Overcoming the inertia of indecision

In many areas of endeavor, high certainty is a rare commodity. Of that I am quite certain ….

The stress that goes with coming to decisions can stop people cold, effectively freezing them, their families or entire organizations till one is confident enough to proceed. This angst does not occur in a vacuum; it is the result of past failures and disappointments, complete with the criticism and shame that accompany them. It’s no wonder people wallow in indecision.

But as my manager once quipped (and this is a favorite of mine): “If you can’t make a mistake you can’t make anything.” Thomas Edison, after all, had thousands of “nice tries” on the way to the incandescent light bulb. His story is really one of persistence, not indecision. He was committed to a goal.

I’m writing about those who can’t even get that far. The inertia that can governs people is a dangerous habit that stops lives cold at each and every crossroad.  Over time, it is more dangerous than the mistakes that are so feared.

So it’s vital for someone who’s prone to this to develop steps to avoid it – to actively, progressively and quickly make decisions. Here are some of those steps:

  1. Gather intel – It seems obvious, yet the fear of proceeding even forbids the first clear action to come to a decision – learn about the parameters, procedure and possible outcomes of the different options before you. This can involve reading, searching the internet and most effective: talking with parties who have been there before. How truly bad is it to fail?  How truly great to “succeed”? It’s the testimony of those who’ve been there that can go a long way to encourage the procrastinator.
  2. Use pilots – There is no rule that says you have to commit everything you have to one path or another. A limited trial is an excellent way to test the waters and see how a decision would work if you fully made it. Of course a woman can’t launch a pilot pregnancy, for example. But she can try making the adjustments a pregnancy and parenthood would entail (except for the gestation part) – like taking care of someone’s young child for a weekend.  Of course many decisions are not as final as having a child, but the commitment level should be high.
  3. Fail quickly and cheaply – One of the precepts of the Agile development process is extremely useful in making decisions. This differs from the pilot approach in that the investment can be much higher. But it is the same in the limited time of such a commitment. It is obviously preferable to have a disaster after a month than after two years. Another perspective to this is that a limited time sprint of a project is a vital part of decision making. The truth is, none of us really know what it is going to be like down a certain path until we do it.
  4. Learn – Gathering intel is a first part of this, but formal schooling – even seminars – and learning by doing (see Fail quickly and cheaply) should all contribute to the knowledge of the decision maker. It’s also vital that what is learned is not only tactical truth but strategic principle. A single failure or success should contribute to knowledge and not stand on its own.
  5. Don’t personalize failure or “there is no failure” – Put simply, you must fail. It’s required. What culture does to people who fail is call them failures. Clearly that is extremely destructive thinking if you let it in. So … don’t! Things that didn’t work out are arguably more valuable than things that did. That’s not a “rose colored glasses” statement, it’s data. There are no failures really, just lessons learned. One set of objectives was not achieved, but another set was. Make sure you record the life lesson objectives. You’ll need them later.

There’s no reason to freeze in your tracks when it comes to choosing paths. Usually it’s the shame of past failures that keeps people stuck. No matter what faith (or “none”) you are, I want to share what I do with shame, as demonstrated by Christ:

Hebrews 12:2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God:

Scorn shame – HATE it. Not the people spewing it, but hate its effect on you.

That is a whole other topic, but it’s important to recognize what’s eating at you during points of indecision. And take steps to get out.