Whether you're considering changing careers or simply trying to choose a new pair of jeans, the inability to make decisions can be stressful. How can you make the process easier and move forward with confidence? Studies show that one in four people consider themselves procrastinators. Typical reasons for being this way have been attributed to: a lack of information; too much choice; lack of time and inability to concentrate, and fear of making the wrong decision. Sometimes, it's simply a case of not perceiving the decision as urgent. When we're faced with a crisis such as a sick child or a traffic accident, we don't hesitate to act. But when the decision isn't a matter of life or death, it's easy to leave things be.
When we procrastinate, we remain in our "comfort zone" - a lovely place if you're in need of more stability, but curiously uncomfortable if you've been doing the same thing and thinking the same way for too long. If the latter sounds like you, you'll know it by your feelings of restlessness and that niggling voice that whispers: "Is this it?" Our desire to feel secure is often more intense than our need for change or even success. So how do we push ourselves forward? My favourite definition of the decision-making process involves what academics call "hot" and "cold" thinking - our emotional, gut reaction versus our intellectual, rational thought processes. Hot thinking is useful when we make trivial decisions, such as which cake looks the tastiest. In the past, it has been classed as inferior to cold thinking, but is now believed to play a part in serious decision-making.
"Emotions are important, and decisions based on them are valid," says John Maule, a professor of human decision-making at Leeds University in the UK and the director of the Centre for Decision Research. What's needed, he says, is a balance between the two systems that "reflects the long-term impact of what your instinct suggests". To bridge the two, spend a little time visualising where you want to be and come up with an image of yourself or your life that inspires you. If you find this hard, you could try a technique I learnt from a life-coaching session to help you work out where you need change. Write a list of eight key sections of your life - such as friends and family, your home, work and career, health, money, love, personal development and leisure - and decide which sections are currently working and which are not. Draw a pie chart to reflect the results. If your career is fantastic (60 per cent) but you hardly see your friends (five per cent), you'll see what needs to change.
To prepare to make a serious decision, make a list of pros and cons using your hot and cold thinking powers. Take the time to gather useful facts and figures or just to ponder your desire to see where your subconscious takes you. Ensure you've covered the emotional aspects of your decision as well as practicalities. It may seem strange to be so scientific, but we're more likely to be honest with ourselves and reach a realistic conclusion when we see things written in black and white.
The next step is to design a course of action, starting with tiny steps. This way, if there's a negative on your list, you'll feel more able to overcome it. Don't be afraid to take risks and beware of being too much of a perfectionist - not only is expecting perfection unrealistic, it will also make life complicated as things will never be quite right or good enough for you. Remember, when you start acting on your decision it's likely that things will not go according to plan. Life will throw obstacles in your path, or something you didn't expect may take you in a slightly different direction. "We all think that good things will happen to us and that bad things will happen to other people," Maule says. In reality, he adds, people are overly optimistic about the probability of success. So think big, but start small.
Caroline Sylger Jones is the author of Body & Soul Escapes and Body & Soul Escapes: Britain and Ireland, compendiums of places to retreat and replenish around the world. See www.carolinesylgerjones.co.uk.