5 ways to make better decisions

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
A foursquare grid with the colors red, yellow, green, and blue seen from above with adult and child's feet

Have I told you about my email problems?

I’m really, truly terrible at email. My inbox is a swirl of important and trivial messages, all tangled up together. I manage to respond to unimportant things within minutes, while important messages, if not tackled quickly, drift deeper and deeper down the list, often waiting weeks or months for a proper response.

I used to think this was an organizational problem. I’ve tried lots of different systems over the years. I’ve grouped similar types of emails in folders so I can respond to them at the same time. But folders just exacerbated my out-of-sight, out-of-mind tendency. I’ve tried adopting stock responses to be able to reply to common messages more quickly, and this does save some time, though not as much as I’d expect. I’ve tried prioritized inboxes that automatically sort important messages from newsletters and ads. This helps a little, but I often find that I just mark everything unread as a way to remind myself to deal with it later. I’m very good at working around the systems I create, inviting email entropy into even the most well-conceived structure.

The thing is, I’m an exceptionally well-organized human (not bragging, it’s just one of my strengths). So it’s weird that all my organizational efforts seem to fail in this one arena. I remained frustrated by this until a few years ago when I worked with a leadership coach who helped me see the real source of my email problems. It turns out I don’t actually have an organizational problem. I have a decision-making problem.

When we look at email we see a large quantity of communication that needs to be processed and sorted. But if we zoom in, what we notice is that each email contains a decision — sometimes multiple decisions — that need to be made before we can respond to the message. Do I have time to go on this podcast? Do I want to take on this project? When can I fit in this meeting? Which design am I going to go with?

If I can’t make a decision, I can’t respond to the email, no matter how good my organizational system is. So I mark it unread to think about later. I procrastinate the decision-making, often feeling very guilty in the process.

When it comes to email, I’ve learned to let this go. There are a lot of things I care about in life, and being a fast email responder is just not one of them. But it isn’t just email where I struggle with indecision. Whether it’s choosing a fabric for my bedroom shades or choosing which book to read next or deciding how to spend that golden two-hour period when my son is napping on the weekends, I often find it hard to make decisions.

Years ago, my coach pointed out that the root of the word decide is the same as in homicide or pesticide. -cide connotes something that kills. When you decide, you embrace one direction while simultaneously killing off other possibilities. One idea gets to live, while the others sleep with the fishes, so to speak.

No wonder decision-making is so hard, especially for those of us with rich imaginative lives who can see so many possibilities. Decisions limit us. Sometimes it feels easier to live with our myriad fantasies, rather than have to say goodbye to any one of them.

But the flip side of this is that our real life languishes. I was reminded of this recently when I started reading Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Burkeman’s central idea is that human life is defined by the scarcity of time. We simply don’t have enough time to do all of the things we want to do in life. But once we get past the sadness of this, accepting these limits gives all our choices more meaning. It’s the very fact that we can’t do everything that makes the choice to do something significant. Deciding is not just killing off other options, but investing a piece of yourself in the one you’ve picked.

When we’re floating in indecision, doing nothing can feel like the safest option. After all, it keeps all the options alive for the moment. But by keeping all the possibilities alive in the ether, our one and only real life ends up getting short shrift.

A tangible example of this is the dreaded undecorated room. I asked recently on Instagram if anyone had a room in their home that was undecorated or a hodgepodge of random things because they were having trouble making decisions about it. 82 percent of people said yes.

This isn’t a frivolous question of curtains or pillows. It’s about whether we’re using our space to support our lives, or not. Undecorated rooms can be sources of guilt or shame. Like the emails I keep marking unread in my inbox, they often get avoided, becoming dumps for clutter that piles up until it becomes unmanageable. Spare rooms are often especially vulnerable to this problem, because they could be so many things: an exercise room, guest room, extra home office, a craft space, or something else. While we wait to feel certain about what to do with them, they end up being nothing.

Our space shapes our lives. If we have a place to craft, we’re more likely to craft. If we have an inviting place to work out, even if it’s just a tidy corner of the bedroom with some free weights in a beautiful basket, we’re more likely to do it. If our living room feels like a corporate apartment, we probably won’t spend much time there, and we won’t feel particularly great when we do. But if we have a living room that is cozy and inviting, we’ll gather and rest there with the people we love. One of the most common pieces of feedback I hear from Design a Joyful Home students is that they spend more time in a room after they go through the process of defining and decorating it.

The tangibility of physical space bring the “killing off possibilities” part of decorating into sharp focus. A desk can’t be both midcentury modern and French country at the same time. A wall can either be blue or pink, not both — unless you’re aiming for stripes. If you put a guest bed in, you might not have room for the craft table. All along the way you have to make decisions, and that’s what makes it hard.

