This post examines resolve and decisiveness (and things in that bailiwick like determination, commitment, dedication, steadfastness, and firmness), as part of a sequence of posts about virtues. I mostly explore what other people have learned about these virtues, rather than sharing my own research or opinions about them, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will help people who want to know more about these virtues and how to practice them skillfully.
What are these virtues?
In short, a person with these virtues makes conscious, deliberate commitments when it would be advantageous to do so, such that these commitments reliably govern their future actions.
These virtues concern a crucial pivot point in the process of deliberately taking a course of action. For the purposes of this discussion, I divide this process into the following stages:
- Prepare for making decisions:
What sorts of decisions do you want to make? What do you want to do with your life? Do you have a “calling” or a sense of purpose? Answers to broad questions like those allow you to weigh your possible decisions against your big-picture goals and your ethos. You need wisdom to understand what sorts of decisions you want to make, temperance so that your desires prompt you to make decisions that align with your wisdom, know-how so that you have the skills you need to act on your decisions, ambition so that you have high-impact decisions to choose from, devotion to help motivate your follow-through, and courage so that you won’t flinch from hard decisions.
- Discern that a decision needs to be made:
You need attention to notice that the opportunity for a decision has arisen, while virtues like duty, social responsibility, honor, care, valor, helpfulness, and concern help you understand which decisions are your responsibility.
- Weigh the cases for different options:
Virtues like phrónēsis (practical wisdom), rationality, curiosity, and imagination help you discover and consider different possible courses of action and to anticipate their outcomes.
- Make a decision:
The point where you stop weighing the case and finally commit to a course of action is where virtues like decisiveness, resolve, and so forth, come into play. (In addition, optimism, confidence, earnestness, and enthusiasm may play a role.) If you have the virtue of resolve, you make decisions in an effective way: your decisions are really decisive, in that they indeed launch your earnest action.
You then need self-control (discipline, continence), industry, integrity, consistency, reliability, and conscientiousness to keep on task. If your decision involves multiple stakeholders, you will also find cooperation, teamwork, and leadership helpful.
- Overcome obstacles:
When you encounter setbacks or difficulties, virtues like endurance, perseverance, patience, and forbearance help you push through anyway, while virtues like carefulness, creativity, flexibility, prioritization, and ingenuity help you find solutions and workarounds.
- Accomplish your goal (or not):
If you accomplish your goal, you can take pride in this. If not, there are useful techniques of resignation/acceptance and graciousness that help you cut your losses. If a failure was regrettable, a productive process of shame might help you to course-correct.
This post concerns the fourth of these stages: that crucial pivot point between indecision and determined action. Some discussions of resolve and decisiveness incorporate elements of each of the first six stages, particularly stages three through five. I won’t be able to avoid this entirely either—particularly because the confidence you need to commit to a decision depends so much on the quality of the process by which you arrived at the decision. But also, determining the right choice to make, and making that choice, is not enough if your deliberate choices do not actually guide your behavior. Such choices have a fools’ gold shine to them. I discuss that in some depth in my Notes on Self Control, however, so I will try not to gnaw on that bone too much here.
Another model to consider
For what it’s worth, Pete Davis, in his investigation of the similar virtue of “dedication,” identified a somewhat different set of what he called “dedicatory virtues” and described them this way:
Dedication… requires imagination—the ability to envision what isn’t there just yet. It requires synthesis—the ability to make connections. Focus (the ability to concentrate) and doggedness (so you can return to the same task again and again, even if there’s nothing new about it) are key. So is passion—the enthusiasm required to sustain engagement. And there can be no passion without reverence—the ability to be awed by something. Above all, dedication requires commitment—the ability to stick with something, despite there being other available options.
The vice of deficiency associated with these virtues goes by names like “indecisiveness,” “dithering,” “waffling,” or “hedging.” Sometimes people avoid being decisive by trying to add plausible deniability to their decisions: being “ironic” or “half-hearted,” or perhaps they have “divided loyalties” or are “trying to have it both ways.”
Decisiveness is in tension with the virtues of flexibility and spontaneity. It is not always clear when it is better to be resolute and when it is better to keep your options open. When the time for deciding arrives, it does not necessarily announce itself with an unmistakeable alarm. A frequent complaint these days is what Pete Davis calls “Infinite Browsing Mode”—epitomized by sitting down to watch a movie but instead spending the next hour scrolling through the options on Netflix unable to make up your mind.
“The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics” is a peculiar failure mode of decision-making. If you fall prey to it, you may subject choices that involve action on your part to intense scrutiny, while allowing choices that involve inaction on your part to happen unscrutinized. This is perhaps another form of plausibly-deniable indecisiveness. Someone who labors under this delusion may mistake deciding-to-do-nothing for not-deciding-to-do-anything. If they allow themselves to acknowledge that they have made a decision, it is as though they have tasted the forbidden fruit: they also feel the unwelcome weight of responsibility for the results of their decision. “This is why people flip a coin to make decisions—so they can blame the coin instead of themselves.”
Hannah Arendt was of the opinion that a sort of indecisiveness, rather than a decisive malevolence, is at the root of most evil: “The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be either bad or good.” One way people sometimes try to disengage from decision-making and responsibility is by relinquishing their authority over themselves to some other authority: they make themselves agents of someone else’s decisions—they “obey”. “Superfluousness represents a temptation: it holds the promise of an existence devoid of (enacted) human agency, hence free of the burdens of responsibility and guilt, as well as hurt and loss.” This temptation rests on a lie: that you can foist off your burden of deciding and of bearing the responsibility for your decision.
The vices of excess associated with this virtue include those that involve deciding before wisely weighing the options (making “snap judgements” or being “impetuous,” “rash,” or “arbitrary”), and those that involve cementing your resolution too firmly, such that you are unable to deviate from it as new evidence comes in or better options open up (being “obstinate” or “inflexible”).
