When Decision Making Is Agony - The Fear of Getting It Wrong

11/10/2013 09:26 pm 21:26:43 | Updated 23 January 2014

When decisions are agonised over we are haunted by the prospect of regret.

Trying to make a decision in a relationship, job, finance or choosing a location all involve the same problem, the possibility of regret. That ability we have of placing ourselves in the future and looking back on that moment of choice with horror. Then rehearsing the idea of beating ourselves up for being such an idiot. Duh! The fear of making a mistake and living with regret is what haunts the tortured task of making a decision.

So what's to do? Putting our regret filled fears aside for one moment let us chart the sensible starting points for making a decision, familiar to many.

Step One - evaluate the pros and cons

1 Do the homework on the issue, ask questions and take time for thorough detective work, getting as much information as possible. Keep focused on what can be find out without obsessing about the unknowns.

2 Write down the pros and cons, get the thoughts out of the head and onto paper so that they can be seen in black and white. The physical process of writing in itself can clarify things and give some of the points a lesser or greater value. 

3 Do the maths and pick the obvious winner.

In the event of no outright winner there is a wonderful (but annoyingly simple answer). If both paths look equally good then choose either as it doesn't matter.  Both have an equal chance at that moment of bringing good things.  Eeny meany miny mow will suffice, will get the job done, sorted. We naturally have a resistance to this way of thinking. It contradicts our desire to find the perfect answer to things.  Leaving things to chance grates.  We just cannot resist trying to predict the future.

Weighing up the pros and cons however does not always take the agony out of decision making. This is due to our ability to create mountains of regret and to project that regret into the future. We are well trained in regret, that dreamy pastime of thinking back over what might have been. Looking at the way we regret the past gives us some useful clues on how to proceed with a decision about the future.

Step Two- realise that our regrets are fictions

Looking back on what might have been is a big fat lie. Just because we can picture a wonderful alternative (to the mess that really happened) does not mean it was a definite alternative to the path we chose, it was one of an infinite number of possibilities. It is a fantasy and a world created solely in our minds. It is not a 'real' alternative. It is not true to think that there were two paths - the rubbish one we took and the wonderful one that we could have chosen. Because that path is a fiction, back then anything could have happened, not just the idealised one we imagine.

Step Three- realise the future is a fiction also - let go of trying to be a clairvoyant

1. We torture ourselves with the superhuman effort of trying to predict the future. We can only use the information that is available now. Don't beat yourself up about the information that is not yet available. Or as Donald Rumsfeld might say, focus on the known unknowns.

2. Don't let the myriad of possibilities cloud our assessment of what we know now. Predictions about the future are not facts and much less useful than the concrete knowledge we have at the moment.

3. We are not mind readers or clairvoyants. Remember that even highly paid city traders are guessing, they only have a model based on current knowledge (while only hoping to be able to predict the future).

Step Four- Mindfulness- the practice of being in the moment

As well as going through the cognitive process of quashing your tendency to regret, Mindfulness practice helps.

Spending some time experiencing the present moment through the senses helps to train the mind to tune into the signals that are happening now. The sounds that you hear in the room and the physical feelings that surface in the body through Mindfulness practise encourages us to trust the information that is available at this time giving less weight to our all too active imaginations.
Mindfulness can help decisiveness. By spending more of our day in the now and by using the resources we actually have to hand, we can come to a quicker and less painful call to action.  Conversely, decisiveness can also prompt the mindful life.  By reducing our tendency to dwell and revue the life that has happened or may never happen, we can get back to the present that bit more easily.