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  • Writer's pictureBeatka Wójciak

Are you wasting time by changing your mind?

Updated: May 13, 2023

When I was in high school I spent quite some time deciding which university and faculty I wanted to go and study at. Luckily, my choices were already limited since I knew it would be computer science - the only thing left to figure out was where to study it.

Eventually I picked something, applied and got in. In the beginning it was alright, but a few months in I realised this was not the faculty with a focus I was interested in. My first thought was “but I already started and it would be a waste of a year to change now”.

Woman sitting on a rock on a cloudy day looking at a mountain road ahead

When I talked to my friends about it, they told me the same thing. Even more so, some of them were in a similar situation. Eventually though, I decided to take the leap. When the recruitment for the next year opened, I applied to a different university and got accepted there.

So what happened here?

The perfect choice

The sad reality of life is that you are expected to make important life choices before you know anything about their consequences, and what you actually want. How could you possibly know what exactly you want to study if you never went to any university? You can’t! You can talk to your older friends and people who already study what you want to, but it’s not the same as going through the experience yourself.

And this doesn’t end at choosing university either. It happens a lot throughout your life, for example when you’re choosing a job, or even a partner. You can’t really know what you want before you try a few different things and figure it out.

The good part though is that it’s okay to change your mind. There will be some peer pressure urging you not to, but it’s your life after all and you don’t have to let other people decide about it. It’s all a learning experience.

The power of default

The path of least resistance is always not making a change. It’s much easier: you’ve already decided once and you don’t want to go through the process again. This mechanism is very helpful when you’re trying to build good habits, but it can often also stop us from the life we want and deserve.

We can see this everywhere: a big reason why so many people save for retirement is because they’re automatically signed up to the scheme and would need to take action to resign. Or how organ donation rates in the UK skyrocketed when the law changed to make everyone a donor by default.

My resistance to change university was also a great example of this, why change? I was already a year into it after all.

Unfortunately, this inertia can leave us staying in bad situations for longer than we should. It goes beyond just deciding what to study, it can happen when we’re staying in a job we hate and makes us burn out, in a relationship that no longer serves us, or maybe is even flat out abusive.

Sunk cost fallacy

It wasn’t until much later in life when I realised that my initial unwillingness to change universities is a well known phenomenon called sunk cost fallacy. It’s when you’ve invested a lot of resources (be it time or money) into something and then changing course feels unreasonably costly.

Except that if you think about it more, staying the course might end up costing more. Yes, you already spent (or “wasted”) so much time on this, but that’s looking into the past - you won’t get this time back. However, if you look into the future, you’ll notice that you still have a choice, you can change where you devote your time.

That’s what happened with me back then: I could see that yes, I “lost” a year but I haven’t even started my career that would take another 40 years - this put everything into perspective and made it seem more worth the change.

Look ahead

Every risk you take, and every change you make, allows you to know yourself better. It helps you figure out who you are and where you want to go. Framing the change in this way makes it seem less risky and frankly quite exciting!

Imagine all the things you’ll discover by changing the direction you’re going. There’s nothing more rewarding than living a life true to yourself and your values. Sometimes it means going against the grain and expectations from society but it’s always worth it.

It doesn’t stop at picking a university, it’s an option at any point in life: when you want to change your career, start a company or take a career break altogether. It’s when you want to move to another country and leave everything behind, or when you decide to be a stay at home parent.

Invisible competition

Another factor at play here is that by losing a year of uni I’d end up behind: I’d need to study with people a year younger and would be “late” to start my career. Back then it felt like such a big problem to be “behind”.

But the only person you’re only really competing with is your past self. Everyone else is not only not competing with you, they’re playing a different game altogether. I realised this after my big change and it was really powerful.

This was what enabled me to take even more risks later on. After switching universities, I decided to go on a student exchange, and then had 2 semester-long internships during the school year. I also got quite sick during one of the semesters, which added to the delay. All these meant that in the end it took me not 5 (as originally planned) but 7 years to get my Master’s.

Time goes on

Do I regret losing two years at uni? I did at first, especially when I finally started a full time job and most other graduates were much younger than me. Then I remembered that they’re playing a different game.

It’s been over 10 years since I took this first big risk and now I can clearly see how it doesn’t really matter down the line that you’ve “lost some time”. If I hadn't taken that risk back then, I would have missed out on so much more I learned through my experiences.

Deep down, what all this boils down to is being scared of change. It’s normal, we’d all prefer to just stay in a comfortable situation, where we know what to expect. Sadly, this isn’t always best for us and sometimes we just need to take that leap.

You're not wasting your time, you spend it figuring out what you really want.

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