7 May 2024

Vexatious Vacillation

Vacillation, the tendency to hover between choices, unable to decide, can be crippling. On a mundane level it may mean that everyday choices (Which brand of coffee should I buy? Which sandwich filling should I choose? Which route should I take home?) are exhaustingly drawn out. But it is a characteristic that can have more profound impact.

Social Prevarication

Your own indecisiveness may feel detrimental to you, but you can also be sure that it will be causing your friends and family no end of frustration. An entrenched tendency to vacillate may very well come across as bad manners. If your friend invites you to a party or an outing and you cannot decide whether to commit, they will be left hanging, unsure of your plans and, what is worse, suspicious that you’re weighing up a better offer. We all know that, when we extend an invitation of any kind, a decisive and enthusiastic affirmative (or, failing that, a prompt and polite refusal) is the optimal response – we can plan accordingly and know where we stand. Waiting for a vacillator to decide feels very disempowering: we feel that we have handed over agency to them and have been placed in the role of a supplicant, who is waiting for them to hand down their judgement. Frustration can easily turn into irritation, or even a resolve not to repeat the experience.

Vacillation can be associated with ghosting – the withdrawal from all contact with a friend or romantic partner. The vacillator may find themselves stuck in a quagmire of hesitancy about whether to consolidate a relationship by responding positively to a date or invitation and end up procrastinating. When procrastination has been stretched to its limits it becomes embarrassing to resuscitate the contact, which is then ignored. In this way, delaying a resolution becomes a de facto decision: opportunities and possibilities are disregarded and eventually wither away.

Professional Procrastination

If a tendency to vacillate can cause frustration amongst your social circle, it will certainly do real damage to your professional reputation. In most workplaces the ability to act decisively is highly valued. It is, of course, important to weigh up options and to understand the issues involved before coming to a decision, but if this process is hopelessly attenuated, or if you waver indecisively between different options, your professionalism will come into question. Decisiveness is associated with a bracing sense of self-confidence; vacillation looks weak and tentative. An ability to act decisively is always sought in managers and team leaders; vacillators ultimately become energy-sappers, sucking their colleagues into an endless cycle of hypothesising and procrastination.

In many professional situations vacillation is not tolerated. If you are offered a job or a change of role and ask for time to consider your acceptance, your request will be met with only limited tolerance. Wavering too long over your decision will be seen as a bad sign, and frequently the offer will be withdrawn. Once again, the inability to act decisively is seen as a de facto decision not to engage; opportunities are lost, and challenges remain untested.

Overcoming Vacillation

If you recognise that you have a tendency to vacillate, a resistance to committing, or a penchant for procrastination, try the following:

•Resist hypotheticals

A lot of indecision is rooted in hypothetical thinking. When faced with a choice, your mind immediately goes into “what if?” mode. You find yourself trapped in a range of options, alternatives, hypothetical scenarios, which all work against making a simple decision, especially as you often envisage negative outcomes. You need to boil decisions down to an “either/or” question and eliminate the extraneous chatter.

•Resist perfectionism

You may find it hard to make decisions because you want your judgment to be 100 per cent correct, and you cannot countenance the possibility that you might make a mistake or misjudgement. It is important to remind yourself that every decision has room for error and that you cannot eliminate the risks.

•Recognise the dangers of vacillation

Prevaricating for too long effectively means that opportunities and possibilities inevitably dissipate. Making no decision (or delaying unreasonably) is often making the worst decision of all – very few good things in life occur because we fail to get off the fence.

•Understand the risks of vacillation

If you are paralysed over a challenging decision, weigh up the risks that you will incur with each option. You might understand that, even if the decision is not perfect, acting positively and decisively will do more good than harm. Remember that most wrong decisions are not irrevocable.

•Take responsibility

Don’t hide behind your vacillation. If a decision needs to be made, don’t assume that someone else will bear the burden; accept that sometimes the choice is yours, and yours alone, to make. Decisively taking charge is a real confidence booster.

•Take small steps

Think about your tendency to vacillate and start to remedy it through small steps. Observe your own behaviour in shops, bars and restaurants and set yourself the challenge of making decisive choices on an everyday level. Resolve to make firm, and prompt, commitments to social invitations. Not only will you be alleviating friends’ and colleagues’ frustration with your indecisiveness, you will also be training yourself into a more resolute mindset, which will pay dividends when you are asked to make really important choices.


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