How does a decision happen?
Not everything you do is something you decide to do. For example: some things you do involuntarily, other things you do habitually as if by default. In many cases, though, it at least seems as though you deliberate, decide, and then act based on your decision. But it can be difficult to pinpoint the moment of decision, or what characterizes the decisive point, or the mechanism by which a decision to do something transforms into the action of actually doing it.
You may remember a time when you became aware of having decided, and maybe you even mentally vocalized to yourself “now I shall…” But was that the moment of decision, or was that more of a herald formally announcing that a decision had earlier been arrived at?
Philosophers and neuroscientists have attempted to trace decision-making back to its origins.
Aristotle, of course
Aristotle believed that decision takes place where intellect/reason and desire/appetite meet. Desire says “I want this outcome” and reason says “this is how I might act to make such an outcome come about,” and when the two combine, a decision is born of the union. For the decision to be a good one, the reasoning must be sound and the desire wise.
It takes desire to pick a goal in the first place, and then intellect to pick a course of action that brings that goal closer to realization. Neither reason nor desire is capable of initiating action by itself. If you trace any deliberate human action back to the spring it came from, you reach a starting point where reason and desire combine, and you can trace the path no further.
Does reason yoke desire and start to plow, or does desire enlist reason to seek its ends? To Aristotle, it’s all a matter of how you look at it: neither is more accurate—does the sperm penetrate the egg, or does the egg absorb the sperm? There’s no fact of the matter; it’s just how you choose to describe it.
In Aristotle’s view, in order to decide well we need to train our reason so we know how to behave well, and we need to mold our characters so that we want to behave well, and that’s the end of the story. If we do not actually desire what is good, there is no third-thing inside of us (such as “conscience”) that can step in and contradict the other two.
Western philosophers who followed Aristotle but in the Christian tradition were more likely to distrust the ability of people to mold their own characters in this way. In their view, our desires and our reason might conspire to suggest a course of action, but both our desires and our reason are too corrupt to be trusted. Fortunately there is a trustable third-party—such as Divine Law or “natural law”, or the “still small voice” of God or “conscience”—that can overrule this conspiracy with a superior decision.
Some intriguing experiments have measured brain activity while a decision is being contemplated. In a typical example, subjects were asked to—“when they felt the urge to do so”—make an arbitrary decision to press either a left-hand-operated button or right-hand-operated button and then to do so “immediately”. While contemplating this, they were shown a series of letters on a screen. After they pressed a button, they were then asked which letter was on the screen when they decided which button to push.
The subjects’ brain activity was measured while they were doing this, and examined for signals that would predict which choice they would make. Researchers found that they could confidently predict the subjects’ choices based on measurable brain activity that occured several seconds before the subjects reported they were aware that they had made a decision.
One possible implication of studies like this is that the part of decision-making that we are conscious of may be something of an afterthought, at least in these sorts of strange, artificial, arbitrary decisions.
Evidence revealed by pathologies
Another way to investigate the brain’s role in decision-making is to examine brain pathologies associated with deficits in decisiveness.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio described one example. A patient had a tumor removed from his brain in a surgery that necessarily damaged some of his ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC). The surgery left the patient intellectually unimpaired, but pathologically unable to make decisions—“the structures destroyed… happened to be those necessary for reasoning to culminate in decision making.” He described the patient deliberating about two possible next-appointment dates:
For the better part of a half hour, the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates… [culminating in] a tiresome cost-benefit analysis, an endless outlining and fruitless comparison of options and possible consequences. It took enormous discipline to listen to all of this without pounding on the table and telling him to stop…
It is as though the patient were again and again trying to prompt the part of his brain that usually responds to weighing options with an eventual “yes, that’s the one!”, but without success. Intriguingly, the patient had also become emotionally flat: “I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.” Damasio says this suggests that emotion is crucial to decision-making (perhaps the conclusion “yes, that’s the one” is an emotional one rather than a rational one).
The role of emotion in decision
This brings up a disagreement over the role of emotion in decision-making. While Aristotle was content to describe decision-making as an equal partnership between reason and desire, the Western philosophical tradition that followed has tended to emphasize the importance of conscious, rational deliberation in governing or overruling decisions that would otherwise more-unwisely be made by subconscious, emotional drives.
More recently, Chip Heath & Dan Heath, in their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, identified “short-term emotion [which] will often tempt you” as the main obstacle to good decision-making.
When people share the worst decisions they’ve made in life, they are often recalling choices made in the grip of visceral emotion: anger, lust, anxiety, greed. Our lives would be very different if we had a dozen “undo” buttons to use in the aftermath of these choices.
For this reason, the Heaths recommend that you get some distance from whatever context of the decision may be causing emotional responses, and that you use a variety of mind-hacks to reduce the effect of emotion on your decision-making. An example of these mind hacks is one called the “10/10/10 Rule.” You consider a potential decision and then spend some time trying to imagine how you will feel—having made that decision—in ten minutes, ten months, and ten years. This gives you some distance from your immediate emotional reaction to making the decision by instead considering how you expect to feel about having made the decision.
But, on the other hand, and in part inspired by neurological insights from Damasio and others, Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide) thinks that it is a mistake to overrely on our rational minds to make decisions. Our conscious, rational brains have access to a certain subset of information, which we can use to make our rational evaluations. But our decision-making brains have access to a richer subset of information, including what our rational brains see but also including richer input from our emotions and from other subconscious processes than those we are conscious of and can easily make part of our rational evaluations. Our decision-making brain has been evolving longer and more painstakingly than our conscious/rational brain (which has been slapped together more recently), so maybe we should trust our “gut response” a bit less skeptically.