But to Burkeman’s point, it’s also what gives the design meaning. Choosing the guest bed means you’re investing in inviting people into your home at this point in your life. What a beautiful choice. Instead of having an awkward hodgepodge room that does nothing well, you’ve created a space for memories — both yours, and your guests’. Yes, possibilities were closed down to make that happen, but what new possibilities emerge from the commitment to that one direction? Perhaps they involve delicious meals cooked by your guests as a thank you for your vibrant hospitality. Perhaps they involve adventures to visit these friends when they invite you for a visit to return the favor. Decisions close down some possibilities, but they also open up new ones.

The point is, when we’re deciding, we often think about what we’re giving up. We pick the blue wallpaper and think about how we wish we could’ve had the green too. But once we choose, we often find ourselves becoming more attached to what we’ve chosen. It’s our blue wallpaper now, it has experiences and memories attached to it. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s part of our story.

One of the reasons people tell me they struggle to make decisions is fear of making a mistake. When it comes to decor, those mistakes have costs attached to them, and if you can’t afford to fix it, you might end up having to live with something you don’t like. But the thing we forget to factor in is that not making a decision also has costs.

After all, not making a decision is its own kind of decision: a choice to avoid and postpone, rather than commit to the present moment. Author Gretchen Rubin calls this state drifting, and notes that it can wreak havoc on a life by making us feel passively carried along or stuck in a situation we never intended to be in. We may feel like we’re stuck in someone else’s life or have escapist fantasies. (For more signs of drifting, you can take her “Drift Quiz” here.)

When I look back at my regrets, it’s rarely the intentional choices that I wish I could do over. It’s the times I lived in suspended animation, putting off a decision until eventually it was made for me. For example, I have a lot of regrets about breakups where I knew the relationship wasn’t great, but I just let things go on until the whole situation imploded. Everyone ended up hurt, and the whole process dragged on when we could’ve been healing and finding a better fit. On the flip side, when I took matters into my own hands and decided to end a relationship that clearly wasn’t working, I felt much better about the outcome. I felt like I had agency, and being single was a choice, not an accident.

So if you want to get out of indecision, how do you actually do it? How do you shed some of that uncertainty so you can feel confident committing to a direction?

Here are a few small steps that help me move out of limbo toward clarity.

Ask a question

Often indecision is a manifestation of a lack of information. Maybe you don’t know enough to make a good decision, but you’ve resisted seeking out the answers because it allows you to avoid committing.

Asking a question puts you in the mode of explorer or investigator, which opens you up to really considering the possibilities. Here are some questions that might be helpful:

  • What do I need to know to move forward?
  • What could I do in this situation? (This is a great question if you haven’t fully allowed yourself to consider all the options.)
  • What could I do to try out the different possibilities? (For example, if it’s a home design question you’re uncertain about, you might get swatches or make a floor plan. If it’s a career change, maybe you could make a financial model or a budget.)
Ingrid holding an array of blue paint swatches against a background of blue and white printed wallpaper

Break it down

If a decision feels big or overwhelming, this is your go-to move. While it might seem like you have to make one huge decision, often it’s a collection of much smaller decisions. And each decision you make helps constrain options so that the follow-on decisions get easier.

For example, if you’re thinking about changing careers, that feels like an enormous decision. How do you even begin to figure it out? Well, one thing you could ask yourself is, “Do I want to be doing this job a year from now?” If the answer is no, then great! You’ve made a decision. You now have a year to figure out how to transition into a new career. Now you have a reasonable deadline that can help you structure your next steps, which start with deciding to research potential careers that would be a better fit.

Similarly, decorating a room feels overwhelming, so break it down into a series of micro-decisions: layout, paint color or wallpaper, art, lighting, etc. I always start with the thing that I’m most excited about, because that’s the decision I’m least likely to regret. In my office, for example, I knew I wanted blue trim, so I sought out paint colors, narrowing down to three. This limited my wallpaper options significantly, which made that choice easier. With those two elements in place, my endless sea of possibilities was narrowed down to a manageable array. (Now if only life would give me enough time to finish the space so that I could show you the finished design!)

Indulge in fantasy

Sometimes we’re stuck because we can’t get a clear picture in our heads of the outcome. What would it look or feel like if we made these changes? When this happens, often it’s because we’ve skipped an important step: fantasy.

Fantasy is often dismissed as indulgent or frivolous, so we skip it in favor of a sensible pros and cons list. But fantasy is an important step in decision-making because it tunes us in to our desires. (More on figuring out what you really want here.) Making a decision isn’t just a question of picking the “best” option. It’s about feeling into the possibilities, and allowing yourself to imagine what it might be like to live in each of them. To do that, we need to let ourselves dream.

Another reason we hold back from dreaming is that we fear letting ourselves imagine a happy outcome, as if we’re going to jinx it or be disappointed if our fantasy doesn’t come true. Or we worry that we may disappoint others if we choose what we really want, so we shut down dreaming so that we don’t have to feel pulled between our own desires and those of our loved ones. Fantasy may feel risky, but it’s vital to feeling out the emotional consequences of our decisions.

