“What do you want to have for dinner?” 

“I don’t know.” 

How many times have we all had that conversation?

Sometimes not knowing what to have for dinner is simply that—not knowing what you feel like eating or being embarrassed that you actually want to eat tacos…again. 

It seems like a silly little thing, but for many people, simply making a decision regarding what to eat or what to wear can be an overwhelming task as pressure to make the right decision—or fear of making a wrong decision—takes over. As you step up the decision ladder, the gravity increases… 

What should I wear for my first day of the new job?

Where should we go on vacation? What flights should we take? What hotels should we stay at? 

Which car should I buy? 

Pretty tame…no enormous long-term repercussions.

Should I accept this job offer?

What college should I go to? What should I major in?

What color should we paint the bedroom? Bathroom? House?

Bigger implications—the wrong decision may come with significant consequences that may cost some money. But nothing that can’t be fixed.

Then there are the biggies…

Should I get [re]married? Is he/she “the one”?

Should we have children?

Should I have [fill in the blank complicated and/or expensive treatment] for a medical condition?

Should we get divorced? 

As a business leader and a parent, I have made—and continue to make—a lot of decisions every day. And it’s been fascinating to watch others make decisions and see the ties between their decision-making skills and their personality and experience. In the book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell talks about analytic versus intuitive decision making. Neither method is right or wrong. It depends on the circumstances. To me, the real problem is the struggle that many people suffer through on their way to making a decision.

Through the years, I have observed all sorts of decision makers, among them… (Note: These are my own categories and observations. If others have used similar terms, that is purely coincidence and my descriptions may be different from theirs.)

Pleasers prefer to let others decide. Is it because they really are being that generous in wanting to defer to the preferences of others? Or is it that they don’t believe that they are worthy of having a choice in a situation? I just edited an article with psychotherapist Dennis Portnoy for future publication about the underlying circumstances that make people pleasers—they often come from difficult environments where they thought that keeping the peace would make everything OK. When it comes to making decisions, pleasers would rather demure than risk creating tension among others who may be affected by the decision.

Bet-hedgers have a fear of missing out on some better option. In modern lingo, that concept is referred to as FOMO (fear of missing out). As it applies to decision making, bet-hedgers may lean toward a decision but have a hard time pulling the trigger because they continue to search and find backups in case something falls through or something better comes along. There’s nothing wrong with having a Plan B. Just don’t let it get in the way of Plan A.

Perfectionists can be paralyzed when it comes to decision making. They are smart…perhaps too smart for their own good. And they are desperately fearful of making a mistake…so fearful that they will stall and spin and reanalyze an issue to death until either someone else makes the decision for them or they are forced to pick an option. Their decision will come with extensive disclaimers and explanations—just in case it’s proved wrong later. Even after the decision is made, perfectionists may continue to muse and worry that they made the wrong decision. 

By-the-seat-of-their-pants people “go for it.” They are not distracted by too many facts or details. Rather, they prefer to go with their gut and simply choose.

Throne-of-experience decision makers generally are older people who synthesize all options and repercussions from assorted angles, both data-driven and emotional. They generally do their research and think through the options. But unlike the bet hedgers or perfectionists, those who decide from the thrown of experience actually come to a quick conclusion. With age and experience come the ability to consolidate information and the confidence to make a choice. 

The good news is that no matter what someone’s innate decision-making profile is and barring any deep emotional challenges, age improves decision-making skills. We have more information in our mental computers to help analyze each situation. We learn to create decision trees, if-then statements, SWOT analyses and myriad other analytic protocols. We have more skills that allow us to adapt if a decision goes awry. And perhaps most important, we see later in life that what we feared when we were young either didn’t happen or didn’t matter.

Dr. Marc Agronin, geriatric psychiatrist at Miami Jewish Health in Florida and author of How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old, has recorded several podcasts with me and been featured in articles in Bottom Line Personal about the gift of wisdom that older people have.

What should you major in in college? The vast majority of adults start out in careers that have nothing to do with their majors. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why schools and parents continue to put so much pressure on choosing the “right” major when they all know perfectly well how little it matters.

What color should you paint your room? In the 25 years we have lived in our house, we have painted our dining room four different colors because several we tried ended up simply being wrong. We repainted. It didn’t matter. 

Should I marry him/her? Honestly…if the decision is that difficult to make, then the answer is probably “no.”

No matter what your decision style, the universal requirement is to make a darn decision. The act of “not deciding” means you will never move forward—and if you think you won’t move backward by making no decision, you will be proved wrong.

From my experience, rarely, if ever, is there a single right perfect decision. There are many good options, and every one of them comes with consequences.

I don’t think it’s either analytics or gut. I think it’s a combination. Do the research. Analyze. Discuss. Get opinions. Meditate—check in with your gut. You probably already have a feeling of what is right for you, and the process of analysis primarily is validating your feelings.

Then decide. Countless articles have been written about the importance of feeling in control of your life and the emotional distress that feeling out of control creates. Not making a decision places you in that victim position. When given the chance to have control over your life and outcome, why would you choose to hand over that power?

It takes courage to decide. It takes courage to change course, no matter if the change is big or small. And it takes courage not to let pride or fear hold you back from charting your path.

Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast,  where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life. 

Related Articles