Particularly when snap-decisions are called for, you can’t rely on a cumbersome process for coming up with an ideal solution; you have to rely on intuition. “But… intuition is only accurate in domains where it has been carefully trained. To train intuition requires a predictable environment where you get lots of repetition and quick feedback on your choices.” Some domains aren’t good at generating good intuition (because the feedback is ambiguous, difficult to get at, or distant from your decision; or because you can’t reliably practice under real-world conditions). This suggests that you may be able to improve your decision-making gut-feeling in a particular domain by practicing making decisions in that domain, and by doing what you can to make the decision-consequences feedback loop in that domain more salient and immediate.
What good is decisiveness?
Deciding is, from one point of view, simply unavoidable. Your journey through life is one set of crossroads after another. Just sitting down and not choosing among the possible paths is either not an option or, if it is an option, is one that you must choose.
But deliberate decision can take extra effort. We often pick our path at the crossroads not by explicitly deciding on it, but by letting ourselves be pushed in one direction or another, or by letting our momentum carry us further along in our present path. What do we gain from exerting this extra effort?
If Aristotle was correct, all virtues are habits of choosing in particular ways. A brave person is one who makes courageous choices, an honest person chooses to tell the truth, and so forth. So the willingness to choose is broadly important to being a flourishing human being. But there are also some more specific reasons why decisiveness is helpful:
Decisiveness enables inter-temporal intra-personal economic exchange
When you decide to do something, you are in effect restricting your future self’s options to your present self’s commitment. What do you gain from selling off your future freedom in this way rather than leaving your options open?
One way of looking at this is that decisiveness allows you to import value from the future into the present. If you commit today that you will do X, you can take a promissory note for X to the bank today and begin earning interest on it. If you have a reputation for reliably turning your resolutions into reality, you can exchange today’s promises for things of more tangible value.
Resolve can also be a way of exporting value from the present to the future. If I am to have the value of knowing how to play The Battle Hymn of the Republic on the harmonica by next week, I need to resolve to begin practicing at some point before that. I trade the present value of my time and effort for the future value of my skill.
This gets more complicated when you make resolutions that may have the effect of changing the way your future self evaluates things. For example, if you decide to become a parent, you are basing your decision on values you have as a childless person and on your educated guesses about what you will find valuable as a parent. But you have good reason to expect that your values and your criteria for evaluation may change in unanticipated ways over the course of parenthood. You’re aiming at a moving target.
Decisiveness brings an additional class of rewards within reach
“[W]e thought we were looking for smart people, but it turned out that intelligence was not as important as we expected. If you imagine someone with 100% determination and 100% intelligence, you can discard a lot of intelligence before they stop succeeding. But if you start discarding determination, you very quickly get an ineffectual and perpetual grad student.” ―Paul Graham (explaining how he decides which startups to fund)
Commitment is sometimes described as restricting your choices, but it also is a way of making certain sorts of choices possible. It trades a vast landscape of superficial potentialities for “the novelty of depth.”
Some rewards demand effort over a long period, where that effort is mostly wasted unless you sustain it to the finish line. So to begin you need to be confident that you have the ability to follow-through. Resolve or decisiveness is this confidence-in-embarking.
Pete Davis described our choice-filled modernity with the metaphor of a hallway lined with many doors. The breadth of options is so intoxicatingly delightful that you can forget that none of the many options is really yours unless you take it. The “Culture of Open Options” encourages you to stay in the hallway where all of these possibilities remain in reach, while those in a “Counterculture of Commitment” instead pick a door and leave the hallway for what lies beyond.
Decisiveness clarifies and makes future decisions easier
When you commit to something, you can clear your desk of the options you discarded and whatever considerations accompanied them. This allows you to spend more of your effort accomplishing goals and less weighing options. Your future decisions may also become clearer, as, while you won’t always know for sure how to reach your goal, at least you know what that goal is.
The proliferation of choices (such as lifestyle choices and consumer choices) makes decisiveness both more crucial and more difficult. Increased choice can lead to more anxiety about decisions, as the grass is potentially greener in so many different locations now. A theorized phenomenon of choice overload (a.k.a. “the paradox of choice”) makes it more difficult for people to decide well the more options they have to choose from. It may be that our historically extraordinary period demands an extraordinary aptitude for decisiveness.
What bad is decisiveness?
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds… With consistency a great soul has nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Decisiveness can go awry when it is done “not wisely but too well.” It appears to be one of those Aristotelian virtues which are best practiced at a golden mean: when you are decisive at the right times, in the right ways, and to the right extent—rather than always, absolutely, and as much as possible.
Decisiveness cuts off other options
“Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both. Believe a woman, you will regret it; believe her not, you will also regret it… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.” ―Søren Kierkegaard
When you resolve on some course of action, you necessarily abandon any mutually-exclusive alternatives. This can lead to fear-of-missing-out, or to regret if you later suspect you could have chosen better. On the other hand, if you refuse to ever commit, you risk missing out on things like depth, expertise, and mastery that are only available to the committed. So maybe it’s a wash.
It can be hard to commit to some particular cause (e.g. AI safety, climate change, political reform) because so many other causes also seem crucial that it can seem negligent to fail to give them as much attention. Something similar leads to the altruism anti-pattern of donating modest amounts to a diverse bunch of well-meaning charities that cover the bases of what you believe are worthy concerns rather than a large amount to one particularly potent charity that you believe will make the marginally most effective use of your money.
Taking a stand or making a judgement is a type of decision. A permissive who-am-I-to-judge attitude can hide a sort of fear of commitment (to a particular moral stance): timid indifference masquerading as tolerance. On the other hand, a rush to judgement or a prudish eagerness to cast aspersions can result from being too eager to resolve life’s gray areas into decisive black-and-white.
