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Decisions, Decisions

September 3, 2013

I have a hard time making decisions.


Well, that’s only partially true. I actually make decisions very quickly–sometimes instantaneously when faced with a problem to solve or a strategy question.  Given an either/or decision to make, give me 30 seconds max. I make decisions about people very quickly too. Your friend-potential is judged within a few minutes. You go on a date with me and within about 15 minutes I know where things are going (or not going).

See…the problem is that even though I pretty much know my path of action from the first moment (which you can argue the merits of if you want to), I then start to doubt myself.  I run through the million permutations that a decision could take, then the million permutations of the other decisions I already rejected.  I circle fully back to where I started and reaffirm my original decision.  Then I start to worry about whether I missed something, and I do it all over again.  Sometimes I talk things through with colleagues or friends, and sometimes I just let my own brain run rampant all hours of the night…sometimes about relatively inconsequential decisions.  Impending big decisions mean weeks of poor sleep and anxious waking hours.

I think back to some of the decisions that I put off–at work and at home–and I am frustrated by how much mental energy I have expended seemingly unnecessarily.  I ultimately follow my original impulse almost always (we’re talking 99% of the time), and yet I spend countless hours and Xanax prescriptions worrying that my impulse is wrong.

Part of me wonders if this is normal for people in general.  Another part of me wonders if this is merely a symptom of my Type A personality, my anxiety-prone mind, or if it’s a symptom of people in positions of leadership who still give a damn.

The reason for that last one is that I don’t remember having this kind of waffling on decisions–at work or at home–until I first became a manager several years ago.  Maybe I only waffle now because what I do impacts more people (in theory)? Or a fear that a wrong decision will have negative consequences for my career or my colleagues?  Or perhaps experience in the managerial seat has taught me that you’d darn well better run through all the scenarios before jumping?  Or perhaps the simple experience of time and age has taught me to be more cautious or prudent?  Is this simply a sign of a responsible person? Of someone who still cares about the effects of her decisions?

What’s disturbing is that it has definitely bled from my professional life into my personal life. Those personal decisions are just as hard for me to make as the professional ones now.  That’s not good.

I have no idea where it comes from…all I have are guesses.  I know that the indecision I feel is real.  But I still muscle through and make the decisions, including the really big ones, the really hard ones, and the ones that I know will have negative consequences for someone, including me. Ultimately I take the plunge, but I ruminate far too long.

After reflecting on this issue over the last week or so and writing this post, I am going to make a concerted effort to trust my intuition more. My judgement is pretty good both personally and professionally. Sure, sometimes I’m wrong. We all are.  But my instinct is usually right, despite my self-doubt. I need to stop self-doubting and learn some self-confidence. I encourage you to do the same.

“Decisions, Decisions”

  1. Sara S. Says:

    “,,,A symptom of people in positions of leadership who still give a damn” – So unabashedly honest. Thank you for continuing to reaffirm my faith in the managerial set.

  2. Diane Giarrusso Says:

    I think part of the paralysis is that, when dealing with public money as you do in any governmental or NP organization, there are always people who second guess our decisions (and not always in the most respectful of manners) and the level of due diligence is higher than when we make our own personal decisions. I think about this a lot. Especially now that the pace of change is so fast. In a municipality, it’s hard to make a quick decision due to the transparent process needed to expend money and the number of board and committees needed for review. I understand why we have these procedures to follow, but they do slow down the decision making process. Wishing that
    “they would just trust my professional integrity” is useless given the amount of unprofessional, unethical behavior that predates us and caused the current spending guidelines and required ethical training.

    I understand your frustration, and in my case, some of it is due to my Type-A, perfectionist personality. A good deal of it though is the result of working in municipalities for the totality of my career and experiencing all kinds of managerial decision making styles. You are not alone in your habit of rampant reconsideration!

  3. Wilson Dizard Says:

    Hello Dear:

    No worries, mate.

    The reason why people are reading and seriously considering your opinions is exactly because of the methods by which you reach them.

    People have public lives, private lives & secret lives, and thank goodness for that.

    If you ever doubt that indecision, or hasty decision-making, has consequences, just grab a stack of autobiographies by generals and admirals. When those people make mistakes, which they do all the time, others for whom they care very deeply pay with their lives. That’s the human condition.

    Of course, we can’t and don’t grow librarians, or generals, or surgeons, or medical researchers, or Popes in test tubes.

    That’s because significant decisions engage not only your intellect, but your emotions and your spiritual identity, whatever that might be.

    Every elementary school classroom teacher, who in this country typically deals with a classroom that reflects a range of intellectual attainments, gender predispositions, emotional biases and physical maturity as well as the child’s spiritual inheritance from the home environment, deals with those choices every day.

    And those teachers, as well as the librarians who support the educational infrastructure, work as the front-line intermediaries between that constantly-changing clientele and the educational bureaucracy. That bureaucracy stands between the classroom teachers and the politicians, who in turn mediate the viewpoints of the general public (or their campaign contributors, depending on how you look at it).

    (Most important of all to me, the inevitable misunderstandings and virulent antipathy among those interest groups provide an inexhaustible wellspring of amusement for news reporters & editors. Which is, at the end of the day, the most important mission of our representative democracy.)

