Making decisions is often hard, and making good decisions quickly is even harder.
Accordingly, many people struggle when it comes to making big life-alternating decisions, such as which college to go to or what career path to pursue. Furthermore, some people also struggle with other types of decisions, from somewhat important decisions, such as which laptop to buy, to relatively trivial decisions, such as what to eat for lunch.
In addition, some people do manage to make decisions, but struggle when it comes to making decisions that are good for them, or when it comes to making good decisions in a timely manner. This can be either an issue for them in general, or something that they struggle with when it comes to a specific area of life, such as their finances, their hobbies, or their relationships.
If you’ve ever asked yourself questions such as “why is it so hard for me to make decisions?” or “why do I struggle to make good decisions?” or “why does it take me so long to make decisions?”, this article has the answers. Specifically, you will first learn about the general decision-making process, and then see why it can be so hard to make decisions, so you can understand your thinking better and improve your ability to make decisions.
Why it’s hard to make decisions
The main reason why making decisions can be hard is that each decision requires us to undergo a decision-making process that is often difficult and complex, and struggling with any steps in it can interfere with the entire process. Accordingly, people often struggle to complete the decision-making process, and even when they manage to complete it, it’s often in a way that’s either slow or faulty.
Specifically, to make good decisions, we generally need to do the following, whether we’re aware of it or not:
- Identify the decision. This involves recognizing the need for us to make a decision, and identifying (roughly) what the decision will entail.
- Determine your goals. This involves figuring out what we’re hoping to achieve with the decision and how important each goal is to us.
- Gather information. This involves collecting the information that we’ll need in order to make a decision.
- Identify options. This involves figuring out which options are available to us.
- Evaluate the options. This involves identifying the pros and cons of the available options, especially as they pertain to our goals.
- Select the preferred option. This involves ranking the different options based on their pros and cons, and choosing the one that’s best for us.
Furthermore, in many cases, we need to go back and forth between the different stages of this decision-making process. For example, after gathering information, we might need to go back and modify our goals, in order to make them more realistic. Similarly, if we evaluate our options and realize that we don’t have enough information in order to make a well-informed decision, we might need to go back and gather more information before moving forward.
Because there is so much that we need to do in order to make good decisions, it’s no surprise that people often struggle to complete the decision-making process, or struggle to complete it in a way that’s quick and correct.
In addition, the decision-making process often involves additional factors that hinder our ability to choose. A notable example of this is the emotional difficulty that we experience when we need to choose only one of several possible options, which means that we have to forego several alternatives that we may find appealing.
This is associated with the concept of FOMO (the fear of missing out), which is a mindset where someone feels anxious about the possibility that they’ll miss out on rewarding experiences or opportunities. This is particularly an issue in cases where people are fearful of future regret, and try hard to make a decision in a way that will allow them to avoid it entirely, even if that’s not possible.
Accordingly, the decision-making process can be inherently demanding, from a cognitive and an emotional perspective. In addition, the act of making a decision is tiring in itself, since it depletes the cognitive resources that we use to exert self-control, which makes it even more difficult for us to make further decisions, at least until we’ve had an opportunity to mentally recharge, a phenomenon known as decision fatigue. Accordingly, the number of times we’ve had to make a decision recently, and the difficulty of making those decisions, can make future decisions harder to make.
Together with the other difficulties involved, this means that the act of making a decision is often perceived as unpleasant, which can cause us to procrastinate and avoid doing it at all.
Finally, there are some additional factors that can make it more difficult for us to make decisions, such as uncertainty and natural indecisiveness. The next two sub-sections explain these phenomena in more detail.
Overall, the main reason why making decisions can be hard, especially if we want to make good decisions quickly, is that we often need to undergo a decision-making process that’s difficult and complex, and struggling with any step in it can interfere with the entire process. Furthermore, there are many additional factors that make it difficult for us to make decisions, such as the fear of missing out, the desire to minimize regret, and the general cognitive demands of the decision-making process.
Note: being unable to make a decision is a phenomenon that’s often referred to as analysis paralysis or choice paralysis.
Factors that make it harder to choose
“The existence of multiple alternatives makes it easy for us to imagine alternatives that don’t exist—alternatives that combine the attractive features of the ones that do exist. And to the extent that we engage our imaginations in this way, we will be even less satisfied with the alternative we end up choosing. So… a greater variety of choices actually makes us feel worse.”
— From “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz
Though decision-making can be hard in general, certain factors can make it harder for us to choose. These include, most notably, the following:
- Complexity. Generally, the more complex a certain decision is, the harder it is to choose. A common reason for added complexity in decision-making is that there is a large number of options to choose from, a phenomenon known as choice overload or overchoice.