If you commit to a group or an institution or a cause or a leader/guru, you risk not only the alternatives that you have foregone, but also the possibility that what you have committed to will transform in unanticipated and unsavory ways. When something you have committed to disappoints you or turns on you, you confront questions of loyalty: do you abandon your commitment or redouble your effort in order to save what you have committed to from itself?
Decisiveness as posturing
Resolve can be a pose. It is especially notorious as a sort of macho posturing.
A leader’s decisiveness can be alluring and can tempt followers to try to piggy-back on their decisions—believing that by doing so they can reap the benefits of decisiveness while foisting the responsibility for having decided off on the leader. But all too often this means that the followers are not dedicating themselves to a wise course of action, but to the vainglory of someone who has learned a parlor trick of social engineering, or someone who has decided not wisely but impetuously, leading with the chin.
Some people make a rash gesture of decisiveness as a way to bolster a weak or unconfident personal identity. By committing to a cause, taking an oath, or vowing fidelity to some authority figure, such a person can lash their leaky raft to what seems like a more seaworthy vessel. (Before, I wasn’t sure who I was, but now that I’ve signed on the dotted line I know I’m a man with a mission.) But this rash discrete show of resolve can hide an attempt to have future decisions made-for-you by the cause, the institution, the authority figure. The implicit promise is that if you make one big decision now, the rest of your decisions will be made for you from here on out, and you’ll be off the hook.
Decisiveness as stubbornness in disguise
“If you set out to teach someone how to not turn little mistakes into big mistakes, it’s nearly the same art whether in hedge funds or romance, and one of the keys is this: Be ready to admit you lost.” ―Eliezer Yudkowsky
Some people who seek a reputation for decisiveness are just ashamed to admit they were wrong or that the time has come to cut their losses. This can result in a mulish stubbornness, in which you stick with your resolutions even when the underlying facts change or when it turns out you chose poorly. A desire to appear decisive can lead you to stick with bad decisions when a wiser person would have been more flexible.
Are you being virtuously resolute or merely obstinate? They can look awfully similar, and if there are any hard-and-fast rules that can reliably distinguish between them, I’m not aware of them. People who stick with something long after most anyone else would have given up—some are fools, others are visionaries.
In his discussion of the virtue of self-control, Aristotle tried to come up with a way of disentangling stubbornness from continence. He emphasized that a good choice involves reasonably picking effective means to wise ends. If you later discover that you were mistaken or that the situation has changed such that your chosen means are no longer apt to lead to wise ends, it is no longer a virtue to stick “resolutely” to those means.
Decisiveness can cement a new and unwise status quo bias
We can be slow to reassess a decision, as its quality gradually degrades over time, when we are convinced that decision was a wise one when it was made. Providers of consumer products and services can capitalize on this effect. They may introduce a product or service to market in a high quality form at a bargain price, wait for people to internalize that the choice of that product or service is a wise choice, and then slowly ratchet down its quality or economy.
We may be tempted to over-fit choices to those that require a decisive resolution
How often is it really true that you have to make a grand commitment rather than just making the next small sensible decision?
You may feel pressure to declare yourself resolutely in some way when in fact there is little or no advantage to doing so. Such a thing can punish you twice: by putting you firmly on a course of action that you would be wiser to approach tentatively, and by eroding the effectiveness of your resolve if you later realize you would be better off backing out of your resolution.
Sticking with resolutions you’ve outgrown
You may have made commitments in your youth that no longer serve much purpose in your life. But having staked your character on your decision—having become “the sort of person who” has that commitment—you find it hard to surrender what is now a white elephant of a resolution. Commitments that lock you in to being a certain sort of person, with a certain set of values and interests, over the potentially long span of your life, can unwisely fail to account for the way people and their contexts change. Maybe put off getting that favorite-band or clever-meme tattoo for a few more years.
Trying to resolve the world instead of yourself
Resolution or determination is only the pivot point; after the resolution or determination comes the work of carrying out whatever you have resolved to. But sometimes people are tempted to view the pivot point magically as though it had much more power than that.
When I was a boy, my father went through Erhard Seminars Training (EST), an ancestor of today’s Landmark Forum. He joined an EST-related group called “The Hunger Project” which was to end world hunger by 1990. Werner Erhard was of the opinion that the key to ending world hunger was to make the end of world hunger “an idea whose time has come.” So this group did not focus on providing food to the hungry or on improving food-providing networks, but instead on convincing people “to take personal responsibility for making the end of starvation an idea whose time has come.” The project had a relentless focus not on practical steps that would alleviate world hunger, but on a “common stand, a commitment, a declaration… a worldwide, grass-roots commitment… [a] growing expression of commitment… [of the] boldly determined… expressing their commitment… because they themselves are committed… and [have] the commitment to realize their vision.” Needless to say, world hunger did not end by 1990, and no amount of “commitment” could wish that away.
If you have the virtue of resolve, you can resolve that you will do something and be confident that you will in fact do it. But what you cannot do is to resolve that someone else or something else will turn out a certain way. That may be largely up to forces beyond your control, and to pretend otherwise is to leave the realm of resolution for the realm of magic.
How to enhance your resolve
The two major components to resolution are 1) to explicitly choose one option of those available, and 2) for your choice to be a potent one that actually guides your actions. A variety of methods may help you improve in one or both of these components.
Balance the explorer and exploiter mindsets
Curiosity, imagination, and flexibility are virtues of the “explorer” who is seeking out the best options; resolve, persistence, and tenacity are virtues of the “exploiter” who is trying to get the most out of an option they have chosen. A skillful balance of both modes will get you the most bang for your buck. Some people seem to overweight the explorer mode, others the exploiter mode. If you already tend to overweight the exploiter mode, it may be that advice on how to practice more determination or resolve is the opposite of what you need.
