It’s estimated that the average adult makes approximately 35,000 decisions every day. Slightly more than 200 of those are about food. Only a small percentage of these thousands of daily decisions reach our level of consciousness, as most are purely reflexive. But what about the conscious decisions we struggle with? Sometimes they’re so difficult, that we freeze and make no decision at all.
Back to food, for a moment. In my household, I’m the main purveyor of meals for our busy family of five (my husband, three teenagers, and me). I’m quite organized and plan the menus on the weekend for the week ahead. Unfortunately, I cater to a pretty picky bunch with various preferences. Conversations in our house often go like this:
Me: “I’m planning dinner for the week. Anything you would like?”
Teenager 1: “I don’t know. Maybe tacos or stir fry.”
Teenager 2: “I’m not in the mood for tacos. We had them last week.”
Husband: “It doesn’t matter. I’ll eat whatever you make.”
This type of indecision also extends to choosing a restaurant when we try to go out together.
How did we get into this indecision trap? First, we have too many options. Second, while my husband is probably trying to please me and make things easier, he’s punted the decisions over to me. Finally, the teenagers are playing the elimination game. They don’t know what they want but know what they don’t want.
Even though the stakes are pretty low (tacos or stir-fry), committing to a decision is scary. We worry that we’ll make the wrong choice, or we’re overwhelmed by choice and suffer from “analysis paralysis”.
Let’s bring in the experts:
“The struggle is often not about making a decision,” says Danielle Miller, a Toronto-based executive coach, “but, rather, that deep-seated emotions can paralyze you and make it difficult to take the next step.”
Her recommendations include the following:
- List the pros and cons while keeping in mind what is most important to you.
- What’s your objective or goal and how will a specific decision bring you closer to it?
- For more complicated decisions, you’ve got to collect the relevant facts to ensure that your final decision isn’t solely based on emotions. Remember that not deciding or postponing a decision is a kind of decision too and comes with certain costs.
- If you have an abundance of options, try to narrow down the field. Too many choices will make research, fact-finding and list-making much more difficult.
- Accept the decision you’ve made. Avoid second-guessing. Live in the moment and honour your decision.
In his book, Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, Brian Christian, a computer scientist recommends using algorithms when we have too many choices and too little time to properly consider each one. The book draws on research from hundreds of experts in various fields, including academics, business-people and scientists.
“Even the best strategy sometimes yields bad results—which is why computer scientists take care to distinguish between “process” and “outcome.” If you followed the best possible process, then you’ve done all you can, and you shouldn’t blame yourself if things didn’t go your way,” he writes.
Christian recommends the “37% Rule” which can be applied to dating, searching for an apartment, or hiring the best applicant for a job. Let’s use the example of finding an apartment in one month: Spend the first 11 days (37% of the time) looking, but not making, a commitment. After 11 days, you should commit to the first property that you see that is better than anything you saw in the first eleven days.
Another strategy comes from brothers and professors, Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. They have a four-step decision-making process called WRAP. The four elements of WRAP are:
- Widen your options. Think of other options and when possible, consider them simultaneously.
- Reality-test your assumptions. Don’t commit to just one plan. Set up experiments and see which decisions work. Consider the opposite. Ask disconfirming questions.
- Attain distance before deciding. Switch to the perspective of a friend or future-you to be more objective about choices. Ask: What would I tell my best friend to do? Or, what would my successor do?
- Prepare to be wrong. We should prepare for bad outcomes as well as good ones. And what would make us reconsider our decisions?
As Chip writes, “Success emerges from the quality of the decisions we make and the quantity of luck we receive. We can’t control luck. But we can control the way we make choices.”