Overcoming Indecision

December 29th, 2008 by Steve Pavlina

Let’s consider a couple different scenarios you’ll encounter on your lifelong path of personal growth: linear growth and growth forks. This article will mainly focus on how to overcome the indecision you may face at a tricky growth fork.

Linear Growth

Linear growth is when you can see the next steps ahead of you fairly clearly. Figuring out where you should go next isn’t that hard. Implementation is the biggest challenge here. This doesn’t necessarily mean you can see ten steps ahead, but the next step in front of you is at least visible. Once you complete that step, the next step will soon present itself.

An example of linear growth is my long-term path of improving my diet. I started on a variation of the SAD diet, and gradually progressed to vegetarianism, veganism, and raw foodism. There was some exploration along the way of course, but most of the time I had a pretty clear idea of the “next level” I wanted to reach.

There were two independent lines of development here, but they basically pointed in the same direction. The first line was shifting from animal-based foods to plant-based foods. First I eliminated all animal flesh, and later I dropped eggs and dairy products. I’ve been eating a 100% plant-based diet for about 12 years now.

The second line of development was to graduate from processed to unprocessed foods. I progressively dropped manufactured and cooked foods and began eating closer to nature (i.e. fresh, raw whole foods). Cooking does increase the bioavailability of a few nutrients, but that can’t compensate for the hundreds of other nutrients it simultaneously destroys; on the whole cooking is nutritionally devastating to food.

Linear growth is wonderful. When you can clearly see the next steps ahead of you, you can focus on making changes instead of second-guessing your decisions. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy, but at least you can see where you’re headed.

It’s important to recognize when you’re on a linear growth track in some area of your life. Often when we’re on a linear path that’s very challenging, we’ll have a tendency to second-guess our decisions. “There must be an easier way,” we proclaim. But when we rehash the decision, we keep coming up with the same answer. We’re on the right path; it’s just a very challenging path. This is good for us though because these are the paths that push us to build focus, self-discipline, and a strong work ethic.

If you think that if a path is too hard, it must automatically be the wrong path, you’re buying into weak-mindedness and turning your back on truth. Training yourself to lift heavier weights makes you stronger. Avoiding heavy weights only makes you weaker.

Growth Forks

A growth fork is when you see two or more mutually exclusive paths ahead of you, and it’s tricky to decide which path to take. Your challenge here lies in choosing the “correct” path. Implementing your decision may still be hard, but the up-front decision is the major limiting step.

Should you attend college or start your own business? Should you marry your current relationship partner or break up and go your separate ways? Should you move to Los Angeles or New York City?

Should you choose Option A or Option B? What’s the right choice? How do you decide?

Growth forks can be very frustrating. The problem with a tricky growth fork is that it can cause your growth to stall, sometimes for years.

I’ve faced some very difficult growth forks in my life. Some of them absorbed hundreds of hours trying to figure out the correct decision, and I still felt unsure about what to do.

You can seriously wrack your brain trying to figure out the best choice. You can use different diagnostic and analytical tools to help you decide. You can ask other people for advice. You can consult with your intuition. Sometimes this helps, but in many cases the more you try to analyze the situation, the more you feed your ambivalence.

One way to visualize a growth fork is to imagine two or more alternate timelines stretching into the future, one timeline for each possible branch leading away from your decision point. Once you make the decision, you lock yourself in to a certain branch. From that moment onward, you’ll never have the freedom to experience the other branches, at least not in the same way you can now.

Indecision at Growth Forks

One reason it’s so easy to get stuck at a growth fork is that the pre-fork position offers the illusion of greater freedom than any of the post-fork decisions. This freedom often feels better than making a commitment to any one path.

For example, suppose you’re married, and you’re also having an affair on the side. Your spouse and your lover find out about each other, and now you’re pressed from both sides to choose one or the other. Many people in this situation will delay making a choice, stringing along both spouse and lover as long as possible. Why? Because the freedom of keeping both possibilities open feels better than the instant loss of either partner. Neither path seems like a clear improvement over the state of perpetual indecision.

Unfortunately, when you stay stuck at a growth fork for too long, you often lose the freedom to make a choice at all. For example, your spouse and lover both get fed up with you and dump you at the same time, so you get nothing. Your freedom to decide has been taken away. The choice has been made for you. Letting fate decide isn’t a good idea because fate often makes crappy choices.