Make decisions well
Perhaps it goes without saying, but you will be more confident when you decide, and more apt to follow-through on your decision, if you have made your decision well.
This does not necessarily mean that you know for sure that your decision is the best one. You may not be able to know that. The future is full of surprises, and we often make decisions in unavoidable ignorance and uncertainty. Sometimes we reassess our goals and values in a way that calls into question our past commitments. And it’s often impractical to thoroughly vet all of our possible options.
However, if you know you used a rational, prudent process in the face of these constraints, you can at least be confident that you are making the best decision you know how to make.
It is important that you be able to decide even though you can’t know all the ramifications of your choice. If you wait until you can see the future perfectly you’ll never stop waiting. “Grand commitments do not need grand blueprints.” Sometimes you need to commit just to begin drawing up the blueprints.
The “non resolve” technique
Among the obstacles to decisiveness are “fear of regret,” “fear of association,” and “fear of missing out.” If you wed yourself to one course of action, you may mourn the loss of your other options, or have buyer’s remorse over the one you chose.
Linda Linsefors of the Center for Applied Rationality suggested a workaround for this that she calls “Non Resolve.” It has two main elements:
- When you are deciding, carefully consider the arguments for and against your decision. That way, if you are later tempted to deviate from your decision, you can’t use “newly discovered” counterarguments that were there all along as an excuse.
- Give yourself explicit permission to later consider any genuinely new arguments against your decision, and to abandon your decision if (and only if) those new arguments are substantial enough to mean the decision is no longer a good one.
Ironically, in order to commit, it can help to know that you have the option to quit or change your mind. Otherwise you risk being paralyzed by the fear that your choice will lock you in.
In a similar spirit, you may be conditionally decisive. For example, you might say “I resolve to do X, unless Y or Z happen, in which case to hell with it.” Another form of conditional decision is the assurance contract in which you resolve to do X if some condition is met (e.g. if someone else, or some minimum number of someone-elses, make a similar resolution).
What would Brian Boitano do?
When you are conflicted or indecisive, it may help to imaginatively recast your decision as though it were being confronted by someone you especially admire—even if, or maybe especially if, that person is largely a speculative anthropomorphized projection of your values and aspirations. What would a person whose judgement you most admire do in your situation?
Imagine counterfactual restrictions on your choice
There are several “mind hacks” that are meant to improve your decision-making by asking you to imagine a scenario in which your range of choices were restricted in some way.
For example, when you find yourself unable to decide between two possible alternatives, you may be counseled to flip a coin—but not to decide based on the results of the coin-flip, but on how, once the coin is in the air, you come to realize you hope the coin-flip turns out.
Another example is to change your perspective on the decision you are contemplating: Try to imagine a future in which you have already made the decision and you are looking back on it. In one version of this technique, known as a “premortem,” you imagine that your favored decision has turned out disastrously, and you try to preconstruct how that disaster happened.
If some decision begins to seem inevitable, try to imagine a world in which that decision were impossible: what then would you do instead?
These hacks, and others like them, are designed to help you more vividly and thoroughly explore your space of options, so that when you do make a decision, you do so from a more well-informed place and so can do so more confidently.
Burning your boats and other “commitment mechanisms”
One way to better guarantee that you follow through on your resolutions is to make them more difficult to reverse. For example: once you’ve tattooed “MS-13” across your face, you become much less likely to deviate from your chosen career path.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her study of utopian intentional communities, found that the ones that required their members to make strong sacrifices in order to join (such as surrendering their assets to the group) had more staying power.
For some decisions, there are built-in disincentives to backtrack. For others, the sunk-cost fallacy can (arguably) work in your favor in this way. The virtue of shame can also discourage you from abandoning your resolutions. Where these are of no help, you may need to artificially induce this sort of commitment.
The idea of “burning your boats” originates from the decision of conquistador Hernan Cortés to scuttle his ships off Mexico so as to eliminate the option for his crew to mutiny and return to Cuba rather than continue to battle toward Tenochtitlán. Another legendary maritime example is the Ulysses pact. Ulysses, knowing that as his ship passed the Sirens they would convincingly persuade him to abandon his rational decisions and instead doom himself and his crew, had himself strapped to the mast so that he could not act on their directives, and his crew’s ears stopped up so that they could neither hear the Sirens nor his inevitably deranged commands.
The burn-your-boats gambit is an extreme version of a more mundane strategy, which is simply to arrange your environment as best you can so that it supports the resolution you have made. If you resolve to exercise every day, then put your exercise equipment in a convenient place, free from any clutter you will need to clear away first, etc. If you resolve to stick to some diet, make sure that diet’s recommended foods are the easiest ones to grab when you’re hungry.
Brinksmanship uses displays of resolve as a signalling device. In the game of “chicken”, the drivers of two cars drive at speed directly towards each other. The first person to deviate from this collision-course in order to avoid the fatal catastrophe is declared the “chicken” and by convention loses the game. A commitment mechanism that would work as a legible signalling device in such a game would be for a driver to remove the steering wheel from the car and throw it out the window, thereby convincing the other driver that their only alternative to intolerable calamity is concession.
Applications like Beeminder and stikK allow you to add financial costs to your failure to follow-through with a variety of decisions. For example, if you resolve to lose weight, you can rig up Beeminder such that it takes a certain amount of money from you if you deviate too far from your weight target. Possibly even more motivating, you can configure stikK to donate your money to your least-favorite political cause if you fail to follow through on your decision.
Positive incentives can work, too. You might sweeten the pot of a decision you make by adding a superfluous reward to it. “Not only do I resolve to lose fifteen pounds by Summer, but if I do I’m going to treat myself to a weekend at favorite-place.” @sarahconstantin suggested that you reconfigure your social network to surround yourself with people who give you positive social feedback for following-through on your commitments.