- Uncertainty. Generally, the more uncertainty is involved with a decision, the harder it is to choose. A common form of uncertainty in decision-making is not knowing what possible outcomes your different options can lead to.
- Consequences. Generally, the more serious the consequences are for a certain decision, the harder it is to choose. A common serious consequence in decision-making is missing out on a unique opportunity by choosing to follow an alternative path.
There is a lot of variation at play when it comes to these factors. For example, one person might be much more willing to accept uncertainty than another, or they might be more willing to accept uncertainty in one area of their life. This variability itself depends on a variety of factors, such as a person’s past experiences with making important decisions, which can influence things such as their self-confidence.
Furthermore, this variability can be partly attributed to the differences in how people perceive these factors. For example, when two similar people are faced with similar levels of uncertainty for a decision, one of them might significantly overestimate the seriousness of that uncertainty, which can cause them to struggle with making a decision.
However, note that people can be indecisive even when none of these issues are at play. For example, someone might be indecisive when it comes to making a simple choice between two available designs, even if there is no uncertainty involved, and even if the consequences of that decision aren’t meaningful.
Overall, common factors that make it harder to make decisions are complexity, uncertainty, and serious consequences, in addition to other factors, such as lack of self-confidence. However, there is substantial variability with regard to the influence of these factors, and people can be indecisive even when none of these factors are at play.
Note: when it comes to how the number of available options influences decision-making, an important concept is Hick’s law, which suggests that there is often a linear increase in decision time based on the logarithm of the number of alternatives.
Naturally indecisive people
Although most people struggle sometimes when it comes to making decisions, some people are inherently more indecisive than others. Indecisive people can struggle even with tiny decisions to a degree that is sometimes pathological, and this can be an issue for them either in general or in specific areas of life.
Certain personality traits are characteristic of indecisive individuals. Most notably, neuroticism, which is the tendency to be is prone to negative emotions and psychological stress, is strongly correlated with indecisiveness, as is perfectionism. In addition, indecisiveness is associated with the tendency to interpret ambiguous situations as threatening, and to engage in worst-case reasoning.
In addition, indecisiveness is associated with procrastination, and particularly with a type of procrastination called decisional procrastination, which involves unnecessarily delaying when it comes to making decisions. This means that indecisive individuals often tend to put off their decisions, and particularly ones that they struggle with.
Why people make bad decisions
Sometimes people’s problem isn’t that they struggle to make decisions in a timely manner, but rather that when they do make decisions, they tend to make bad ones. The main reason why people make bad decisions is that it can be difficult to conduct a proper decision-making process, and so people often end up using a flawed process instead.
Issues can arise in any step of the decision-making process. For example, when it comes to gathering information in a situation where we need to choose between several different colleges that we can go to, we might fail to properly collect all the relevant information that we need about each college, because doing so takes a lot of effort.
In addition, there are various things that can interfere with our decision-making and cause us to make bad decisions. For example, our emotions often get in the way of our decision-making, and cause us to choose badly even when we know that we’re making a mistake.
Similarly, being tired and sleep-deprived can make it more difficult for us to process information, and more likely for us to suffer from various cognitive biases that get in the way of making good decisions. For example, there is the confirmation bias, which causes us to search for, favor, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs. This bias can, for instance, cause us to ignore warning signs about a potential job, because we want to believe that it will be good for us. As one book on the topic states:
“Confirmation bias is probably the single biggest problem in business, because even the most sophisticated people get it wrong. People go out and they’re collecting the data, and they don’t realize they’re cooking the books.”
— From “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (attributed in the book to Dan Lovallo)
Overall, the main reason we make bad decisions is that it can be difficult to conduct a proper decision-making process, and so we often end up using a flawed process instead. In addition, various things can interfere with our decision-making, including emotions, exhaustion, and cognitive biases.
Intuition and decision-making
Intuition often plays a significant role in the decision-making process, where it can either lead us to make bad decisions or help us make good ones. For example, when it comes to leading us to make bad decisions, relying on intuition can mean that we don’t consider relevant information, even though it’s important that we do so. On the other hand, when it comes to helping us make good decisions, intuition can help us deal with large amounts of information quickly, in situations where we would struggle to do the same using our analytical reasoning.
As such, when it comes to your decision-making, using your intuition is not inherently good or bad. Rather, whether it hurts or helps you depends on various factors, such as the circumstances at hand and the way you use your intuition. This means that while you should be willing to use your intuition where necessary, you should assess the situation first, and make sure that using intuition is the best option for you, and that when you do use it, you do so in a proper manner.
Note: because decision-making can deplete the cognitive resources that we need to make further decisions, and because using your intuition is generally less effortful than using analytical reasoning, the act of making decisions can lead us to rely more on our intuition until we’ve had a chance to recharge mentally.
