Decisions, decisions, decisions. What to do when you’re stuck

Sometimes it’s really hard to make a decision. We all have those moments and some people have more of those moments than others. Some decisions are binary (e.g., I will go, or I won’t go) and others are an ongoing process – best to adapt as we go.

Naturally, we like having choices as this gives us a sense of autonomy, control and satisfaction, but too many choices could lead to anxiety, overthinking (view article on overthinking), sleepless nights and sometimes regret (if the ‘wrong’ choice is made).

The Buridan ass concept illustrates how we can be so stuck on a decision that we fail to take one, to our own detriment. The 14th century French Philosopher, Buridan, described a hypothetical donkey who was equally thirsty and hungry. Standing half-way between a bucket of water and the bale of hay, it couldn’t decide what to do first. It was so stuck on this, that it eventually died of both thirst and hunger. Ultimately, it made the worst decision of all – no decision.

When faced with a dilemma that feels debilitating, there are tools to help us simplify the problem and decide:

Work out real options versus false options

e.g., you can’t decide where to go to university and this is taking up a lot of your time. But you’d be better off putting the decision-making off until you have firm offers. Half or more of the decision might be out of your hands and made for you.

Know the difference between risk and uncertainty

Uncertainty is when we don’t know what the risks are. In life, many decisions are based on uncertainty and we therefore must learn to make decisions with less than satisfactory information. An example would be deciding where to live at university, when you don’t know anything about the other students you’d be sharing with.

Draw up your ideal criteria and then study the options

In other words, work out what you definitely don’t want and then look at the options and see what’s the best choice. You may decide you don’t want to take a course that’s essay-based or a job that requires nightshifts, for instance.

Sunk cost

This is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. It could be financial or emotional. Basically, sometimes it’s best to let go, walk away and move on. You might hope that by continuing, you can gain your costs back but it’s important to be rational and think of the future costs as well as the emotional costs of continuing.

Cost Benefit Analysis

Often used in Economics, cost benefit analysis involves adding up all the benefits of doing something and then comparing these with all the costs of doing it. This is normally financial, but you can apply the same principles to any decision.