Like any other person, I have dreams, goals, and ambitions. I don’t want to waste my life, and to do that, I need to make the best choices. So I spend a lot of time and consideration making decisions — How do I spend my free time? What should I be learning? What should I do for myself now which will get me to where I want to be?
To take your time making decisions seems like smart advice. Of course you should think about the consequences of your decisions, if you want to gain the most out of the opportunities presented to you. You might consider writing out the pros and cons of both choices, to see which one is better. You might talk it out with a good friend, and get some advice from them. We should be listing out the good outcomes, the bad outcomes, the costs and benefits. Whichever decision gives you more utility in the end, is the better decision.
If we are too impulsive or too emotionally driven, we can put our future selves at risk. When it comes to decisions that have big consequences, such as whether to take a job or not, which house to buy, or which school to attend, there is a need to think about it. These consequences will shape the course of our lives, so we need to dedicate time to making these choices. (*To read more about this kind of thinking, check out my article on Future Journaling: A Guide To Overcoming Your Doubts And Anxieties By Writing To Yourself)
But when you are a perfectionist, you have a tendency to amplify this behavior, of trying to analyze and predict the consequences of even your minute choices. People who are perfectionists are often driven by an anxiety of the unknown, of wanting to control and predict what we essentially can’t. They reason that they can find control by making the best decisions every time, and in this way shape their best future.
The only problem? Most decisions can’t be measured so simply.
If you’re like me and you share this need to only make the best decisions for yourself, you either become numbed by the unknowing and often decide against taking any action, you waste too much time trying to make the decision until it’s too late, or you spend so much time trying to make a choice, that whatever decision you make in the end feels unsatisfactory or wrong.
This is the perfectionist’s mistake.
I’ve always wanted to run a half marathon, and it had always felt like a big commitment to me. While being a personal goal of mine, there was no required reason for me to do it, so I never really pursued it. Running 21 kilometers? The cost of the pressure from my peers to perform well and the time I would have to commit to training every week seemed to outweigh the benefits of self-satisfaction. I didn’t need to put that kind of stress on myself if I didn’t want to, so I chose not to.
But I kept coming back to the idea. I would see photos of other people running races on Facebook, my uncle would talk about beating his PR, or I would just see the news about the London marathon and how professional athletes were breaking record times. And every time I would think, damn, maybe I should try to run one.
So I would look up local races that I could sign up for, browsing my options. But when the idea became realistic, I would become scared. I was terrified about how it would make me feel, what my time would be, or if I even had the mental strength to finish it. It’s two and a half hours of running. Why even challenge yourself to do that if you get nothing out of it besides some personal accomplishment? I couldn’t write it on a transcript. It also cost money to race. It required lots of time for training. Why should I put myself through that? In this way I would give in to my anxious thoughts — and so I would close the sign-up tab on my browser, breathe a sigh of relief, and let the dream continue to live on as a dream.
But after years of this repeated pattern, I finally signed up and ran my first half marathon this April in Stockholm.
What got me to do it? Was it endless hours of research? Careful consideration to benefits and consequences of running a half marathon? Calculating my odds and timing my runs to hypothesize my finish time? You probably know my answer, but no, it was none of that.
Four days prior to race day, I was talking to a friend and she told me about the event. She had just found out about it a few hours ago, and they were still taking entries so she signed up. She was so casual about it, like it was signing up for an email subscription. Hearing that, I responded, “Oh that’s cool! Maybe I should sign up too”. It was an automatic answer, but my friend became excited and she told me to do it. We were abroad, this was our one chance to do something like this in a beautiful city like Stockholm, and I really had no reason not to. So going with the flow I pulled out my phone, filled out the information on the website, and submitted. I didn’t even stop to think about the $60 price tag to participate (the fact that it was in a foreign currency may have helped) and it was done. Four days later, I was going to run my first half marathon.
Finishing the race had made me realize that I was being afraid of absolutely nothing. I had spent so much time analyzing and thinking about the decision, that I always ended up backing out, and I’ve missed many opportunities to do something really exceptional. Sure, I can’t write a half-marathon time on a resume, but I’m also no longer kicking myself for not trying. The excitement, pride, and joy I felt from completing it was incomparable to the comfort of my daily routine that I had grown accustomed to.
If you’re putting off something right now in fear that it’s not the “right” decision, what I suggest to you is this: When you’re contemplating a decision, you should not think about maximizing your happiness or future success. People are not just unaware of the possible consequences to our actions, but we are outright wrong, terrible predictors of knowing what will make us happy. Instead, consider the value of taking action versus not. The important question is not, “Is this the better decision?” In fact, especially for an anxiety-prone individual as myself, this question serves as a pointless and even harmful exercise that does nothing but generate fear.
I study economics, and I’ve learned plenty about opportunity cost. To put it simply, opportunity cost refers to the utility you forgo for choosing one decision over another. But what my economics classes haven’t really emphasized is that merely trying to figure out this opportunity cost, to try and choose whatever will give me the most utility, is a costly behavior in itself.
My indecisiveness, while a strategy which allows me to make the “best” decisions for myself, had stopped me from pursuing a lot of risky, yet possibly life-changing things in life. While I can’t advise that we should always be impulsive or emotionally-driven with our choices, there is a cost to trying to make the best, most rational choices. Instead, we should focus our energy on simply taking action because the cost of not taking these opportunities can be far too great. Risking and failing, trying and regretting, doing more and doing new activities. There is value to these choices, that inaction can never compete with.
So what should you do now so you don’t feel regret later?
If this article was any use to you, please leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! I love hearing from you guys, learning from you, and listening to your stories. I reply to every single email I get, and want nothing more than to support those who are looking for a bit of guidance and ways to help themselves.