Have You Ever Been Stuck Between Two Options, and Unable to Decide?

I love teaching stories–parables from the Bible, Zen stories, paradoxes, Aesop’s fables, koans. That’s one reason that I now use my weekly video to tell a story.

One such story is the story of “Buridan’s ass.” In it, an ass stands between two identical piles of hay, and unable to find a reason to choose one pile over the other, dies of hunger.

I know this story well, and I was struck by how absolutely perfectly it applies to Geoff Dyer’s description of his struggle to decide what book to write next, as set forth in his fascinating book, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. Dyer writes:

Although I had made up my mind to write a book about Lawrence I had also made up my mind to write a novel, and while the decision to write the book about Lawrence was made later it had not entirely superseded that earlier decision. At first I’d had an overwhelming urge to write both books but these two desires had worn each other down to the point where I had no urge to write either. Writing them both at the same time was inconceivable and so these two equally overwhelming ambitions first wore each other down and then wiped each other out. As soon as I thought about working on the novel I fell to thinking that it would be much more enjoyable to write my study of Lawrence. As soon as I started making notes on Lawrence I realised I was probably sabotaging forever any chance of writing my novel which, more than any other book I had written, had to be written immediately, before another protracted bout of labour came between me and the idea of what I perceived as a rambling, sub-Bernhardian rant of a novel. It was now or never.  So I went from making notes on Lawrence to mkaing notes for my novel, by which I mean I went from not working on my book about Lawrence to not working on the novel because all of this to-ing and fro-ing and note-taking actually meant that I never did any work on either book.

This description struck a real chord with me. I’ve had that feeling of paralysis when I just couldn’t decide between two options. A very unhappy feeling.

Sidenote: This also reminds me of my Secret of Adulthood: Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

Have you ever been stuck between two choices?

  • jaj

    Yes, two times in the past two years I was torn about whether or not to take a job. What I learned from those experiences mean that it’s best to stick to what you’re already doing if you’re struggling between two options. The indecision often means that the new option is not the right one.

    • Julia

      I’m not sure that’s true, especially when the decision is to change or not change. Sometimes the indecision is caused by fear.

  • http://franklinchen.com/ Franklin Chen

    It’s even worse when there are more than two choices. I find it helpful to decide on one salient criterion (of many possible) to use, deciding to ignore the other criteria.

  • peninith1

    Here is something I recently learned about this sort of ‘which project?’ dilemma (I don’t think it would work for some other types of dilemmas, but it’s good for this kind). As a quilter with a big stash of fabric and a lot of ideas, I have found myself right there, paralyzed about what to begin. Or what PROJECT to work on.

    Then one day I decided to make a list of quilting related tasks: shop for fabric, wash and prep fabric, iron, design, cut out, stitch, do handwork, prepare for machine quilting, and so forth. It turned out that I could look at that list and pick out an ACTIVITY that I would like to do, then go start doing that on one project or another. I was amazed at how much more I got done–because I wasn’t trying to swallow the whole elephant. I just moved around a variety of tasks and stuff magically GOT DONE.

    As a writer, I would think that you could break down tasks in that way–and then just start on activity or task, and one thing or another would just start to engage your gears?

    But I am also a very big fan of a saying: “Do the next right thing.” And then let myself be like a compass . . . somehow my mind always intuitively points to the true north–whether I’ve been dragging my feet or procrastinating about it or not. I confess I have NEVER had dilemmas about ‘which boyfriend?’ or ‘which movie do I want to see?’ If I really open my mind, I always know what’s uppermost. I think if you find yourself constantly in a state of indecision, you have a bigger problem.

    • Julia

      I LOVE this idea. I guess I’ve kind of used it too, at work. Instead of deciding which project to work on, I decide if I’m up to making phone calls, writing reports, running calculations, or designing. Each of these tasks requires my mind to be in a different gear. Sometimes it’s easier to cram 50 phone calls into a day than to try to logically move from task to task within one project. Never really thought about it so clearly, but it makes sense.