Emotions and decision-making
Our emotions can often cause us to act in an irrational manner and make bad decisions. However, this does not mean that you should ignore your emotions entirely when making decisions, or that emotions necessarily cause us to make bad decisions. Rather, it means that, when making decisions, you should take your emotions into account in a rational manner, without allowing them to prevent you from conducting a proper decision-making process.
For example, when it comes to making a decision about whether to end a romantic relationship, you should certainly take into account emotional considerations, such as how you feel about the other person, since this is a crucial consideration. However, you should not let your feelings for that person cause you to conduct an improper decision-making process, for instance by causing you to ignore serious negative things that this person did to you.
How to get better at making decisions
The key to making optimal decisions is to learn how to conduct a proper decision-making process, while using relevant decision-making techniques and avoiding the common pitfalls of decision-making. For example:
- When it comes to making good decisions, you should account for issues such as cognitive biases that might influence your thinking, and then use debiasing techniques to reduce those biases, such as pretending that you’re giving advice to a friend.
- When it comes to making fast decisions, you can make sure to rely on your intuition when it’s appropriate to do so, limit the amount of information you take in, embrace the concept of good enough, and identify the cost of delaying.
- When it comes to making hard decisions, you can focus on the concrete facts, eliminate weak options, look at secondary factors, and visualize the future outcomes of choosing different options.
More explanations of these techniques, together with other relevant information such as answers to common questions about decision-making, appear in the associated guide on how to make decisions.
Types of indecisiveness
People can be indecisive in different ways, and one study on the topic draws a distinction between two notable types of indecisiveness:
- Exploratory indecisiveness, which involves a long and drawn-out struggle to make decisions, even after all the options have been explored thoroughly.
- Impetuous indecisiveness, which involves quickly making decisions but constantly also changing one’s mind about them.
Indecisiveness vs. indecision
Though indecisiveness and indecision are similar terms and are often used interchangeably, they technically refer to two separate phenomena. Specifically, indecisiveness refers to a chronic general difficulty in making decisions in a variety of contexts, while indecision refers to a temporary difficulty in making a decision in a specific context.
Indecision, in particular, is considered normal, and can be expected when it comes to certain decisions, such as which job to take, though it can nevertheless be beneficial to learn how to deal with it.
Note: other terms, such as vacillation and dithering, are sometimes used to refer to various forms of indecisiveness and indecision.
Decisional styles are common ways in which people make decisions. One commonly used measure of decisional styles includes the following five styles:
- Rational, characterized by “a thorough search for and logical evaluation of alternatives” (e.g. “I make decisions in a logical and systematic way”).
- Intuitive, characterized by “a reliance on hunches and feelings” (e.g. “When I make decisions, I tend to rely on my intuition”).
- Dependent, characterized by “a search for advice and direction from others” (e.g. “I rarely make important decisions without consulting other people”).
- Avoidant, characterized by “attempts to avoid decision making” (e.g. “I avoid making important decisions until the pressure is on”).
- Spontaneous, characterized by “a sense of immediacy and a desire to get through the decision-making process as soon as possible” (e.g. “I generally make snap decisions”).
— From The General Decision‐Making Style (GDMS) inventory (Scott & Bruce, 1995)
In general, some decisional styles are viewed as adaptive, which means that they tend to lead to positive outcomes, while others are viewed as maladaptive, which means that they tend to lead to negative outcomes. These different types of decisional styles are associated with different psychological antecedents. As one paper notes:
“…it is possible to underline irrational belief (as for example, belief that there is a unique possibility of right choice, belief that once a decision is made it cannot be changed), anxiety, fragile self esteem, lack of information. Adaptive decisional styles are favored by better capacity for problem solving and searching for information, high self‐esteem and positive self‐concept, high ability to manage emotions connected to decision‐making process.”
— From “Decisional styles” (Di Fabio & Bucci, 2020)
Summary and conclusions
- It’s normal to experience some indecision, especially when it comes to major decisions, such as which career path to follow, but some people consistently display high levels of indecisiveness, to a point where it significantly hurts them in life.
- A full decision-making process generally involves identifying the decision, determining our goals, gathering information, identifying options, evaluating the options, and selecting the preferred option, whether we’re consciously aware of all those steps or not.
- The main reason why making decisions can be hard, especially if we want to make good decisions quickly, is that we often need to undergo a decision-making process that’s difficult and complex, and struggling with any step in it can interfere with the entire process.
- Other things can also interfere with our ability to make decisions, including uncertainty, cognitive biases, the fear of missing out, and the desire to minimize future regret.
- Intuition and emotions can sometimes cause us to make bad decisions, but they’re not inherently negative, and they can both help us make good decisions in certain situations.
To learn more about how to make decisions better, when it comes to things such as choosing quickly, avoiding mistakes, and minimizing regret, read the associated guide on how to make decisions.