Michelle Obama said, “You can't make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.”
The irony of this statement is it's an explanation we take to heart. When we sense uncertainty, we hold back from deciding. We expect more information will appear and give us the confidence to choose. We want the certainty of knowing the choice we’re about to make is the right one. Time will clear the mist, like the heater blowing warm air on the car window.
Except it won’t.
Michelle is still right, but what you can’t do is let the fear and an unknown future stop you from deciding. What happens when you do not make a decision is other forces get the chance to decide for you. It is this unspoken element that much of this article will focus on.
Quite simply, there is so much advice on how to make decisions. This website shares many of the lessons on decision-making I’ve learnt in my life. You see we are quick to focus on the upsides of a decision. We like to feel like we’re in control and being decisive is one way to gain control.
Bizarrely, not deciding, is, itself a decision.
We forget this truth because it makes us uncomfortable. The loss of control fades from our minds as we internally argue time will bring the information we need to act decisively. Life offers us a series of trade-offs, and waiting to decide is no different. So before we look to understand the dangers of not deciding, we first need to see why decisions get left unmade.
What are you Waiting For?
Here’s the crucial thing about waiting: it never brings more clarity.
It is the point we conveniently overlook when we don’t decide. Of course, it is the most common reason we give for not deciding. Waiting often gives you less information, not more. Certainties change. Nothing stays the same. The facts will evolve with time. The fluidity of life and the complex interactions it creates is a point we struggle to grasp.
The certainty we crave can’t be found by waiting.
There is another factor which puts our decision-making on hold. It is the desire to be right for the sake of being right. These are known as value-based decisions. It means we don’t seek an outcome, instead, we make a decision to uphold a perception or belief.
A simple example comes in a disagreement over directions. “We’re lost”, “No we’re not”, goes the argument. The one who declares that you’re not lost won’t budge on checking your location, because he can’t be wrong.
The journey becomes a means to validate whether you’re lost or not. It is another example of why decisions end up being left unmade.
Similarly, we forget about the upsides of being wrong.
In recent times, failure and any word associated with it has become seen as negative. The atonement of this belief creates opportunity. Every wrong decision is a step closer to the right decision. Instead, our fear of what failure might lead to stops us from trying. We wait in hope for new information, in the belief it will give us the answers we need. It is the ugliest of ironies.
By not deciding, we leave ourselves open to the unknown.
What Happens When You Don’t Make a Decision
We fool ourselves into thinking life is simple.
Life on planet Earth is highlight complex. We are one of 7 billion people on the planet. Where I live, there are another 277 people within a square kilometre of me. All are going about their daily lives as you and I are. Sometimes their decisions and actions will interact with ours—or even worse, interfere with them. The simplest acts can bring us into collision with people who are fighting to make the right decisions and get the outcomes they want.
The dynamic of us all crafting outcomes we want adds massive complexity to our lives. It is, for this reason, that we have to live with uncertainty.
We can’t know what other people have decided. Consequently, the moment we wait we lose control. We pass the future to someone else to decide. Now, their choices take president. A decision left hanging is exposed to the unknown variables of what others have decided.
The choice of others isn’t the only driver of uncertainty.
Our environment also plays a part. The laws of nature never contrive but are always there. They neither deliberately help nor hinder us. Nature is power beyond us. Shielded by the mask of uncertainty, we take the best guess we can at the influence of wind, rain, sun, and snow. Yes, we have become smarter, but still, we are prone to nature's incredible force.
Equally, nature is one more law creating uncertainty in our lives. It is the randomness that stems from the dominant force of entropy. The universe naturally slides towards disorder.
As James Clear explains:
It is the natural tendency of things to lose order. Left to its own devices, life will always become less structured. Sand castles get washed away. Weeds overtake gardens. Ancient ruins crumble. Cars begin to rust. People gradually age. With enough time, even mountains erode and their precise edges become rounded. The inevitable trend is that things become less organized.
Entropy is also affecting your decisions.
A decision unmade lets entropy in. It is another threat to the outcome you want. This disorder is there to take control away from you. It erodes the pillars of certainty forming the foundation of your choice.
These are the forces ready to decide if you don’t.
What Should Drive Your Decisions?
You might now be realising how dangerous it is to leave a decision unmade.
Nature, the laws of the universe—and everyone else on this planet aren’t just poised to do their thing, they will do their thing. And so should you. But how?
How can ensure you make the decisions you want to make?
There are a few pointers I can offer. The first boils down to the type of decision you’re making.
I often say a decision should:
- Fix existing problems
- Avoid future problems
- Seize future opportunities
It is a critical part of a good decision and should be a question you ask yourself before deciding. Having a clear outcome avoids the pain of the previously mentioned value-based decision. The burden of righteousness is removed when you focus on outcomes. It also saves a lot of misguided effort with little to show at the end.
Of course, focusing on outcomes won’t eradicate indecision.
In order to avoid indecision, we need rules.
Without rules, and with a desire to escape the pending forces I described we decide quickly. Too quickly. We decide with haste believing speed will give us an edge over our competitors. The problem is we make decisions without considering the consequences, which then slows us down. We have to reassess our actions as new information comes to light.
We’re not testing for outcomes, we decide quickly for speed's sake.
There are a few rules we can use to ask questions or enforce action.
Jeff Bezos talks about two-way doors. If you walk through the door, can you walk back out if you don’t like what you find on the other side?
Richard Branson sees his decision as a jury does. Can you remove all reasonable doubt before you decide? Jeff Bezos applies a similar principle he calls the 70% rule. Make a decision with 70% of the information you think you might need.
Each of these can increase the chances of deciding in a timely manner.
What we need is to be decisive.
What we want to avoid is being indecisive. When you find yourself in a position of not making a decision you’re exposing yourself to great risk. The danger is you’re left with an outcome you didn’t want. Of course, the randomness of life also means you might not decide and still get the outcome you wanted.
Luck is what we normally call this good fortune.
Unsurprisingly, luck isn’t something you can rely on. The best way to escape indecision is to decide. It means taking some of the principles I’ve mentioned here and using them to increase the speed at which you decide. What this means is working deliberately to get the balance between being fast, but right rather than being right, but slow.
We don’t want to be slow, but we also want to be right.
Making decisions isn’t easy. Leave a decision too long and you’re passing the choice to either entropy or someone else. The longer a decision isn’t made, the more profound the impact of entropy can be, as we discovered when my step-dad passed away.
That’s the truth of why you need to decide.
Be purposeful, by knowing what you want from the decision. This simple approach cuts away so many bad decisions. It is a lesson everyone should remember. Outcomes deliver progress, which is something a quest for correctness rarely gives.
Don’t fall for the illusion that time will bring you clarity.
The only insight you’ll learn is what happens when you do not decide.
Photo by Erik Odiinon Unsplash