How Indecision Costs You

And what to do before you starve to death

Imagine you are in a room with three closed doors in front of you. You can enter any door, in any order you want, and spend as much time on the other side of it as you want.

Each room has something you find enjoyable to differing degrees. Maybe one has a bubble bath drawn, one leads to a live concert, and one is full of kittens. You’ve only got ten minutes to spend exploring. What would you do?

It’s likely you would check out each room and then go back to your favourite one (the kittens, obviously) to spend more of your limited time there.

I’ve seen this a lot in my work as a user experience designer in my role moderating prototype testing with people using apps. Given a new dashboard menu of options for the first time, many people click the first one, click back, and then yo-yo like this through all of the main level options to see what they can do in each section.

Now imagine that as you spend time in one room, the other doors start to shrink away. If you spend too much time in one room, you won’t be able to get back to the others at all; you’ll end up like Alice peering out of the tiny doorway where she could see the Queen’s gardens, but not access them. Now what do you think you’d do?

To test what people would do in this scenario, Dan Ariely had participants choose between virtual doors that they could click on a computer screen. Within each virtual room, they could further click around and receive payouts for clicking on things that varied in each of the rooms. Some rooms paid out at a higher rate than others.

In the first scenario, where the participant could come and go in any door as often as they wanted, the person would check each room, identify the highest paying one, and return there to spend the rest of their time working for the higher paying clicks.

But in the second scenario, when the other doors began to fade away, participants jumped back to the fading rooms to keep them as an option. Even after they identified which room paid out more, they flitted from room to room to keep the door in play. The effect held for several variations on the theme, including when there was an added cost penalty to re-enter a fading room and when the researcher told them explicitly which room would pay out the most.

In the end, participants who spent clicks to make sure a door stayed open made less than they would have if they’d picked a room, any room, and stayed put.

What’s going on?

It turns out, people hate to lose out on options. This holds true even if the options aren’t that appealing and even if one option is a clear winner in your eyes.

You’ll take little consolation in an open door if it means the one across the hall is closed to you.

For creators and entrepreneurs who see business ideas or opportunities everywhere, focusing on one thing while putting others aside can feel painful. For me, this behavioural bias to keeping options open has had the single biggest impact on my own career decisions. And I’m still struggling with it, despite understanding how it affects me.

Because like those game participants, who on average made 15% less due to their need to keep the doors open, becoming paralysed by indecision leads to negative results.

The consequences of indecision

An apt metaphor is Sylvia Plath’s fig tree in her novel The Bell Jar. As her protagonist sits under a tree, she imagines each fig as a different path — wife, poet, editor, professor, philosopher, traveler, rowing champion. She can’t possibly pursue them all at once, as she thinks:

“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

The fruit rots, the doors close, while our hero gets nowhere and starves.

Combatting your “predictably irrational” tendency to try to keep all the wobbling plates spinning at the expense of having one, balanced and steady one, Ariely says to consider the consequences of indecision.

The cost of inaction might not lead to actual death. But it can lead to worse outcomes than if you chose something, anything.

Start with closing small doors

Ariely writes about how, counterintuitively, this problem affects you even when you’ve narrowed your options down to two great ones with little difference between them. Two great job offers. Two possible life partners. Two exciting cities to live in.

Pretty sure this photo was meant for this story. Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

He uses a hypothetical donkey to illustrate the point. The hungry donkey is between two stacks of hay and, not being able to decide which one to go for, starves to death while debating which one might be better.

Instead of the decision getting easier, it is actually one of the hardest to make. This is where I live.

Even while understanding this irrational impulse and its drawbacks, I am pursuing two ventures at once: writing and a yoga business. Even within each path, the options are dizzying. Focus online or in person. Corporate or studio. Non-fiction or fiction. Ghostwriting or personal brand.

I want to avoid the negative consequences that will come when I spread myself too thin — that I know will come when I fail to make a goddamn decision.

I’ve made mental excuses for pursuing both options. I can only manage about four hours of deep, quality work on writing in a day. Writing can be isolating work, so pairing it with part-time work that is social and physical is appealing. Yoga has a more clear business model (though that’s not to say it’s easy to make a living at!) compared to the uncertainty of writing and it might make sense to have a short term option while nurturing a longer burn. I’ve sought to cheat the system by making the two options into one, by focusing my writing on themes that are relevant in yoga teaching as well.

Still, I understand that, like those students, I will not be as far along in either path a year from now as I would be if I focused on just the one.

So I’m practicing by closing smaller doors. I experiment with what I try, to gather information on each path that will help to tell me whether I should continue investing or walk away. Within each path, I am finding focus and making progress.

“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.” — Sylvia Plath

Exploring why we do what we do in love and work for those curious to understand more about themselves, others, and the world. More:

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store