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Limbo: The Decision Purgatory

Published or Updated On: 
December 11, 2022

It's 3pm and my work day hasn't been going very well. My Important Project has stalled. I've investigated a couple of ideas on how to get it moving again, but they turned out to be dead ends. I'm stuck. More importantly, I'm spent. I've been at this for hours. It's time to call it quits, but I'm resistant because I feel like I haven't actually accomplished much for the day.

I linger at my desk, doing the work-equivalent of pushing my food around my plate, but I don't really get anything important done.

Without realizing it, I've entered limbo.

What is limbo?

Limbo is the place you find yourself when a decision is needed, but you fail to make one. It's a type of open loop. Without a clear decision, you may find yourself simply following the path of least resistance, defaulting to some shitty middle ground between options., or re-hashing the same question repeatedly.

Limbo examples:

1. "I need to do that errand, but I'm not sure when."

WHAT HAPPENS: you spend way more time than is necessary asking yourself "should I do it now?", and are vaguely annoyed each time you remember it still needs to be done.

2. "I should probably cut back on alcohol"

WHAT HAPPENS: probably isn't a decision, so you don't cut back and end up having this same thought again later.

3. "I want to take this holiday off, but I also feel I should keep pushing my work forward."

WHAT HAPPENS: you half-work, resulting in mediocre output without really relaxing/recharging.

Left to it's own devices, this is how the brain seems to operate

To make the benefits of avoiding limbo more clear, consider example #3 a bit further.

Say you decide on Thursday that you’re going to take the Friday holiday off. How much more are you going to enjoy Thursday evening? How much more will you relish waking up Friday morning, knowing the whole day is yours? 

Conversely, imagine not deciding and instead just defaulting into some kind of middleground. You allow yourself to work less, but spend the day uncertain about if you’ve “done enough”, wandering in a purgatory where you’re half on and half off. You end up neither producing great work nor enjoying a day of leisure. By failing to make a decision, you've ended up with the worst of both worlds.

How to avoid limbo

The key to avoiding limbo is to recognize when you’re entering it, and to be decisive in response.

This can be hard because usually, you have different forces pulling on you (e.g. "I want to take the day, but I also think I should work"). To avoid limbo, you need to make a decision.

In my experience, a perspective that can help encourage decisiveness is to recognize that most decisions don’t really matter in the long run. This is an important theme from The Paradox of Choice (notes here). What this means is that for all of the scenarios above, you should briefly consider your options, then go with your gut. But make that decision!

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