesome points here about what keeping options open can do. I especially like the job one! It’s hard to commit and do your best work when you are so busy trying to find something else to do. I had to deal with that as a supervisor with one employee – and it was clear their mind was elsewhere. Decision fatigue is a huge issue as is “optimizing” vs. “satisficing” (waiting for the “best” vs. a choice that is “good enough”). Having clear goals can prevent a lot of time and energy drain – but it’s hard work “up front” to get those clarified. Lots of reflection too!
    Vicki@Make Smarter Decisions recently posted…Should We Stay or Should We Go? A Reader’s Relocation Decision – Pt. 1My Profile

    • Glad i could share your awesome blog, Vicki. Making decisions is much easier when you know your goals and have already prioritized them, but sometimes I don’t do that as well as I might.

  9. What a thoughtful post! ” the prospect of what she didn’t do robbed her of a bit of the value of the good experience she had.” That happens with regret about bad choices too – like all of the choices involved in years of bad financial management for example . . . Even then, while it’s good to recognize choices as unwise, there is a real problem with staying in that place of regret. I’m sure your daughter’s “regret” about her decision will waver (she won’t feel it when she’s with her troop) until it’s gone. You’ve coached her through a great life lesson.
    Fruclassity (Ruth) recently posted…The “Gift” of Former Debtors Speaking About Debt-ReductionMy Profile

    • I have a problem with staying in that place of regret, and I hope that by getting Little Bit set I can free her from that problem early. thanks for your kind words, Ruth.

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