As a motivational hack towards any kind of project, it really helps to set yourself up to have recurrent social interactions with people who support you in that project.… Actually select for people who like the thing you’re into, and it’s astonishing how much it’ll feel like the “world” supports you!
Exercise caution around commitment mechanisms
Commitment mechanisms can be abused. Used carefully, they help you make decisions and stick to them. But used unwisely, they can be a way of “tying your hands” so that you can excuse yourself from having to make decisions.
Remind yourself of your big-picture goals
Often, our difficult decisions involve means to ends that are themselves means to greater ends. The intermediate ends may not be very motivating, but while we are focused on accomplishing on them we may lose sight of more attractive and more distant goals. It can help you motivate your decision-making and your follow-through to “keep your eyes on the prize.”
@Emiya uses a version of this technique called “The Evil Master Plan File”:
I feel pretty silly explaining it to others, and I can say this works only based on my experience.
I keep a file that has my Master Plan to “take over the world” in it (basically your end goal, what you want to obtain in the real long term).
I go look at it once in a while, to remember what I’m trying to do and sticking with it. I keep it as organised as possible, with partial objectives and the steps I need to do to succeed in these objectives.…
I might occasionally try to gloat and laugh evilly as I work on it. I find super villain mentality to be highly motivating, which is why I refer to as “my Master Plan to take over the world” rather than using a more realistic and precise name. I feel that without the super villain related stuff I wouldn’t find updating and working on it as interesting or amusing, and I’d risk losing track of it.
Memorialize your decision
This may also be a good reason to make your decision iconic, momentous, charged with portent, full of oaths and totems—if only because these things make the moment of your decisive conclusion easier to recall.
Sometimes people mark their commitments with a ceremony (like a housewarming, a baby shower, a wedding, taking an oath of office, writing down New Year’s resolutions). Another way you may mark your commitments is by incorporating them into your identity (e.g. as your “purpose,” “calling,” or “sense of vocation”).
If a resolve represents an ongoing commitment, without any obvious finish-line or discrete accomplishment, it may be helpful to celebrate milestones. Sobriety chips that mark a certain amount of time that a person has remained sober are one example. “I’d really like a drink right now, but I’m so close to my six-month chip” may seem like an unlikely motivator, but it can work. This is an example of the strategy of gamification—taking something that you wish you wanted to do and turning it into something you genuinely want to do by adding artificial elements to it that make it fun and intrinsically motivating.
Take care not to make too many values purely instrumental
Modern economic life is manic with possibility, and encourages us to be ever-ready for opportunity. As a result, we tend to view much of what we are, do, and own in terms of its exchange value. That way we can always trade away what we have today for a better offer tomorrow.
Money itself is a way of earning, gaining, accumulating, but at the same time keeping our options open about what it is exactly that we have earned, gained, or accumulated. Choosing something and taking stewardship of it—committing to taking care of it and learning how to use it well—or choosing something because it is special and intrinsically valuable to you, because you love it or find it sacred—is less common in an age of mass-produced, disposable, obsolescing consumer artifacts and an economy in which most of us have to market ourselves to employers and so have to be concerned about our own exchange value.
This sort of thing can retard decisive commitment. It is hard to commit to making your house a home, for example, if in the back of your mind you think of your house primarily as an investment whose market value you want to preserve or enhance. It is hard to commit to living your best life when a nagging inner-voice asks you “but how’s that going to look on my résumé?”
Incremental micro-decisions in the place of commencement-decisions
“If you correct course at a high enough frequency, you can be simultaneously decisive at a micro scale and tentative at a macro scale. The result is a somewhat winding path, but executed very rapidly, like the path a running back takes downfield. And in practice there’s less backtracking than you might expect.” ―Paul Graham
We may daydream about pivotal moments when we can bring about the right result all of a sudden in a dramatic and decisive way. But more typically it takes long-term, persistent, incremental work to move the needle.
When I meditate, I’ve often begun with a resolution (usually, in this context, called an “intention” for obscure cultural reasons) like “I’m going to keep my conscious mind attending to the sensations of breathing for the duration of the meditation session.” And, to put it plainly: a hell of a lot of good that does me. Ten minutes in and I’m lost in a daydream with my breath unattended to.
@moridinamael points out that there’s another way to go about this. Rather than making a big commitment up-front and relying on your willpower to keep your hand steady on the rudder, make little commitments as you go, by building those commitments in—recursively—to the task you’re committing to. This works in meditation (it’s improved mine), and you may be able to extend it to decisions off-the-cushion as well.
A similar techinque is @Unreal’s “policy-based” (as opposed to “willpower-based”) decisions. By establishing a policy-for-deciding rather than a decision, you don’t make your initial resolution do all the work:
It basically costs no willpower to implement the policy. I’m not having to nudge myself, “Now remember I decided I’d do X in these situations.” I’m not having to consciously hold the intention in my mind. It’s more like I changed the underlying code—the old, default behavior—and now it just runs the new script automatically.
The “one day at a time” slogan that is common in addiction recovery is another example of this. Sincere vows to be sober henceforth and forever aren’t worth a whole lot, as the addict often discovers. Instead, the daily work of staying sober for the rest of today is where it’s at.
But there may be a class of decisions for which a decisive initial gambit is the only way to make them happen—where the only micro-intentions available are those that delay or evade the decision. You don’t always notice when you’re making a decision if that decision is merely to stick with the status quo or with already-established habits.
A woman from Alabama dreams of visiting Italy. One year she has the chance to go but postpones the trip because of responsibilities at work. Time slips by, and she thinks often of Italy, but years turn into decades, and eventually her health deteriorates to the point where she can’t make the trip. When, exactly, did she “choose” not to visit Italy? Was it every day? Or never? She surely never expected that her first decision, to postpone the trip, would become a permanent one.
