Do You Over-Think Small Decisions?

Every week I move certain things from my To Do list over to the next week. I’ve thought about these things many times between Monday and Friday. But come the end of the week, I need to write them down again for next week.


Because I can’t decide.

The Tyranny of Indecision

I ask myself: Will I go to this event? Speak at this conference? Will I fly the day before, and get my sea legs in the new time zone, or leave at the last minute, to spend more of Sunday with my family? Will I take one for the team, or take better care of myself? And on it goes.

Needless to say, moving these questions from week to week is the opposite of the conventional wisdom: touch it once and move on.

Why can’t I – and people who share this affliction – choose decisively? It isn’t simple procrastination. You often have fun procrastinating, watching TV or surfing the web. We suffer while we deliberate.

It stems in part from a perfectionist need to get to the right answer. For the Ruminators like me, it feels wrenching to decide because we might make the wrong call.

Finding a Way Forward

I’m starting to move more efficiently through the morass of making trade-offs. It’s gotten easier as I’ve embraced two basic insights.

1) There is no right answer to questions like this.

That’s why it feels so diabolically difficult to find one. By their very nature, trade-offs have upsides and downsides either way you go.

2) It doesn’t hurt more to decide quickly. It hurts less.

Some part of me has believed that if I think about the choice over and over, then by the time I make it, I’ll have more peace of mind. At least I’ll know I’ve carefully thought it through. But that is dead wrong. Prolonging the process – particularly in cases where the stakes just aren’t that high – makes everything worse, from keeping people waiting for an answer, to the shame I feel every time I write the item down week after week. It turns out there’s a lot less pain to thinking about it once (or twice), deciding, and moving on.

Now I’m on a campaign. It’s called Stop Ruminating. Decide Now. As part of my effort, I wrote a little sign and put it above my desk. It says “do it swiftly and don’t linger.” If you over-think small decisions like I do, maybe you should try it, too.


Erica Ariel Fox is a founding partner at Mobius Executive Leadership, a lecturer in negotiation at Harvard Law School, and a senior adviser to McKinsey Leadership Development. She is the author of Winning from Within: A Breakthrough Method for Leading, Living, and Lasting Change (HarperBusiness, 2013).

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One thought on “Do You Over-Think Small Decisions?

  1. Dan

    “It stems in part from a perfectionist need to get the right answer.” I cringed a little bit when I read that statement. I am constantly moving todo items from week to week to week – sometimes to the point where they just naturally become irrelevant. Then I feel embarrassed as I realize that I traded making a decision for “I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.” I am going to try your idea for a little sign. I think mine will simply say “Do it now!” Thank you!

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