Adulting: Decision Making Inertia

A view of nature with four paths located in Singapore
uncertainty: so many paths

One of the most fascinating concepts I got introduced to in secondary school was inertia. A major inference we get from Newton’s laws of motion is that objects endeavour to persevere in their present state and resist a change in velocity (either speed or direction) i.e. they just want to be left as they are. When your driver abruptly hits the brake pedal, your body jolts forward before stopping and that’s inertia at play. The jolting forward is your body’s attempt to preserve the current situation (ie moving). Inertia is one of the most fundamental principles of physics and motion.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that inertia is a thing that exists across various areas of our lives, especially around decision making. As adults, it’s critical to realise that inertia lurks in all areas of our lives. And it’s dangerous — dangerously bad.

By far the biggest manifestation of inertia in young adults is decision-making inertia. There is so much decision resistance when attempting something new. We incline towards maintaining the status quo because of a fear of the unknown and because the unknown is often overwhelming.

While we are young, life generally has clear questions with clear answers: it’s clear the score range you need to get in your JAMB UTME in order to gain admission to a Nigerian university, it’s clear what score range you need on the SATs, to get into top US colleges, it’s clear what your GPA needs to be for a scholarship. While we are even younger, all of this is even much clearer and simpler. But the moment we step into adulthood (generally once we are done with college and university), all of life becomes so much murkier.

If you have two offers of employment, it’s much harder to tell which one will be better for you. If there’s office politics, it’s much harder to tell how to navigate. And if you need to leave a job, it’s clearly very risky and just a world of uncertainty: it’s often difficult to figure which of the job offers you have is best long term for your careers. All of this confusion puts us at great risk of constantly second guessing and falling into the trap of decision paralysis. Sometimes, it feels as if indecision is the safest and most comforting bet, but that is completely an illusion.

I think there are some frameworks for generally thinking about these things and I share some of them as follows.

  1. Incomplete information is the norm: one of the big reasons people seem to not want to commit to decisions is because they lack complete information. How does one know if they should commit to a relationship and won’t get hurt when they don’t have enough information about their potential partner? How does one decide if going for an MBA is the right step at a point in their career? At every step of adulting, we are plagued with uncertainty. We need to learn to accept this and recognize that we will always be faced with situations that have incomplete information and we have to wiggle away and make a decision. Even at the highest levels of complexity, there is incomplete information. Think for a moment that someday, Obama had to decide to send Seal Team Six to fly into Pakistani airspace to kill the most wanted person alive at that point: there is no amount of data that helps you feel certain that you’re making the right decision; you just have to weigh the evidence available and make the most educated decision you can. Sometimes no one is even qualified to make the decision; we’re all just winging it. There is no right or wrong answer in-the-moment. There is only a best-effort at diligently evaluating data + luck.
  2. Not making a decision is a decision: sometimes, we are stuck in an illusory state and wrongly (implicitly) believe that our lack-of-decision-making is safer. If you don’t have to pick an option, you can’t make a mistake. There is nothing further from the truth than this. We often end up trapping ourselves in the “data gathering” phase and justify our indecision by saying we need to know more to make the right decision. Think for a second as to the athlete who can’t decide if doing 30 push ups at once is better than doing 3 sets of 10 push ups. She spends her whole days conducting research and reading research papers, while wasting away her prime years. Was she not better off having chosen any one. Indecision is often the worst of the options. We have to always remember that the default state of the universe is the second law of thermodynamics: what we get is more and more entropy, what we get is more disorderliness and chaos. We have to be very intentional and proactive to be constructive.
  3. Avoid second guessing: one big risk around decision making is second guessing ourselves. “What if I had gone to UNILAG instead? What if I accepted the Flutterwave offer instead?” There is no point. If there is concrete data that demonstrates we made the wrong decision, we should learn and move on; but if it’s just “what ifs” then it’s useless. We want to run away from second guessing. Bad decisions aren’t really our fault in so much as we utilize a responsible framework for deciding.
  4. Develop a framework for decision making:
  • The moment we recognize that we have this bias towards decision making inertia, we have to develop a framework for helping ourselves process things. At every step of the way, we should wonder: what extra information will help me make a better decision? Am I going to get this information any time soon? The moment the answer to that is no, we should recognize that we are in the trap. Quickly identifying when we are stuck in this phase is critical.
  • We should also endeavour to write a lot. Writing does two things. For one, it helps us think through our thoughts and fears and helps us articulate the situation to ourselves. Secondly, it’s valuable for posterity. In the future when the outcome is revealed, we can go back to look at how we thought through a situation. And in the future when we are faced with decision paralysis, we can go back to look at historical situations and often see that our biggest fears at that point did not in fact materialize. The effect of the uncertainty of the future is often exaggerated.
  • Figure out forcing functions for getting yourself to make a decision: you need to figure out how to game yourself into making decisions. Sometimes, there are things we prioritize more than indecision and uncertainty eg pride. We can put ourselves in situations where not making a decision wounds our pride; or we can make a bet that we will successfully make a decision or we can have friends to hold us accountable. Any way in which we can manipulate future-Me into becoming subservient to the me-that-has-identified-this-flaw is useful.

As with most things in life, we don’t solve these problems overnight. Overcoming inertia takes a lot of hardwork and identifying and battling it requires a lot of determination and effort. More effective decision making is a muscle that we finely tone and build up overtime and it is more intuitive for some than others. We just need to constantly remind ourselves that the only thing we owe ourselves is to make the decisions we feel most confident about based on the data we have and that we learn from our mistakes of the past.