Insights about near mode and far mode thinking may be important in understanding how to make effective resolutions. If you make your resolutions in far mode, but ultimately decide on your actions in near mode, they may get out of sync. One way this problem is addressed in the addiction recovery context is for the addict to rehearse real-world near-mode scenarios (either in the imagination, or by doing role-playing with others) in which they might be tempted to deviate from their far-mode resolution to stop using, and how they will successfully respond to such temptations. This makes it easier for them to translate their far-mode resolution into near-mode behaviors that implement the resolution. You may recognize this as a variety of trigger-action planning.
Ignatius of Loyola developed an influential technique for making important decisions that, while it is tightly coupled to Christian metaphysical assumptions, may have some hints of broader applicability. Here’s my attempt at a probably overly-simplified and overly-secularized paraphrase:
To make a good choice, make sure that your most important, primary end is first in mind. Don’t get lost in the details before you begin, and make sure that you fit the means to the end and not the end to the means.
When you are making an important choice—for instance a “how shall I live?” sort of decision—there are three ways you might go about it. First, if you are lucky, God will make your path clear to you in an unmistakable and incontrovertible way, and then all you have to do is hop to it. Second, your attentive “experience of desolations and consolations” (spiritual struggles in which you zig-zag towards and away from God) “and discernment of diverse spirits” (spirits of different sorts may urge you to either good or bad decisions) may throw light on your conundrum and show you the way forward.
However, sometimes you don’t have either of those to work with. In such cases, get yourself some breathing room and try the third method, for which there are two techniques:
- Bring to mind whatever it is you are deliberating about: whatever it is that depends on your choice. Keeping your primary end in mind, begin your deliberation in equilibrium, without a bias toward deciding one way or another. Ask God for help in deciding correctly, then use your understanding to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the various alternatives. After pondering in this way every aspect of the matter, use your reason to choose the best alternative.
- If you are already leaning towards making a particular choice, double-check your motivations to make sure this is for the right reasons. Consider an imaginary third-party confronting this choice, and imagine that you want the best for them. What advice would you give them? Consider what choice you would make if you were on death’s door—if this were the last decision you were going to make. Consider what choice would you would wish you had made if you were defending your choice before the Divine Judge. Then, having considered these things, pick the choice that stands up best to these considerations.
Then, either way, offer your choice up in prayer and listen for God’s opinion.
Set a tripwire
If you find yourself indecisively muddling and you suspect you would be better off making a decision, but you are having a hard time choosing, you might consider setting a “tripwire” that will compel a decision. This can be an arbitrary thing like a self-imposed deadline (“If I haven’t made up my mind by Thursday, I’ll flip a coin”) or it can be a condition (“if one more person quits, I’ll start sending my résumé around”).
Sleep on it
People can be influenced in their decision-making by their emotional state, by characteristics of their environments, and by “decision fatigue” (people tend to make poorer decisions, or simpler decisions whether or not they are good ones, if they have recently had to make a lot of other decisions).
So one way to have more confidence in your decision-making is to make a tentative decision, sleep on it, and then see if that decision still seems like a good idea in the morning. This evens out some of the transient emotional and environmental effects.
Another way of addressing decision fatigue is through simplification. I have heard it said that executives like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg who wear monotonously consistent wardrobes do so in order to reduce the number of decisions they have to make. This way they can conserve their decision-making mojo for decisions that really count.
Concentration is a sort of decisiveness—you resolve to commit your attention span to one thing rather than letting it ricochet among the many distractions trying to claw it away. People who have difficulty focusing their attention may be suffering from the same sort of fear-of-missing-out that can make decisiveness in general difficult.
People who begin the Alcoholics Anonymous program are typically people who have decided to stop drinking… over and over again. AA begins with the counterintuitive idea that the key to not drinking is to give up on deciding not to drink. The alcoholic cannot effectively decide to stop drinking—such is the nature of the beast—and so should stop trying. Instead alcoholics need to hand the steering wheel over to “a Power greater than ourselves” and let this Power do the steering.
It sounds fishy to me, but it seems to work for many people when nothing else does. While the canonical Power is, of course, God (“as we understood Him”), AA members have invented a vast and varied pantheon of “higher powers” to rely on, many of which aren’t very god-like at all.
Giving up can also be an anti-pattern that interferes with decisiveness. Giving up is sometimes a coping strategy for dealing with stress. If you over-rely on it, the solution might be to strengthen some of the many other possible coping strategies. But this shades into other virtues like endurance, perseverance, and patience, so I’ll stop there.
Iris Murdoch believed that decisiveness was not so much a particular activity that happens only once you reach the crossroads, but is a sort of natural side-effect of being habitually, skillfully attentive:
[I]f we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments. The moral life, on this view, is something that goes on continually…
If life seems to happen to you, and you find yourself wondering “when did I decide to live this way?” it may be time for you to develop some resolve. Resolve seems to be more of an art than a science. How do you know when the moment to decide has arrived? How do you know which decisions require discrete resolutions, and which would work best with ongoing micro-resolutions, and which would be better addressed through adaptability rather than decisiveness? How do you balance being flexible enough to cut your losses with being resolute enough to weather misfortune?
I had some hope when I started the research for this post that I would find some good answers, or at least rules-of-thumb, for questions like these. No such luck. This seems to remain one of those areas of life where you hone a fuzzy intuition by trial and error, and where you may never be able to fully articulate your heuristics.
I hope that some of what I have dug up will help in making this process a little susceptible to conscious awareness and to rational honing.
