This last week I’ve been faced with some choices which I’ve found exceptionally difficult to make. None of them were dramatically life changing but they still caused me stress. This got me thinking about how I go about making decisions and why it’s so hard.
My self image is of someone who always tries to make the correct decision and do the ‘right’ thing. So I get thrown into a bit of a tail spin when it comes to making decisions where there is no right or wrong, where there are just two (or more) paths and I am the only one who can decide which one to take. It’s partly a perfectionism thing and partly an insecurity thing. Perhaps they are one and the same.
My inner voice goes down a rabbit hole of panicked questions that sound something like this…
WHAT SHOULD I DO? HOW DO I KNOW WHAT IS RIGHT? WHAT IF I GET IT WRONG? WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES? WHAT WOULD BEYONCE DO? CAN I CHANGE MY MIND? WHO WILL I PISS OFF? SHOULD I MAKE A LIST? WHAT IS THE BEST OPTION? WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK IF I CHOOSE X? WHAT WOULD THE QUEEN DO? WILL I THINK LESS OF MYSELF IF I TAKE THE EASY OPTION? IS THAT PATH TOO HARD? WHAT IF I FAIL? WHAT IF I SUCCEED? WHAT IF PEOPLE LAUGH AT ME? WHAT WOULD DOUGLAS ADAMS DO? WHAT IF I REGRET CHOOSING THIS? WHAT IF I REGRET NOT CHOOSING THAT? WHAT IF THIS IS ALL A TERRIBLE MISTAKE? WHO CAN TELL ME THE RIGHT ANSWER?
CAN I JUST MAKE A BLANKET FORT AND HIDE?
Now the level of panic is usually proportionate to my perceived importance of the outcome. I use the word ‘perceived’ deliberately because objective importance and subjective importance are very different things. Objectivity really has very little bearing on human decision making, so all the pro and con lists in the world are unlikely to actually help us. The older I get, the more I realise how irrational we are as a species.
Granted, a decision on nail colour may be less stressful than the decision about whether to buy a house or not, but what constitutes important varies wildly from person to person – we all have that friend who gets in such a mess trying to decide what to wear that they end up staying in on the sofa in their PJs.
There is a huge amount of reasearch dedicated to decision making, both from psychologists and market researchers, the latter who want to know how to make us decide to buy their stuff. I won’t go into any of it now, but for those who are interested, I will recommend a couple of amazing Ted Radio Hour Podcasts which just gave me light bulb moments the whole way through. I can’t get links to the individual shows but got the the NPR Ted Radio Hour Podcast Page and you can search by date. The first is called Decisions, Decisions, Decisions (March 10th 2017) and the second is called Nudge (March 2nd 2018). If you’ve never listened to the Ted Radio Hour, it’s well worth a listen. Fascinating stuff!
So back to my approach to decision making. Here are a few of the techniques I have used, sometimes more successfully than others! I’m sure there are more strategic and research backed decision making processes out there. This is all just my trial and experience.
1. Make a list of pros and cons
As previously mentioned, lists aren’t objective, but they are useful in teasing out what your gut feeling is. I believe a lot in trusting your gut, once you understand what it’s telling you. The success of the list method is largely dependent on how honest I’m feeling. If I am already motivated, consciously or unconsciously, to go one way then I find my lists are biased from the start. I try to identify the source of this bias, which is usually because I’m scared to take the path of most resistance!
Sometimes I try to make a list as if I were advising someone else. This helps to take away my inner bias and bring a little objectivity. It can help me to see opportunities which I might have been blinded to or highlight risks which I might be in denial about.
2. Ask for advice
This one is a double edged sword. Sometimes (usually) too much advice is a bad thing. People bring their own biases or their own agendas into the mix. Not in a deliberate way but everyone has their own perspective. What’s that phrase about opinions being like arseholes?
For me personally, if I find myself disagreeing with the person who has advised me, that can cause me to feel guilty or disloyal – a whole other bunch of extra stress I did not need.
These days I have a few trusted people whose opinions I will seek. Those people who know and understand me and will be honest about their thoughts. Having honest people I can talk through my options with is hugely useful. Especially if they are happy for me to completely ignore them afterwards!
3. Narrow your options
Those marketeers realised that if you give people too much choice, they won’t pick anything at all. There’s a phenomena called choice paralysis where, when faced with too much data to process, the decision making process disintegrates and we just walk away without making one. There are great examples of this in the Decisions podcast mentioned above, including where brands have significantly reduced the number product lines they offer and seen their revenue skyrocket. After all, who wants to choose from 37 brands of conditioner. It’s exhausting!
So if I can, I try to narrow my field. Last year when I was choosing my floor I narrowed it down to one shop and one range. It took so much stress out of that decision which became A vs B instead of A-Z!
4. Feel the fear and do it anyway
If it is fear holding me back from choosing something then I try to call myself out on it. It’s okay to say no to something that’s overwhelming, shit is scary, but I try not to lie to myself that that’s what I’m doing. Admitting when something is too much is a brave decision in itself. It’s easy to make excuses and pretend you’re not choosing a path for one reason (I can’t afford it, I need to save up first, I don’t have time, it’s not ‘me’ etc. etc.) when ultimately it’s fear holding you back.
If it is a fear thing, I try and break it down to see if there is a way I can work to mitigate the panic!
5. JFDI – Just Fucking Do It
This is another one for the scary choices. It’s great if I’m procrastinating about something, finding a million reasons not to do x y or z. Even if that’s just making a phone call that might be confrontational, just flipping well get on with it.
Once a decision is made, the sense of relief is immediately palpable. That doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind but at least I can stop bloody thinking about it for five minutes!
6. Flip a coin
This is a bit of a reverse psychology trick I use where I genuinely have the fence post up my ass. I toss a coin. If i’m disappointed with the result then I know to go the other way, and vice versa. This another way of finding out what my gut wants and learning to trust it!
My gut is so much wiser than my brain.
7. It doesn’t matter
Just decide. Ultimately what I decide is kind of irrelevant.
I heard someone say this in a podcast recently and unfortunately the source totally escapes me. It sounded like a ridiculous statement at first but the more I thought about it, the more I began to agree.
Where I am now in life is a result of a million decisions I have made, often without realise I was making them. Did I have any way of either predicting or controlling the outcome of those choices? Not in the slightest. Yes, mentally weigh up the options but in the absence of a strong preference just pick one and go with it. I may end up where I started, or somewhere totally different. Either way it’s impossible to know. Life is full of sliding doors. The suggestion that we have any control over external circumstances is preposterous when you think about it. We only have control over how we react to them.
Lewis Carol said it best
“Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
This last one is the one I know I need to remember when I am tying myself in knots. I have a tendency to place way more importance on decisions than they actually warrant so realising that it is very unlikely it will matter helps to give me some perspective.
So there we have it. I’m not sure if you will be any the wiser, from thinking about your decisions in these ways, but perhaps you too will realise it doesn’t matter so much!