martha beck
Illustration: Ann Cutting
Five minutes into our session, Claire dissolved in tears. "I'm so exhausted from making decisions!" she said. Claire did have a lot on her plate. Her boyfriend, Mike, had proposed to her (she loved him but said he was often impatient, so she wasn't sure he was The One). She was looking for a new home (an apartment, actually, in case things with Mike went south) but hadn't found the perfect place. And she was desperate to quit her boring job but was still in the process of zeroing in on a better one. It all sounded normal until we started discussing time frames. "Impatient" Mike had been waiting almost four years for Claire's answer to his proposal. Claire had been house hunting for three of those years. And her career indecision? Almost a decade old. Claire's exhaustion didn't spring from making decisions; it came from not deciding—from vacillating, fretting, seeking endless advice. In a word, dithering.

Now, most of us dither now and again, but there comes a time, as an old translation of Goethe's Faust has it, when "indecision brings its own delays, and days are lost lamenting over lost days." If you ever find yourself singing this particular sad song, it's time to change course—before you hem and haw your life away.

Opportunity Misers

Claire thought her problem was excessive optimism: "I intend to have the perfect man, home, and career," she explained, "so I can't commit to the wrong thing!" But optimists are relaxed, and Claire was anything but. Her whole life was devoted to obsessively avoiding something economists call opportunity cost. Whenever we choose one course of action, we rule out others. Giving up those other options is the opportunity cost of any decision. Claire couldn't bear the thought of losing any opportunity by making a clear choice. She was an opportunity miser.

Just as money misers hoard their wealth, living as if they were poor even when they're rich, opportunity misers hoard their freedom to choose—and end up becoming prisoners of indecision. Because she was unwilling to limit her future opportunities even slightly, Claire was never able to enjoy the opportunities she had. Yet she felt huge pressure to do so, as she admitted during a couples-coaching session with Mike. "I know I need to step up and make the rational choices," she said.

Ironically, that was exactly what she didn't need to do.

Next: How to break through decision deadlock


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