Growth forks needn’t be huge. You may get stuck at a growth fork when faced with the question, “What should I do today?” If you remain stuck in a state of indecision for too long, pretty soon you’ll lose the freedom to decide at all. Perhaps your TV or the Internet will make the decision for you. Such indecision can cause you to waste a large portion of your life, often by letting it slip away one day at a time.

Overcoming Indecision

So how do you overcome the trap of indecision at a growth fork?

Suppose you’re playing a computer role-playing game where you control an avatar in the game world. In this game you have a lot of decisions to make. What character class will you choose? Will you explore Arendia or Algaria? Which quests will you undertake? What guild will you join?

There are a lot of decisions to be made, but few people would consider such decisions paralyzing. Can you imagine someone complaining, “I bought this game three years ago, but I haven’t started playing yet because I just can’t decide what character class I should play. I don’t know what to do!”

Instead most people will just dive in and start playing. They’ll give a little consideration to such decisions, but they’ll decide fairly quickly, perhaps even impulsively. And for the most part, the consequence is that they’ll have fun.

Sure there may be some regrets along the way. “Dammit! I never should have picked up that cursed item!” But most people will just take any setbacks in stride and keep pressing on. As a result their character goes up in levels, and they get to tackle bigger and bigger challenges. When the game gets boring, it can be retired, and the player can move on to something else.

So why do we face situations in real life that can cause us to remain terribly stuck in indecision, but when we’re just playing a game, major in-game decisions are regarded as no big deal?

Consequences

Perhaps the main factor is that in an artificial game world, the consequences of your actions are considered minimal. Regardless of what you decide, you’re not really going to be hurt. No one else is likely to be hurt either. A bad choice affects only your character, but it doesn’t affect your real self. The whole thing is just pretend. No matter what happens to your character, the real you will still be okay.

But in the real world, things are different. Your actions have bigger consequences. People can get hurt. If you screw up, you could be socially ostracized, and that can create serious consequences for you.

It’s understandable to fear such consequences because at one time in human history, if you were socially ostracized by your peers, that could be a major threat to your survival. Getting kicked out of your community for incompetent decision-making might even be a death sentence.

Today, however, the consequences of being socially ostracized aren’t nearly as severe. For example, in the USA most marriages end in divorce. And interestingly, marital satisfaction has been on the rise for decades, keeping in step with the relative ease of getting a divorce. At one time getting a divorce was considered socially unacceptable (and of course still is in some cultures), but now it’s not such a big deal. Even if your divorce messes up the lives of many people, society is robust enough to absorb the impact, and you can still press on and achieve post-divorce happiness.

Of course there are other consequences aside from being socially ostracized. You could really mess up your finances, for instance. That could put a big crimp in your lifestyle plans.

When you apply some sort of analytical process to decision-making, you’re trying to assess and compare the consequences of different possible paths. The path with the best consequence is deemed the correct choice.

Unfortunately, assessing and comparing consequences requires predicting the future. To some degree we can pull this off, but it’s tough to be accurate. Real life will seldom fit our predictions.

So we really have two problems that lead to the state of indecision. First, we consider the consequences of certain real-life decisions to be serious and important. Second, we try to predict which consequences are best. This is how we try to make a decision.

The problem is that this decision-making process often fails. The more you magnify the importance of a decision, the more you’ll paralyze yourself. Eventually external factors will force you down a certain path, and you’ll lose your freedom to decide altogether. By refusing to decide, you get assigned the character class of Peon by default.

An Alternative Decision-Making Process

How can you make a decision if not by comparing future consequences?

This might sound like a subtle distinction, but a different way to make decisions is by comparing immediate present-moment consequences.

What does this mean?

Instead of trying to predict the future to determine the long-term implications of each possible path, drop the whole branching timeline model. Instead of regarding time as a line, consider time as a single fixed point. In other words, assume that only the present moment is real, and nothing beyond that exists.

Your decision point no longer involves the selection of a long-term path. Now it’s merely a state change to your present moment.

As you consider the alternative choices you might make, ask yourself this question: If I were to commit to this choice, how would it affect me right now? What immediate changes would I experience?

Imagine each possible choice as real, as if you’ve already made it. Pay attention to how the choice makes you feel. Does it feel good, or does it feel wrong somehow?

From Growth Forks to Linear Growth

When I use this process, I often find that my growth forks transform into linear growth. The indecision fades away, and I begin to see that the fork itself was merely an illusion. It was a mental construct — a distraction — that my mind created because on some level I didn’t feel ready to face the next logical step on my linear path. Because I thought the step was too big for me to handle, I created the growth fork as a way of putting my progress on pause.