    If it were possible to reduce the decisions you agonize over to simple sets of rules, that would already have been done. It actually has been done in many cases. The last time I went to the Bethesda branch library in Montgomery County, Md., I used the computerized book and magazine checkout system. That’s an example of algorithms freeing librarians for more important work.

    But, America’s libraries (which operate in a culture that varies by region but is distinguished from other national cultures by history and law) don’t want and can’t use robots.

    Robolilbrarians would have the same flaws as RoboCops or RoboWarriors.

    They would be like a toddler who learns a new grammar rule and then applies it to all instances where it might apply, by a process of trial and error, and so learns the exceptions to the algorithm,

    Hence, the librarian-in-the-loop doctrine, a version of the warrior-in-the-loop doctrine for autonomous systems of various kinds.

    Returning to the military analogy: aim with eye, shoot with the mind, kill with the heart. Good librarians, like good soldiers, are people who make moral choices. That’s not easy, but it has to be that way.

    And other people recognize that in them.

    Many people who knew President Theodore Roosevelt thought that the man was very nearly insane. But, many of those same people recognized qualities in him which they lacked; which were essential to his work and to the protection of others from those who would do them harm. And so they supported him by offering him their votes; and in some instances, actually sacrificing their lives.

    Keep up the good work.

    We appreciate it* very much.

    Good Luck and Best Regards, Wilson

    *(Some of us are even praying for yourself & your ilk, perhaps especially for your ilk. But don’t let on.)

  4. Dorothea Salo Says:

    There’s been some curious research into cognitive load that may help explain some of this… for example, that making a lot of decisions earlier in the day increases the difficulty of making decisions later in the day. So far, indications are that human beings have a mental pool of decisionmaking ability… and it is quite possible to exhaust that pool.

    What to DO about it, other than be aware and try to stagger bouts of decisionmaking… yeah, well, the research doesn’t seem to have got that far yet. (For my part, I try to be conscious of how much grading I do at once, because I know I’m harsher when I feel tired…)

    FWIW, YMMV, etc.

  5. Emilia Almazan Says:

    I couldn’t decide whether I should post this or not…. Keep up the excellent work!

  6. Michael Golrick Says:

    The comment immediately above this made me laugh… so captures me some of the time.

    I hope it helps you to feel better to know that you are not alone. One saying that helps me deal with it is the saying: Not to decide is to decide. Sometimes (but only sometimes) that helps me to decide.

    I think it does come with the managerial territory, and with the repercussions of past decisions.

    For me, I just do the best I can….every day. I have heard another expression (I am just full of aphorisms and cliches today): Suit up and show up. You have done that well, keep doing it.

  7. Alex Foxcroft Says:

    “I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napoleon has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”
    ― George Orwell, Animal Farm

  8. Teapot Dame Says:

    It should come as no surprise, upon assuming a management role in a public library, that the weight of decision-making feels heavier. It should. Brick & mortar libraries are the bedrock of our democracy. And guess what? Hate to be the Big Bad Wolf here, but You Are a Public Servant. Accountable to the people.

    While self-absorption and ephemeral whims may guide your domestic decisions, well, that’s your business. But the decision-making you do at the library is the People’s Business. It has gravitas. Decisions in the public sector should be governed by fairness, by truthful and compassionate regard for all people, not just for some. Important decisions aren’t supposed to be easy.

    Your musings in an earlier post include the observation, “What are libraries, after all, but its people?” That’s right, people, not avatars. The consequences of choices you make in your professional capacity extend far beyond the insular demi-monde of virtual interaction… they affect flesh-and-blood people — patrons and personnel — with real needs and aspirations.

    In the same post, you also refer to a morale problem among the people who work for you. Yet in pondering the problem, you seem far more preoccupied with cataloging external factors over which you have limited control and which consequently will not reflect badly on you. It’s as though staff is a commodity, and you are busy protecting your BRAND.

    In framing your decision-making within the public sphere, maybe a good starting point is a truly honest assessment of your answers to some fundamental questions: Do you want to be a good person, or just seem good? Do you genuinely care about other people, or only when it’s convenient?

    Decision making is a skill. Wisdom, alas, is a leadership trait.

    Many an archetypal fable features an autocratic leader who, fearful of exposure, masquerades insecurities behind a decisive façade. And for those who suppose leadership is merely “trusting your gut”? Well, may I present Exhibit A , “The Decider” himself, George W. Bush?

    To mistake decisiveness for moral courage is dangerous. Genuine leadership—the real McCoy — is always governed by moral conscience. The qualities that have shaped the decisive moments throughout history require an ability to look through the confusion of the moment and see the moral issue involved. it is a refusal to allow a fundamental sense of justice to be distorted; it is the ability to listen to the voice of conscience until conscience becomes a trumpet call to like-minded people.

    As mere mortals, few of us will ever achieve that degree of greatness. We falter, we fail, we long for do-overs.

    Yet in my experience, if there is a conflict between conscience and success, something is wrong.

