A year ago I decided that I no longer wanted to live where I do now. It was a great decision, based on some very solid reasons – there are too many 17-year-olds doing handbrake turns outside my bedroom window at 3am, and at least once a week I have to step over a drunk to get out of my front gate. So I’ve made the decision to leave, but the problem is I haven’t made the decision of where to go. I’m all stick and no carrot.
As a freelancer who mainly works from home, I could – technically – live anywhere. My boyfriend is freelance, our son is only three; we could move abroad, take up residence in the Scottish highlands, hey, we could even relocate to Leyton. 'There are too many options,' my brain screams, 'and they all look difficult. Let’s not do any of them.' So I carry on living where I’ve decided I don’t want to live. It’s the same with holidays. I end up drowning in 35 separate Booking.com browser windows until so overwhelmed I close my laptop with nothing booked. Only when the options have dwindled to an apartment with no curtains, five miles from a beach, do I finally find the impetus to press book.
I’m not alone in my indecisiveness. I know so many women who, while incredibly 'on it' in most areas of their life, dither over important things – like who to spend the rest of their life with, or whether they should give up a career of 10 years. I know that most of these women are bloody brilliant at problem solving – just not for themselves.
Harriet, a 27-year-old writer and PR specialist, tells me: "I often think, why can’t I do for myself what I do for other people all the time? I am especially indecisive when putting myself out there in the freelance sense. I will spend ages working out which editor to send a pitch to."
Indecision allows you to stay in a safe zone, making it a great defence mechanism against vulnerability.
Making a decision generally propels you forward, whereas indecision keeps you stuck to the same spot. As much as we want change or action, we’re often scared of it. Indecision allows you to stay in a safe zone, making it a great defence mechanism against vulnerability. Harriet’s inability to decide how to wear her hair allows her to be late to an event she’s scared of attending. In the same way that procrastination is often a symptom of being a perfectionist, I hadn’t realised that perhaps I was using indecision in a very similar way.
Rosanagh is another smart woman (she’s a senior strategist at the BBC) who tells me about an indecision she kicked about for the last year. "I spent so long debating and deciding whether to cut my long hair short that in the end it became embarrassing to not cut it. The thing is, everything else in my life was going well – I love where I live, I have a nice boyfriend – and I think I threw around the idea of cutting my hair so I could have something to stress over."
I always thought indecision was not being able to decide between option a and option b: Itsu or Pret? The plaid trousers or the pastel ones? The difficulty of settling on one of two equally good choices. But listening to Harriet and Rosanagh and all the other women in my life who share their uncertainties, I realise that indecision is ego, it’s comparison, it’s fear, it’s imposter syndrome. The question isn’t: What’s the better choice? It’s: Why am I too scared to move forward? "Women apologise to me all the time," Zoë Cohen, an executive coach tells me. "When I’m in a session, my female clients will often say, 'I’m rambling, I’m sorry' or 'That wasn’t very articulate'. If they feel they need to apologise for their words in a safe room with another woman, they probably don’t feel certainty in their own decisions out in the world."
So how do we get out of our own way? Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert argues that less freedom is better for us. "If you make an irrevocable decision, one you [can’t] change, you rationalise it. Once something is gone, and gone forever, the mind gets to work figuring out why what [you have] is better than what [you lost]. But when a decision isn’t irrevocable, when you can remake it and revisit it and change your mind any time, what do you do? You ruminate about it." Gilbert has even said that once his research revealed that irreversible decisions led to greater wellbeing, he went home and proposed to his girlfriend. As he said on the podcast Hidden Brain: "Commitment makes you love something more."
Lots of women have been conditioned to behave nicely, to sit still. Generally, change requires some radical action, which goes against how they have been conditioned to behave.
We sometimes bask in our own indecision – because as long as no decision has been made, the potential of the outcome remains. As long as I don’t book my holiday accommodation I can still imagine a gem of an Airbnb with a bath at the end of the bed and its own orange tree to sit beneath, eating breakfast. With any decision, what might go wrong has twice the psychological impact of what might go right. It explains why we stay in jobs we hate for too long because having a job, even a terrible one, is generally preferred to not having one. It’s why so many of my career choices have been driven by fear. "It’s an evolutionary thing, we are built to search our environment for threats, especially when entering the unknown," Zoë tells me. "Being a good girl" is an issue too. "Lots of women have been conditioned to behave nicely, to sit still. Generally, change requires some radical action, which goes against how they have been conditioned to behave."
So how do we make better, more assured choices? Iris Murdoch writes in The Sea, The Sea: "What a queer gamble our existence is. We decide to do A instead of B and then the two roads diverge utterly and may lead in the end to heaven and to hell. Only later one sees how much and how awfully the fates differ." As Rosanagh says, when she finally decided to lose 15 inches of hair: "At the end of the day, all action is a leap of faith, whether it’s a haircut or finding your forever home." I can’t imagine Michelle Obama dithering, or Oprah faffing about, and I know for certain that indecision is exhausting; the longer I spend deciding on something, the harder the decision gets. And in truth, I can’t keep having the same conversation with myself. So I think I might have to take a leap of faith…and move a mile down the road.