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.
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?”
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!
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:
- People who believe their decisions are reversible are less happy with the decisions they make than those who make irreversible decisions.
- Reversible decisions lead to less working memory capacity because you’re spending time thinking about the option you didn’t take.
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.
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.
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?