Should you order tacos or tikka masala? Stay at the hotel with the free breakfast or the one with all the succulents? Melt into the couch or drag yourself to happy hour?
If you’re like me, even the simplest decisions can make your pulse race. And when it comes to big, life-altering choices, the need to get it right (because life is short!), combined with ever-looming FOBO (fear of better options), can cause a state of near paralysis.
While this abundance of choice is a result of incredible privilege – not everyone has the freedom to select where they work or live, or how to spend their time or money – it can still be overwhelming. As Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, said, “I’m reasonably confident we’re operating with far, far more options in most parts of our life than we need and that serve us.”
Here are five strategies for spending less time agonising over decisions and more time appreciating the results.
GO FOR GOOD ENOUGH
Since perfectionism and indecision often go hand in hand, Dr Schwartz said your first step should be moving from a mind-set that “only the best will do” to “good enough is good enough.”
“In the current world, where choice is virtually unlimited, seeking the best is a recipe for misery,” he said. Instead, he encourages over-thinkers to aim for good enough, whether they’re choosing which job to accept or which cereal to consume.
When setting the good-enough bar, it helps to reflect on your original goal. Did you begin your online shopping odyssey to find a toaster that could clean itself, roast carrots and also charge your cellphone? Or were you just looking for something that would brown your bread?
“We’re seduced into caring about every aspect of the things we’re thinking about,” Dr Schwartz said, “because all that information is out there for us to evaluate.” Remembering your purpose can simplify the process.
OUTSOURCE YOUR DECISIONS
Research has shown that choices sap our willpower and lead to decision fatigue. Which might be why Sheena Iyengar, the author of The Art of Choosing, encourages indecisive people to pick their battles – or, in her words, “to be choosy about choosing.”
When it comes to wine, for example, all Dr Iyengar wants is a good glass with dinner. So rather than poring over varietals and vintages, she outsources the decision to her local wine store, asking it to send her a case of surprises every few months. “Wine continues to be an actual joyful part of my life because I don’t put in the effort,” she said. “I’m happier when I have fewer decisions to make.”
In addition to leaning on experts, you can share the onus with those around you. When my partner and I make dinner plans with his brother and sister-in-law, no one ever wants to pick the restaurant. So we began taking turns as the designated chooser, allowing each of us to let ourselves off the hook for a jubilant 75 per cent of our shared dinners.
For similarly trivial choices, you don’t even need another human. You could rely on habits and routines, like wearing a work uniform or eating a salad for lunch every day, to reserve mental bandwidth for more important decisions. Or you could emulate the man who coined “FOBO” and base your choices on the second hand of your watch.
EMPLOY THE "90 PER CENT RULE"
Ever hemmed and hawed over whether to attend a social event or accept a new freelance project? When a yes-or-no decision has ample pros and cons, try the “90 per cent rule” from Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism.
This involves evaluating an opportunity on a scale from 0 to 100. If your interest falls anywhere below 90 per cent, reduce its score to zero and reject it. “It just gets you back to sanity,” McKeown said. “If it’s not a definite yes, then it can become a definite no. You don’t have to worry about it too much.”
For the aforementioned social event, maybe 80 per cent of you thinks it would be fun, but the other 20 per cent would rather cuddle with your children. For the freelance gig, maybe 50 per cent of you would like the cash, but the other half knows you’re already spread too thin.
This rule makes the decisions easy; because neither is a 90, it’s rejected. “Think about how you’d feel if you scored a 65 on some test,” McKeown wrote in his book. “Why would you deliberately choose to feel that way about an important choice in your life?”
CREATE THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS
In his popular blog Wait But Why, Tim Urban has advised readers on making major decisions like getting married or picking a career, often using thought experiments as guidance.
Say you’re having doubts about your current relationship, but can’t decide if you should call it quits. Urban might suggest envisioning a button: Pressing it would propel you into a future two months post-breakup. You would have already had the hard conversations and the overly public subway sob sessions, and your ex’s side of the closet would be empty, nary a stray sock in sight. Would you press it? If the answer is yes, then it’s not the breakup you’re dreading, it’s the pain and hassle that accompany it.
Or, if you’re deciding whether to move across the country, imagine you’ve asked your best friend to choose for you. On the big day, she hands you an envelope; inside, it announces you’re leaving next month. Do you feel excited? Or disappointed?
Using these types of thought experiments to isolate important variables, Urban said, can help you “cut through fog to see clarity” – and help logic-based thinkers better trust their gut.
REMEMBER IT'S JUST A DOT
The road to decisiveness abounds with strategies. You could artificially limit your options, like visiting only three websites when shopping for a new dress. You could make spreadsheets or set a timer. You could pretend you’re giving advice to a friend.
But one of the most important things for recovering un-deciders to realise – and accept – is that they will never have all the information. Referencing Steve Jobs’ famous line that you can connect the dots only looking backward, Urban urged anyone frozen by indecision to simply pick a “good next dot,” saying, “It doesn’t have to be perfect – it’s just a dot along the way.”
Dr Schwartz would agree. “The privileged among us live in a world where mostly we’re choosing among really good options,” he said. “And the difference between really good and really, really good is not worth your effort to discern, even when the stakes are high.”
By picking the next dot, and the next one, it will allegedly get easier. Urban, for the most part, has come out on the other side, having reduced his indecisiveness through years of reflection, journalling and thought experiments.
“Decision making is the steering wheel of your life,” he explained. “And you want to get good at driving.”
By Susan Shain © The New York Times