You’ve finally made a decision. Time to cross it off your list and move on. Or not? Do you find yourself revisiting every decision you make, agonizing over whether it really was the right one?
What the Experts Say
Everyone has moments of doubt. But “constant second-guessing can really affect your leadership — and the perception of your leadership among other people,” says Sydney Finkelstein, faculty director of Dartmouth’s Tuck Center for Leadership and the author of the forthcoming book, Superbosses. It can also do unintended harm. “If you are excessively second-guessing a hire you’ve made, for instance, you are actually reducing the likelihood of that hire being successful,” says Finkelstein. “There is a risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy.” And that’s not all. “Second-guessing also has a real productivity impact,” says Amy Jen Su, co-founder of executive leadership development firm Paravis Partners and coauthor of Own the Room. “When
spinning on a decision, you’re not moving forward. You’re just sitting in this purgatory of second-guessing.” Here’s how to stop looking back with regret.
Get some perspective
Ask yourself: How big a decision was this really? What are the stakes now? “There are a lot of decisions where the costs of being wrong are actually not that big,” says Finkelstein. If you’re juggling other more important decisions and issues, “why spend another minute wondering about the ‘what ifs’?” he says. “Remind yourself that worrying is taking time away from the bigger things you have to deal with.” That exercise alone can help soothe your anxiety.
Check your gut
If you initially aren’t feeling confident about a chosen path, don’t discount where your intuition has led you. “Trusting your gut can be absolutely useful, valuable, and appropriate,” says Finkelstein. “It can cut down on a ton of time.” Both Finkelstein and Su suggest maintaining a kind of “acknowledgment practice,” which might involve keeping a journal of recent decisions. Hopefully, you’ll find that your intuition has led you in the right direction over time and that even when you made mistakes, they were easily corrected. Reviewing decisions in this way should help you become more self-assured, reducing the likelihood that you’ll second-guess needlessly.
Poll a group of “advisers”
If checking your gut still doesn’t give you the confidence that you’ve made the right decision, ask around for advice. “Have a group of people who are your sounding boards” and seek their input, says Su. “Say, ‘Here’s what I was thinking. What am I not taking into consideration here?’ That will help you better understand what it is that’s causing you to worry.” It can be particularly helpful to stock this informal panel with people who have experience dealing with similar issues or who can bring new perspectives to the table. Their wisdom can help you feel more comfortable with your chosen path.
Get comfortable with adjustments
Few decisions are irreversible. But, in our quest to make the best ones, we tend to forget that. “There’s a real tyranny to trying to be perfect,” says Finkelstein. “It’s important to remember that you can’t possibly be right about everything.” And in nearly every scenario, chances are “you can fix and adjust it,” he says. Su agrees. “When we pretend that decisions are final, we paralyze ourselves. It’s OK to make mistakes. Moving forward is what’s important.”
Make a date to check in
One of the best ways to stop questioning a decision in the moment is to make a plan to formally review it at a later date. It could be in a few weeks, or a few months — whatever feels appropriate. Add a reminder to your calendar. “The point is that you can set into place a very simple monitoring mechanism,” says Finkelstein. “That greatly reduces the risk of the consequences of your decision going off-track, and you don’t have to be so crazed in the meantime by second-guessing.”
Balance your decision biases going forward
To protect yourself from second-guessing future decisions, work to step out of your comfort zone when making them. People tend to approach choices from either a subjective, emotion-driven perspective or an objective, logic-based one, says Su. But, to feel confident about a course of action, you need to make sure you consider it from all angles. “If you are more logical and fact-based, stretch yourself to consider the subjective factors. If you’re all about subjectivity, make sure you consider the logic side and marry the two.”
Principles to Remember:
- Trust your intuition.
- Reach out to a group of advisers for advice to put your mind at ease.
- Set a date to review the decision in the future so you can stop worrying about it in the present.
- Sweat the small stuff. Recognize when decisions have low stakes.
- Assume the decision is permanent; you can almost always change course later on.
- Default to what makes you comfortable when making your next decision
Case study #1: Finding confidence in outside advice
In 2007, when William Schroeder launched a boutique counseling center, Just Mind, in Austin, Texas, he knew that he’d have to make a deluge of daily decisions. But he found himself second-guessing many of them — big ones, like how many people he’d hired and clients he’d agreed to accept, but also small ones, like how much he was spending on Google Adwords campaigns. The worrying ate up his time and attention, leaving him drained. “It became the bane of my existence very quickly,” he says.
Over time, he learned how to better insulate himself from needless doubt later on. In some cases, he creates a decision-making matrix in order to weigh his objectives and the factors in play. This helps him visualize his options, as well as reassures him that he’s done enough research. “I am a visual person and being able to see my options helps me to feel more comfortable about a decision,” he says. “It also allows me to have something to go back to and refer to later when I come up with a similar issue.”
The other helpful tool he has developed is an informal group of advisors that he regularly polls when he needs reassurance and advice. He reaches out to another group counseling practice owner for hiring advice; to relatives like his psychologist father-in-law and his lawyer father; and to other entrepreneurs in the area for help running a small business.
“At the end of the day, you do the best you can and sometimes it doesn’t turn out correctly,” he says. “But if it doesn’t go well, you try and fix it as quickly as possible and learn from it.”
Case study #2: When indecisive is worse than wrong
Matt Bremerkamp, VP of public relations for virtual assistant startup Pressed, was worried that he and his colleagues had made the wrong decision to expand the company’s brand ambassador program. They’d gone back and forth over whether to cast a wide net with the program, which works with outsiders who evangelize the company’s product, or shrink it, developing a smaller, targeted group of ambassadors. “We were debating the decision ad nauseum,” he says.
To break through the inertia, Matt fell back on a strategy he had honed as an infantry team leader in the Army National Guard: Move left. “Basically, if after a moment of hesitation, a best course of action wasn’t apparent, I would always have my team of men move left,” he says. “Then I’d reevaluate the decision, and if a better course of action still wasn’t apparent we’d move left again, and so on.” If left proved to be a poor choice, they’d change course. But “the point was to constantly keep moving forward and to never stagnate.”
In this case, moving left meant implementing the decision to cast a wide net for brand ambassadors. “The decision actually ended up working out very well,” Matt says. “Some of the issues that we thought we’d have, like relying on spokespeople that we hadn’t handpicked or developed, really haven’t come into play.”
Matt says he now relies on the “move left” mantra all the time in his professional life. “A decision may not always be perfect,” he says. “But by moving forward you can always ‘adjust fire’ and redirect your efforts if need be.”