Updated: Jan 27
Do you have difficulty making decisions? What to have for dinner, how to solve a problem, or what to do with your life – sometimes it can be difficult to decide on things. There is a funny parable of paradox called "Buridan's Ass" that I recently learned from an episode of Big Bang Theory that has been on my mind. A donkey that is hungry and thirsty is placed midway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. Assuming the donkey will go to whatever is closer - the donkey dies of dehydration and starvation since it cannot decide between the hay and the water. The lesson becomes that we must make a choice to avoid being paralyzed in endless doubt.
I recognized that I have been the donkey on more than a few occasions in my life. It’s not as simple as hay or water. There are more than two choices and countless possibilities with unknown consequences if I made the “wrong” choice. My mind considers all possible paths of failure or success and playing the “what if…” game results in overwhelm and resignation. Maybe I just need more time to decide?
The Watch and Wait trap
Delay or procrastinate? It's a familiar strategy when unable to decide the best path - pause until the path becomes clear. Often the path does NOT become clear and you run out of time. If you wait long enough the decision will be made for you. This is not decision-making, you sat your donkey butt down and waited for the wind to blow over the bucket.
Maybe Someone else knows
Asking others for their opinions is a common approach. Opinions may help bring new perspectives, but in the end “they” can never know what is best for you. Reflecting on my life, I made some decisions based on what I thought others wanted. I was a donkey AND a mind-reader! I had GUESSED based upon my assumption of “their” expectations of me. Writing this I feel like an ass right now… but thankfully I have learned a better way.
When stuck in analysis paralysis understand that FEAR is the culprit. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of judgement. Fear of __________ (fill in the blank)! What if you could think through the situation and define your fear so you can overcome it? Enter Stoicism, the famous philosopher Seneca said, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” It is your IMAGINED fear that is getting you stuck.
See the Future Big Picture
Tim Ferriss, a famous entrepreneur, brought Stoic philosophy to the world’s attention several years ago applying the Stoic principle “premeditatio malorum” which translated means the premeditation of the evils ahead. Define what you are really afraid of and reframe the situation so you can decide the best course of action.
See the Fear Setting worksheet to start defining your fears, the potential negative or positive
consequences of actions, and the costs of NOT taking action.
I have used this fear setting exercise many times. Once I get all the fears and consequences in front of me, I am able to think of the big picture and make the right decision for me. Understanding my fears has been instrumental in helping me stay on the path meant for my life. Next time you are stuck, remember the donkey – you must make a choice. Armed with self-awareness, you will know what to do.