    If you cannot take responsibility for decisions that are later proven wrong; if you think it is a sign of weakness to change your mind or redress an injustice or have a change of heart.; if you cannot walk a mile in someone else’s pumps/Pumas; if you feel no compunction about taking credit for others’ ideas, are fearful that an underling may outshine you, and routinely see dissent as threatening…. then Please, Please, Please: Get out of Public Service. Public institutions aren’t for the feint of heart. Hie thee to the nearest air-conditioned, pest-free Google Bus. Take your talents, considerable as they are, to the private sector or some other setting where they may truly shine –with far less hand wringing and Xanex.

    If you choose to stay in public service, however, please tell me that the LIB spends at least as much time working on the frontlines of the reference desk as she does blogging. Just a couple hours a week, taking the pulse of the vox populi. shoulder to shoulder with the folks who do the hefty lifting, If you’re not at least doing that much….well, just remember: as a taxpaying citizen, that’s my dime you’re on.

  9. Sarah Says:

    In responding to the above commenter, I would first like to offer this person the opportunity to come visit with me any time at the Library to discuss any concerns, questions, or ideas this person has about library services. The comments read as though this concerned person is a member of the San Rafael community I serve. My door is open to you. We do care about what you think. I meet with members of the public regularly to discuss ideas and concerns. Feel free to email me at [email protected] if you wish to do so. If you do not wish to meet with me but wish your voice to be heard, feel free to attend any of our Library Board of Trustees meetings. Information on those can be found here: The next meeting is September 10th at 6pm at the Downtown Library.

    To answer your question, I would very much like to be working the reference desk and am glad you brought that up. I always insisted upon doing so at previous “behind the scenes” jobs and did so while I was Assistant Director here at SRPL. However, one year and nine months ago I became the sole person at the San Rafael Public Library acting as both Director and Assistant Director. I lost the time to work on many projects, trying to fill both roles by myself for nearly two years. There are things I have to not do in order to be able to achieve the goals for the library overall. Some of the things I had to stop doing included desk hours, technology projects, offering trainings and classes, engaging in more outreach efforts, and a host of other newly planned initiatives that had to be tabled. One person can only do so much. Aside from three months last summer when I was working at the Pickleweed Library to back-fill for a third job while our Branch Manager was out on extended leave, I have not been able to work the desk. We are excited to be hiring an Assistant Director soon though, at which point both I and that person will be able to work on the public desks once more. I agree that doing so is very important.

    And lastly, I do not write this blog (or the articles I write, the book chapters, the presentations, the conference sessions, etc.) on library work time. I do all of that on my own time, and my own dime. While I am on the City of San Rafael’s time (and dime), my attention is focused on our community, our libraries’ services, and our staff. I hope that puts your mind at ease about your public dime being put to good use.

  10. Mark Stawecki Says:

    Your initial post strongly reflects my current situation at my non-library job and my feelings on finding a library related one (which I’ve been actively doing since earning my Master’s last year).. One of my first jobs out of college was working at a bookstore. I remember the store manager saying “Sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions as a manager.” It’s a saying that’s helped me keep perspective when making decisions and being on the receiving end of them. The leaders that don’t seem stressed are either ones that don’t care or don’t know how to switch off. The latter can very difficult if it’s not in your personality, but it can be practiced.

  11. P Says:

    Dear LIB,

    It’s been years since I’ve been to your site but allow me to say that your blog was quite inspirational at a certain time in my career. Thought something positive in the comments might be nice. I can relate to some of your feelings. I am someone who is strongly intuitive, and I think that quality can make for very positive leadership qualities (I fit into the INFJ typology). I wonder if some of your quick judgement ability comes from such an intuition. Thank you for sharing, I love how honest and straightforward you are. Keep being your brave and unique self!!

  12. Tiny Librarian Says:

    Thank you for this. I just moved into my first management position. This post and the one about being a library director have helped me focus.

  13. Pat Says:

    Managers need the ability to operate both ways. Sometimes make quick decisions and other times seriously consider decisions. Sometimes one is appropriate, other times you need the other way of operating. It is situational rather than across the board. The trick is not going on autopilot but consciously choosing a course of action.

  14. Aim Says:

    Beautiful, absolutely beautiful. You have perfectly encapsulated the process of my own feverishly indecisive mind and it is very reassuring that others struggle with this as well. I’ve always thought the source of my seeming indecision to be a combination of my fear of being wrong/not making the most efficient choice and fear of expressing my wants/needs to people affected/involved in the decision. Thank you for your words.

  15. Jenn @ Lost in a Great Book Says:

    Ah, the eternal question: Did I make the right decision?

    You say: “I think back to some of the decisions that I put off–at work and at home–and I am frustrated by how much mental energy I have expended seemingly unnecessarily.”
    … and I wonder how you managed to read the thoughts in my head so clearly.

    I constantly second-guess my decisions, especially in regards to my management position. Is it a question of ‘spending other people’s money’? Or perhaps something bigger that I need to accept? Logically, I know that there is enough trust in me and my decision-making abilities and that I need to let go of my anxiety and just go on instinct. Still, it’s the indecision that makes me consider each decision carefully, and to make the best choice that I feel is available.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post!

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