For example, for many years while I was running my game development business, I was stuck at a growth fork. I debated whether I should keep growing my games business or quit that field and build a career in the field of personal development.

I kept trying to decide by predicting the future consequences of each path, but that led to analysis paralysis because I was comparing apples to oranges. It was tough to decide on that basis. Because of the difficulty of changing careers, my mind had a tendency to keep me stuck. Remaining in a state of indecision was actually easier and gave me the illusion of more freedom.

However, when I compacted each alternative to a present-moment decision, considering how each option made me feel in the present moment, the right choice was clear. When I thought about continuing to build my games business, I felt trapped. When I thought about working in the field of personal development, I felt excited. I didn’t need to predict the future. The present-moment difference was clear enough.

This helped me see that deep down, I already knew the right decision. But I was having trouble coming to terms with it, so I created the decision fork to keep myself stuck. Once I saw that the decision fork was a self-created illusion, I realized that I was dealing with a linear growth challenge all along.

Although it might not seem like a linear progression to shift from game development to personal development, it was for me. While running my games business, I began writing articles on the side to help out other game developers. Eventually my articles became more popular than my games. Switching from creating games to creating articles was therefore a semi-logical “graduation” for me. It became clear that I could provide more value through writing articles than I could through producing games.

Since that time, whenever I’ve faced a tricky growth fork, it has eventually revealed itself as a false dichotomy. It was an illusion I created to avoid dealing with a major growth challenge. Sometimes I created growth forks as a way of giving myself permission to pause and gather my strength.

Making the right decision wasn’t the real issue. Deep down I knew the correct decision. I could see the correct path just by focusing on the present-moment effects of each alternative. The challenge was being able to accept the correct path and to stop resisting it.

Is it possible that your own growth forks are merely illusions? Could they simply be delay tactics? Might you already know the correct choice, but you’re having a hard time accepting it?

Can you recognize the pattern that whenever you get stuck at a growth fork, you use the state of indecision as a way of putting your forward progress on pause? Do you see that this is a way you avoid what you know is coming up because you don’t feel ready to deal with the consequences yet? Can you see that making the correct decision isn’t the real issue? Can you see that the real issue is being able to fully accept the path you’re already on?

Even when you’re on a fairly linear path, you may have a tendency to create growth forks as a way of putting your progress on pause. If you don’t feel strong enough to take on the challenges ahead of you, a growth fork is a tempting option. By placing yourself in a state of indecision, you get “credit” for trying, even though your forward progress is halted.

When you face a tricky growth fork and you feel stuck in a state of indecision, pull back for a moment, and reconsider your challenge from a different perspective. Instead of trying to choose the correct path, consider that your task is to fully accept the path that deep down, you’ve already chosen.

Accepting Your Path

Accepting your path can give rise to some interesting emotions. I’d call it a combination of relief, excitement, and surrender. It feels good to leave the state of indecision behind, but it can also feel uncomfortable because now you have to get to work. You can no longer hide behind the excuse of indecision.

The feeling that “Crap… this is gonna be hard! I’m not even sure I can do this…” is perfectly normal. I experience that feeling every time I get past a growth fork. On the one hand, I know the decision is correct. But on the other hand, I don’t feel quite ready for the path ahead. I glance at the level 30 monster down the road, and I’m concerned because my character is only at level 20.

But once you stop asking, “Am I really supposed to tackle that level 30 monster?” and you fully accept that yes, you’re the hero assigned to it, this helps to shift your focus. The indecision evaporates, and you surrender to the path ahead. You realize you’re going to have to build your character beyond level 20, so you can prove a match for that monster.

“I don’t know what to do” is an excuse that really means, “I don’t feel strong enough to take the next step.” In other words, “I don’t know what to do” is pure nonsense. Of course you know what to do. You’re just scared that you won’t be able to handle it.

The funny thing is that if you poured all the energy being wasted on worry and indecision into building your character, the monster ahead would soon be no match for you.

Which path of your growth fork makes you think, “Gosh… I dunno if I can do that. That looks pretty tough. That’s a pretty scary monster”? Is it the entrepreneurial path? The path of improving your diet? The path of marriage? Which path will push your character to progress from level 20 to level 30?

Take heart that other heroes have already defeated that same monster you must face. Others have already reached the level you’re trying to reach. You can train up to their level if you work at it. Your level 30 challenge looks difficult because you’re looking at it through the eyes of a level 20 character, but you don’t have to remain a level 20 character forever.

Drop the excuse of indecision, and start working on level 21 today.


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