Both in my clinical career and personal life, I’ve encountered many people who’ve shown great hesitation in pursuing their goals, big and small. Sometimes, they have voiced their frustration with and regrets about their habitual hesitation and their wish to overcome it.

In the times they’ve tried explaining to me both their hesitation and their frustration with it, they’ve used the words ‘hesitation’ and ‘caution’ in the sense that they wish to be rid of hesitation while remaining cautious.

They are right in drawing a distinction between hesitation and caution, and to associate caution with a positive quality and hesitation with a negative one. But they have not further explored the meanings of these terms and, thus, have not found a solution to the conundrum of keeping the good and jettisoning the bad aspect of pausing or abstaining from taking some desired action.

So, today I explore the meanings of caution and hesitation and, from this, suggest a partial solution.

To start, caution is defined as “care taken to avoid danger or mistakes.” Etymologically, it derives from the Latin cavere, meaning “to take heed,” and is associated with the virtue of prudence. Prudence itself is defined as “practical wisdom or sagacity, the ability to govern and discipline oneself through the use of reason, preparation, and the taking of skilled action.”

Now let’s consider hesitation. It is defined as “the act or instance of pausing before saying or doing something.” The pause is often viewed as a faltering or wavering, a break in activity that is partially involuntary, that leaves the person stymied, confused, or torn between competing impulses, and, thus at times, frozen in indecision. Both the words ‘hesitation’ and ‘pause’ suggest that this break in forward action is temporary, possibly short-lived. But we know that all too often that once hesitation occurs, progression towards the goal can remain stymied forever.

Let me clarify one aspect of ‘a pause’ before I proceed. When proceeding toward a goal that requires many steps and is extended over time, then even with good planning and preparation, unexpected developments will invariably arise. So, pausing is not necessarily a negative; in fact, we would do well to pause and reflect and course correct as needed in these situations. The word ‘hesitation,’ however, invariably conveys a negative type of pause, one borne of anxiety or fear. If the pause is wise abstaining from further action, then we would not call it hesitation. Instead, we might call it wise reflection or reconsideration, a pause used to re-evaluate one’s options in light of new developments. And all these mental activities would be in service of taking action newly aligned with current circumstances.

First, some words about temperament. People are temperamentally more or less risk averse and, through various life experiences, have learned to be more or less willing to undertake risky projects. But irrespective of someone’s dispositions to action-taking, there are simple approaches to take that can improve anyone’s ability to achieve desired goals.


Having reviewed some definitions, meanings, and implications of caution and hesitation, the outlines of a solution have come into view. The goal is to become more cautious and less hesitant.

To be more cautious means to take care, to heed potential outcomes, and to remain prudent, meaning to plan, prepare, and ensure one grows one’s skills of perception and action-taking. Such steps likely will decrease the anxiety and fear that give rise to hesitation, often a paralyzing form of it. The irony, in my experience, is that the persons most hesitant, anxious, and fearful are often the least likely to plan, prepare, and grow their skill set. All too often they are too enervated and preoccupied with scary ruminations to undertake a clear-eyed and action-oriented plan for becoming more skilled at achieving desired goals.

Let me provide two examples of how to be cautious but not hesitant. The first example is financially trivial while the second one can be financially meaningful.

Shopping Example

Imagine that one of your pet peeves about yourself is that when you shop for things, like clothes, furniture, maybe vacation packages, you find yourself hesitating to the point of missing out on opportunities. Consider that fine jacket on sale you eyed and tried on and told yourself you need to ‘sleep on it’ but didn’t take action for a week or two. When you were ready to act, you discovered it was already sold out. And, of course, this isn’t the first time this has happened. This scenario plays itself out over and over and leaves you angry at yourself. It’s not the end of the world, of course, but you are left with a long series of small regrets.

What to do? One possibility is to set a monthly or quarterly discretionary budget for yourself, one specifically for clothes or vacations. This way you enter potential shopping occasions forearmed with a budget. You are both constrained by your budget but also freer to act within its boundaries. For example, perhaps you see a nice jacket, it fits well, and it fills a gap in your wardrobe. Great. Consider your budget: if that jacket cost fits comfortably within your remaining budgetary reserves, then go for it. Wear it and enjoy it. Of course, this approach still leaves open the possibility of ruminating about, “what if something even better becomes available next week?” If you are prone to this type of second guessing, you can calmly explain to yourself that next month or next quarter, you will have fresh funds to use as you please when that time arrives with its own set of beautiful opportunities.

Financial Investing Example

Image now a more financially consequential scenario. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who at parties launches into telling your friends how you could have bought Apple stock when its was only $XX and you knew it was a great buy, but you hesitated until that opportunity passed you by. You feel sad and shake your head. Everyone around you does too because everyone else, it seems, shares such regrets. And, hey, count me in – but don’t get me started with my own sob stories!

So, we can take a similar approach to the clothes buying one. In addition to your professionally-managed, well-diversified investment portfolio – which I hope you have – perhaps you have an agreement with yourself to have X number of dollars located in an outside-the-portfolio investment account. Let’s pretend this amount is $10,000 per year. Let’s say that some world event occurs that causes tech stocks to heavily drop in price. You have every reason to believe their value will bounce back within months. Over your lifetime you’ve hesitated and missed plenty of such opportunities. But not this time! Now you have $10,000 waiting for you in your outside-the-portfolio account. Now whenever you eye an opportunity you can grab it by using money specifically dedicated to just this type of situation. Let’s say you buy $3000 worth of Google stock now. Well, you’ve still got $7000 left for the rest of the year for other opportunities.

Now I would call this a judicious and prudent approach. You’re investing what you can afford to lose. You already have a professionally managed portfolio. And you have some rules by which you decide whether you will proceed to buy or not. This approach is one of increased caution by having planned and prepared and having set the conditions for a growing skill in investing which should make future decisions and actions even more likely to be successful. At the same time, we’ve decreased hesitation by limiting the risk and the grounds for dire ruminations that interfere with smart action taking.

Thanks, and let me know what you think and which topic you would want me to cover next.

Dr. Jack

Language Brief

“If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try.”Seth Godin

“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead.”Susan Sontag

“Your hesitation leads you towards the defeat. Fight with that and overcome to enjoy your life.”Ehsan Sehgal

“I want to take my rightful share of life by force, I want to give lavishly, I want love to flow from my heart, to ripen and bear fruit. There are many horizons that must be visited, fruit that must be plucked, books read, and white pages in the scrolls of life to be inscribed with vivid sentences in a bold hand.”Tayeb Salih