Pete Davis Dedicated: the case for commitment in an age of infinite browsing (2021) chapter 4
“the defining characteristic of my generation”—Pete Davis Dedicated (2021)
Pete Davis Dedicated (2021) p. 33
Hannah Arendt “Thinking and Moral Considerations” Social Research 38 (1971) p. 438
Arne Johan Vetlesen, summarizing Hannah Arendt’s point of view, in Evil and Human Agency: Understanding Collective Evildoing (2005)
Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics Ⅵ.2
Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze, and John-Dylan Haynes “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain” Nature Neuroscience 11 (2008) pp. 543–45.
Other examples of this sort of thing include Benjamin Libet, Curtis A. Gleason, Elwood W. Wright, and Dennis K. Pearl “Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential)—The Unconscious Initiation of a Freely Voluntary Act” Brain 106 (1983) pp. 623–642; Chun Siong Soon, Anna Hanxi He, Stefan Bode, and John-Dylan Haynesa “Predicting free choices for abstract intentions” Procedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 110 (2013) pp. 6217–22; and Roger Koenig-Robert, and Joel Pearson, “Decoding the contents and strength of imagery before volitional engagement” Scientific Reports 9 (2019) #3504
The jury is still out about less-arbitrary decisions. See for example Uri Maoz, Gideon Yaffe, Christof Koch, and Liad Mudrik “Neural precursors of decisions that matter—an ERP study of deliberate and arbitrary choice” eLife 8 (2019).
Antonio Damasio Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994)
Chip Heath & Dan Heath Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work Crown Publishing (2013) p. 23
Chip Heath & Dan Heath Decisive (2013) p. 160
Jonah Lehrer How We Decide Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2009). This book is mostly about how to make better decisions, rather than how to be decisive or resolute, however, so I don’t refer to it much here. Also, there are some questions about Lehrer’s scholarship.
Pete Davis Dedicated (2021) chapter 7
Chip Heath & Dan Heath Decisive (2013) p. 25
See e.g. Robin Hogarth Educating Intuition (2001).
Koturski, Joseph “The Ethics of Aristotle” The Teaching Company: The Great Courses
See also the discussion of “ambition and aspiration” in my Notes on Ambition
Pete Davis Dedicated (2021) chapter 13
Pete Davis Dedicated (2021) chapter 1
Ralph Waldo Emerson “Self-Reliance” Essays (1841)
Søren Kierkegaard Either/Or (1843)
bryjnar “Choice begets regret” LessWrong 4 January 2018
Pete Davis Dedicated (2021) chapter 9
Pete Davis Dedicated (2021) chapter 11
An excellent meditation on how people use “serious” decisions and loyalties as a way of trying to evade the burden of choice is in part Ⅱ of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947)
Eliezer Yudkowsky “Just Lose Hope Already” LessWrong 24 February 2007
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Ⅶ.9
Werner Erhard The Hunger Project: An Idea Whose Time Has Come (1977) p. 28
Hunger Project Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time Has Come (1985) (these quotes all come from page 3)
The global hunger situation certainly improved between 1977 and 1990, but not appreciably more impressively than it had between 1970 and 1977.
Chip Heath & Dan Heath Decisive (2013) p. 252
Linda Linsefors “Non Resolve as Resolve” LessWrong 10 July 2018
Steven Johnson Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most (2018) p. 68
Rosabeth Moss Kanter Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (1972)
sarahconstantin “ ‘Cheat to Win’: Engineering Positive Social Feedback” LessWrong 5 Feburary 2018
Pete Davis Dedicated (2021) chapter 7; however in chapter 8 he also notes that this can be another factor in making people reluctant to commit: new commitments can threaten old identities. Commitments are also often package deals: you have to take the good with the bad, and this includes the effect on your identity.
Pete Davis Dedicated (2021) chapter 10
Paul Graham “What I've Learned from Users” September 2022
moridinamael “Spamming Micro-Intentions to Generate Willpower” LessWrong 13 February 2018
Unreal “Policy-Based vs Willpower-Based Intentions” LessWrong 27 February 2019
Chip Heath & Dan Heath Decisive (2013) pp. 221–22
Michael W. Otto, et al. “Attending to emotional cues for drug abuse: bridging the gap between clinic and home behaviors.” Science & Practice Perspectives (2007) pp. 48–56
Ignatius of Loyola Spiritual Exercises (1548) §169–188
Chip Heath & Dan Heath Decisive (2013) p. 227
Steven Johnson Farsighted (2018) pp. 142–43
e.g. Vincent Carlos “Why Successful People Wear The Same Thing Every Day” The Startup 31 October 2019
Step one of the Twelve Steps: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Steps two and three of the Twelve Steps: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” and “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
Iris Murdoch, “The Idea of Perfection” (1962) in Existentialists and Mystics, pp. 299–336.
David - this is a topic I think about a lot since I work with a lot of startups that usually need to operate with a high sense of urgency to succeed.
Another take on decisiveness is offered by John Cleese in his book on creativity.
In one of the chapters, he mentions a study of architects widely regarded to be most creative in their field by their peers. Architects were picked because their jobs involve a clear combination of the creative and practical.
When he compared the architects considered most creative, he found two key differences: The first was that they hadn't forgotten how to "play" in the sense that they hadn't unlearned that instinct from their childhood when it came to coming up with ideas. Secondly, and more surprisingly, they appeared to procrastinate more, or at least he thought that at first. But on closer inspection, he concluded that they were choosing not to decide if there was no advantage to deciding early. He noticed that lots of people like to make decisions sooner because they are uncomfortable with holding an unresolved issue in their mind for too long. It creates anxiety, plus there is status in groups to be gained by appearing decisive since others like closure sooner as well. But the research suggested that the trait of not deciding before there was a disadvantage to waiting suggested a greater sense of comfort with the ambiguity that persisted before making the decision.
I thought this was interesting because it resonates with what I've observed in some of the people who have come up with creative breakthroughs. You might like that book if you haven't seen it already.