If dreaming feels challenging to you, try writing down your fantasies in a journal or other safe place. Imagine the best possible outcome of your current dilemma. Imagine what it would be like if you could make the decision in secret, with no judgment from anyone you know. Picture what you’d be doing and how it would feel. Then use that feeling to help inform your decision.

Feel for the flutter

When rational decision-making fails, another approach that helps me is to “feel for the flutter.” The flutter is that quickening of the pulse, the physiological response we have when we’re moving toward something that excites or delights us. It’s not a big reaction, so it’s easy to miss if we’re not looking for it. But once you know it’s there, it’s an easy way to connect with your intuition and feel more certain when you’re making decisions.

I always use this when choosing paint colors or art or anything decor-related. After all, the whole point is to choose things that bring me joy. The flutter is a reliable indicator of things that will make me feel alive. While we often think that reason will help us make smart decisions, in fact research shows that it’s our emotions that help us understand the consequences of a choice. If we don’t allow ourselves to really feel the implications of our decisions, it can leave us frozen, unable to act.

Conversely, I’ve also learned to notice the flutter’s opposite: dread. If thinking about a project or a design choice triggers feelings of avoidance, I know it’s not the right choice.

Clarify your why

Sometimes we struggle to make decisions because we aren’t really clear on why we’re making the decision in the first place. This is especially true of decorating decisions, which can feel superficial when considered in isolation. Why choose a round dining table or a square one? Why bother getting a new dining table at all?

If you take the question at face value, it might feel trivial and unimportant. So you procrastinate making the decision because it’s not that important anyway. Get below the surface, though, and you might find that it’s tied to much deeper needs and values. But how do you surface those deeper issues?

One technique from the world of design is called “the 5 whys.” In this approach, you keep asking why until you get to those deeper reasons. So you might ask, Why do I want to change my dining room? And the answer might be, Because our dining chairs are uncomfortable and our table is kind of ugly.

Why is that important? Because we never end up eating at the table. It becomes a dumping ground for clutter and we end up eating in front of the TV.

Why is that important? Because we miss out on the chance to talk to each other as a family. We’re all going in different directions and we don’t ever have time to pause and be together.

Why is that important? Because we only have a few more years with our kids before they leave home. So this is a chance to make memories together and we’re missing out on them.

We didn’t even have to get five whys in before it’s clear that this isn’t just about dining room furniture. It’s about holding space for being together as a family, and creating memories that will last beyond the day-to-day shuffle.

It’s harder to procrastinate a decision when you know what’s really at stake.

So what’s your deeper why? If you’d like a template for thinking this through, my free tool 3 Questions to Answer Before Making Changes to Your Home makes it easy. Download it for free here.

Lately, it feels like everyone I talk to has some form of decision fatigue. The uncertainty brought about by the pandemic and the general sense of burnout we’re all feeling has exhausted our emotional reserves, and made even small decisions feel overwhelming. If you’ve had a meltdown recently over what to make for dinner or what to watch on Netflix, you know what I’m talking about. But languishing in indecision doesn’t make the problem any easier. I hope these techniques help you find clarity and move forward!

April 9th, 2022

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    Discussion (8 Comments)

  1. Michelle on April 9, 2022

    You described my email problem perfectly! Thinking it was an organizational problem, I created all the folders, then ignored them because they took even more time to deal with. It IS about all the decisions each email represents which are too many to make so I mark them unread to deal with later…until they drift down the page, out of sight. I’m facing some huge decisions right now and have subconsciously been relying on the flutter vs the dread response, but now I want to add the 5 whys to those feelings to understand my needs on a deeper level. Thank you for this.

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on April 9, 2022

      Yes! It’s so common. One problem masquerading as another! Good luck with your big decisions!

      Reply
  2. Karen on April 9, 2022

    I always find your  blog post so insightful, informative,  practical, and well written.
    Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on April 9, 2022

      Thank you so much for the kind words!

      Reply
  3. Amanda on April 10, 2022

    Excellent article! I appreciate the level of detail on the topic and practical application ideas. Thank you so much for this!

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on April 10, 2022

      Thanks so much for the feedback, Amanda! I appreciate the kind feedback.

      Reply
  4. Erica on April 11, 2022

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Ingrid! I want to try to incorporate the “5 Whys” practice into instances where my partner and I are disagreeing on decisions. I’ve noticed recently that in times when we have to make a decision and are arguing about it, we’re often trying to solve for different problems. Once we each have identified what the other is struggling with, it’s much easier to find a solution we’re both happy with, and we both leave the conversation feeling heard and valued by the other. I think the 5 Whys will help us understand each other’s root causes better so we can make decisions more harmoniously 🙂

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on April 11, 2022

      This is a genius application of 5 whys, Erica!

      Reply

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