      • http://www.facebook.com/feaelin.moilar Iain E. Davis

        Wow. This is a great idea. I have tried making tasklists, but I think
        I still thought about them in terms of “I’ll work on Project X today”
        and work the list for Project X. It hadn’t occurred to me to knock out tasks of the same kind across projects…I’ll have to give it a try. :)

  • Julia

    Analysis Paralysis. A few years ago I wrote those words on a post-it and stuck it on my computer as a reminder of something to avoid. Since then, I’ve gotten good at recognizing my paralysis and doing what I consider a mental flip of a coin. I ask which one, and follow the 1st response that comes to my mind. The trick is to trust yourself. You have to accept that, right or wrong, you’re decision will have consequences. And you have to trust that you will be able to cope with those consequences.
    I used this method to decide whether or not to apply for a job a wasn’t sure I wanted (the decision to take it was a little more sophisticated, though). I used it to decide where to go on vacation this year. I use it quite frequently to decide where to go hiking, or how to spend a Saturday.
    I sometimes spend my weekends being undecided about what to do. The result being that I would give up and watch tv to put off making a decision. You can imagine how fun/productive my weekends are at that point.

    • gretchenrubin

      I love the phrase “analysis paralysis!”

  • http://friendshipsociety.net/ Eric West | Friendship Society

    I once saw a guy in the cafeteria at work try to decide what to have for breakfast. He stood at the counter for a good ten minutes. As he stood he waved people past while he tried to decide what to have. I went on past and placed my order, and then I waited for it to be cooked. The cook finished and I took my plate and left. He was still there trying to decide as I walked away.

    The way I like to handle decisions is by thinking of the worst thing that could happen. In the case of something like breakfast, a bad choice would probably mean slightly less satisfaction with the meal, and that’s not really that big of deal.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wendywittplattus Wendy Witt

    I read my tut.com daily message and then this, back to back, so I thought I’d share…

    For every unexpected bump, turn, or squiggle on the path of life, Wendy,
    you pretty much have two choices:

    Accept it as if you yourself had meticulously planned it and as if you’re being
    watched by 10,000 cheering angels who love you so much, you’re pretty much all
    they ever sing about.

    Or, accept it, kicking and screaming, as if it were some freak accident or
    random mistake that had befallen you by chance.

    I know which I would choose,

    The Universe

  • PeggyK

    When I can’t decide, I just pick one. As soon as I do, the floodgates open and I’m either filled with thoughts of why it was a bad choice or feelings of satisfaction and excitement. If I’m filled with the bad thoughts, I make a different choice.

  • Lisa Francesca

    This post’s timing is perfect for me. I’m dithering about whether to enter edits into my manuscript or work on one income-producing project, while today I have two client interviews for another income-producer. Normally the bottom line is income, but this book is with a publisher, my first chance to become an author! The book is my bottom line, and I wonder why I am putting so much energy elsewhere. Thanks, Gretchen!

  • Susanne

    I don’t usually have a problem making big life-changing decisions (the “which man, what city, what job” sort of thing), but I can waste an awful lot of my life dithering over smaller decisions — I can totally see myself spending 10 minutes trying to decide what to order for breakfast, Eric! I’m a writer and run into this more often than I can say, until I’m under contract and have committed to one project. Until then, when facing two books I want to write (and this works on other creative projects, too) I use the one day on, one day off thing. I’ll alternate working on the projects from day to day until I reach “critical mass” on one of them and it takes off and all I want to do is work on IT. Mind you, there is still the Grass is Greener Syndrome: regardless of which project/book I’m working on, I’m secretly convinced the other one would be more fun/more successful/more something. I just recognize it as part of my process & ignore it now. But it’s nice to know I’m not the only one. Analysis Paralysis indeed! Thanks for that, Julia.

  • Leisa729

    I too like the words “Analysis Paralysis”….it perfectly describes the state which my husband and I find ourselves in trying to remodel our home! Wouldn’t you know it….we took about 3 months to decide which 20 inch tile to remodel our entire home with….once we had decided and was ready to begin. The tile had been discontinued…. argh! The deal with remodeling a home that we have found is that each decision is tied to the next decision. For example: remodeling our kitchen…can’t decide the counter tops until we decide our flooring. Making this condition of analysis paralysis worse!!

