Karl Hughes

Karl Hughes

Decision Fear and Decision Fatigue

Decision Fear and Decision Fatigue

Among the challenges I did not expect when starting a business was the constant stream of decisions I had to make. I never realized how exhausting it was to make every single choice, especially in the early days when I didn’t have a team to delegate any of them to.

  • Which marketing channels are we going to try next?
  • Are we going to do this in-house or find a vendor?
  • When are we going to run payroll each week?
  • When are we going to start providing benefits?
  • How are we going to position this new service?
  • Should I take this lunch meeting with a friend?
  • Should I work with this potential client despite red flags?
  • Should I accept these contract changes?

The list goes on.

Every day, I wanted to wake up and work on interesting things, but my energy was sapped by a hundred small choices that I had to make in order to keep from blocking my team, customers, or family.

As I reflect on the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs, decision fear and decision fatigue are two of the biggest things that hold entrepreneurs back.

So, I want to address these two mental hurdles and how I’ve managed to (mostly) overcome them.

Overcoming Decision Fear

Successful entrepreneurs use focus and leverage (skills, money, relationships, etc.) to maximize their impact. Decision fear keeps entrepreneurs from picking a path and focusing.

This is why I spent the first ten years of my career with a day job and lots of half-baked side projects. The choice to start a business and go full-time on it feels massive and irreversible (it’s not, but it feels that way).

Top 5 Regrets of the Dying book cover

I started reading The Top Five Regrets of the Dying recently, and the number one regret is not having the courage to live a life true to yourself. Author Bronnie Ware puts it this way:

“When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”

Fear is a complicated emotion, but one of the byproducts of overwhelming fear is the inability to take action. This comes from believing that making a choice might make the fear worse, so many people never take the actions they’d need to to overcome the fear.

“In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer.” - Ryan Holliday, The Obstacle is the Way

Developing a bias towards action is the only way to overcome decision fear. You have to learn to live in the moment and make the best choice you can with the information available, ignoring the million possible roads you could have taken.

For some, decisiveness is easy, but for others, this is an impossible task. What worked for me was starting relatively small and growing into bigger and bigger decisions.

When I started my business, I told myself it was just a temporary thing to do between jobs.

As it started to grow, I told myself it was just a lifestyle business that would allow me to spend more time with my family.

And now, I see it as the cornerstone in a 10-year project.

Along the way, I told myself the gravity of my decisions was just as small as my aspirations, but as you can see, the gravity grew as I became comfortable with it.

Decision fear affects people at all stages. I know entrepreneurs with businesses 10x bigger than mine who are deathly afraid to make certain hires, change their role in the business, or fire key people.

Not making decisions will only hold you back, so build a bias towards action.

Overcoming Decision Fatigue

There are a lot of decisions in running a small business, so your goal should be to make only the most crucial ones every day.

Decision fear has gotten easier for me over time, but fatigue is still something I have to work around on a daily basis. Tiny decisions suck up my willpower, so I try to build my day around making just a few of them.

I delegate almost any decision that doesn’t have 5-year consequences.

For example, my Account Director asked me what we should say to a particular client request recently. While the request wasn’t unreasonable, it technically was out of scope. Should we say yes? Should we start a new service based on the request? Should we just decline their business?

There’s no right answer, but the choice was small enough that I couldn’t imagine it dramatically hurting or helping our business in five years either way. I told him to ask the production team for their opinion and then move forward with the choice he thought was best.

I didn’t have to spend any of my precious decision-making energy on the decision, and I don’t think my business would have been better if I had.

Even small, personal decisions like what to eat or what to wear add up.

To cut down on these, I write down my meal plan every week instead of deciding what to have each day when I get up. Knowing what I need to have in the house and what I’ll eat for lunch each day keeps me from having to fight the urge to run out for fast food (a bad decision) because I’m just too sapped to make a good decision.

Build your life around making only the most important decisions and you’ll have the mental energy and clarity to make them even better.

Final Thoughts

Entrepreneurs who act decisively and focus relentlessly give themselves the best chance at making a really big impact. Decisions must be made, but you can’t let looming decisions sap your energy.

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