  • peninith1

    Is this something falls in the category of ‘It’s a first-world problem’? I think it might be.

    We’re so lucky that we have a menu of food choices, that we could possibly change jobs, that we have the luxury of deciding what to work on next, that we not only have kitchens, we can remodel them . . .

    I for one am being prompted to remember that my time is limited, but compared to most, my liberty to choose is vast, and I won’t waste time fretting about what might be best, when seven kinds of good are always in front of me.

  • Jaso

    I didn’t understand the sidenote about the secrets of adulthood: Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination. Could you explain please.

    • Esther

      I have recently realised in myself that I use work (long hours, emotional and physical exhaustion) as procrastination for making other decisions/moving on in my life (what country to live in, keep the job/shift career, active engagement in hobbies, friendships and relationships). It is a habit that has developed in this job only, and finding a way to break it is difficult, but must be done. The routine of being at work, caught up in it, ‘doing’ it means I don’t need to make other decisions, and that routine is allowed to continue.

  • Mary

    I found myself trying to decide which of two men I was going to marry, the new man or the old one who had been with me for 4yrs. I loved both, I had taken time to continue both relationships, and now my back was against the wall. I had to make a choice or the new man was done with me. If I refused to choose, one option would be gone, and so my refusal would be a passive choice. I did not want to be passive. And after three months of this triangle tearing us apart and leaving all of us sick, literally, it was time to make a decision. I went back and forth all evening, and well into the night. Finally I grabbed my purse, pulled out a quarter, and decided to flip a coin. I would make it two out of three flips. The old love would be heads and the new one would be tails.

    I discovered something of tremendous power: when the control is taken out of my hands, I can suddenly see what I really want. In the split second when I saw whether it was heads or tails, my true feelings were revealed. In that moment, I felt relief or horror in response to the decision presented to me. The quarter told me that I would marry the new love. It told me that the first time, two out of three times, and four out of five times. And my relief let me know that this was what I really wanted. If I had felt horror, I would have known that I really wanted to stay with the old love. The coin did not tell me what to do. But it revealed what I really wanted in stark relief.

    • peninith1

      That is exactly it. You DO always know. But you may have a problem opening your mind to the knowing. The coin toss is a great revealer.

  • torn

    Being a mum with children and their step father being able to see both sides

  • Ella

    Being decisive — the ability to know what you want, to pick a course of action and stick with it — is one of the key traits I’m trying to instill in my daughters. After being kind and being hardworking, I think it is one of the character traits that is critical to happiness. I know several people who have never managed to commit to one relationship or one career because they kept thinking there would be something better out there. While it’s unhealthy to stick with a decision long after it becomes apparent that it was the wrong course, it’s equally problematic to quit too soon, or to fail to make a choice at all.

  • http://www.joannarusher.co.nz/ Joanna Rusher

    coincidentally I am reading Switch by Chip and Dan Heath – and it addresses this issue in chapter 3 – script the critical moves. All about choice, and how when we have too many we get analysis paralysis (as Julia writes). Why shopping is exhausting – the choices, why it’s easier to switch to 1% milk, than “eat healthier’. There’s also a book on this subject specifically called “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz.

    • gretchenrubin

      I agree, both of these books are EXCELLENT. I’ve read each of them a few times.

  • Alicia

    They have an app for that…

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/procrastinator/id357622053?mt=8

    It was developed by behavioral economist, Dan Ariely

    It is a fun way to give yourself a deadline for deciding between two things–and if you don’t decide in time, it decides for you.

  • Douglas Peacock

    In the past, when unsure as to whether computer system or manual system is best for a particular activity, I ran both until I could see which was the best. This worked perfectly. But then I only had a choice of two things. Today, Valentines Day funnily enough, I find myself in the same position as Mary was – which one. So I follow her suggestion a spin a coin. One of the choices is heads and the other is tails. “Wait a minute, the person I just said for tails wasn’t the original choice for tails in my mind.” I knew the answer all along and can think of many instances that illustrated it. Scary!

  • Douglas Peacock

    In the past, when unsure as to whether computer system or manual system is best for a particular activity, I ran both until I could see which was the best. This worked perfectly. But then I only had a choice of two things. Today, Valentines Day funnily enough, I find myself in the same position as Mary was – which one. So I follow her suggestion a spin a coin. One of the choices is heads and the other is tails. “Wait a minute, the person I just said for tails wasn’t the original choice for tails in my mind.” I knew the answer all along and can think of many instances that illustrated it. It was neither of the first two. I didn’t even have to spin the coin. I did twice – tails both times. Scary!

  • Douglas Peacock

    When wondering whether to run a manual or computer system, for a particular activity, I have, in the past, run both until I know which can be operated best. Yesterday was Valentines Day in England and I have the same problem as Mary had, in my dreams. But there is a choice that confuses me so I decide to spin the coin, as suggested. There are two people in the conundrum, one is “heads” and the other is ‘tails’. “Wait a minute, the person I said for tails wasn’t one of the two on my list. Having said that, all the evidence points to her and she is in fact ‘tails’.” I didn’t need to spin the coin. I did and it was tails on both occasions. Scary!

  • Douglas Peacock

    When wondering whether to run a manual or computer system, for a particular activity, I have, in the past, run both until I know which can be operated best. Yesterday was Valentines Day in England and I have the same problem as Mary had, in my dreams. But there is a choice that confuses me so I decide to spin the coin, as suggested. There are two people in the conundrum, one is “heads” and the other is ‘tails’. I call out that one is ‘heads’ and the other is ‘tails’. “Wait a minute, the person I called out as ‘tails’ wasn’t one of the two on my list. Having said that, all the evidence points to her and she is in fact ‘tails’.” I didn’t need to spin the coin. I did and it was tails on both occasions. Scary!

  • Douglas Peacock

    When wondering whether to run a manual or computer system, for a particular activity, I have, in the past, run both until I know which can be operated best. Yesterday it was Valentines Day in England and I have the same problem as Mary had, in my dreams. But there is a choice that confuses me so I decide to spin the coin, as suggested. There are
    two people in the conundrum, one I list as “heads” and the other as ‘tails’. I call out that one is ‘heads’ and the other is ‘tails’. “Wait a minute, the person I actually called out as ‘tails’ wasn’t one of the two on my list. Having said that, all the evidence points to her and she is in fact ‘tails’.” The real answer wasn’t either of the two women in my mind when I decided to spin the coin; I didn’t need to spin the coin. I did and it was tails on both occasions. Scary! So maybe it is – spin the coin first and then run both side by side until you know which is best!

  • http://www.facebook.com/feaelin.moilar Iain E. Davis

    Frequently. I’ll find myself not making any progress on ____ because I can’t decide which task to do; or I’ll find myself stymied because I can’t decide which project to work on…so I end up working on none of them.

  • Douglas Peacock

    Poor Buridan’s Ass, finds itself in a
    universe where, apparently, no two things or life forms are exactly the same,
    apart from his two piles of hay. Do I detect something conceptual in this
    story!

    Decisions are made easier by virtue of the
    fact that no two things, or life forms, are the same, unless you are a Libran
    like me! Spinning a coin is a useful way of putting the problem into something
    else for a decision. This clears your head of the two options so that you can
    realize that the actual answer is neither of the two options in the coin.

    I occasionally play social darts and on the
    introduction of the new tungsten type of dart, I went to a shop to buy some. I
    immediately saw the darts I wanted and just as quickly spotted the practical
    alternative. What is life, without the ability to choose! A short while after
    another customer came into the shop and bought the darts I originally saw.
    Panic! “Have you got another set of those”? I asked the shopkeeper. “Yes” said the shopkeeper, who went on to say
    “that will teach you to make you mind up won’t it!” Lovely lady she was. Said
    it in fun knowing that we both knew she was right.

    So, others CAN make your mind up for you if
    you don’t!