In the course of a day we make dozens of decisions, most of which happen so automatically that we don’t realise we are exercising choice. The easy fluidity of this process is hampered when we are required to make a choice in an unusual or unexpected situation.
That’s when we feel confused, stumped, overwhelmed, unable to move — and it doesn’t seem to matter if the decision is about a trivial matter or a life-changing one. Here are some strategies you can use to make choices that you feel happy about.
Sometimes it is more difficult to decide what to wear to your mate’s wedding than it is to decide to move house. Being in a state of uncertainty, unable to decide on a course of action, is stressful and uncomfortable. We worry about making the wrong choice. We are haunted by visions of the road not taken.
There are many approaches to decision-making — oh, you can see the first hurdle? How to decide which approach to try?
Well, don’t overthink it. As with many choices, it probably isn’t going to matter that much, and on the whole, you don’t know what would have been the outcome of a different decision.
You can only surmise what would have happened if you had taken that job, or moved countries, or done a different degree course.
Things might have turned out better, they might not. Your life would have been different, because you would be different. You would not be the person you are today. So it’s pointless speculating, right? And it’s pointless regretting. Just listen to Edith Piaf.
A structured approach
It can be helpful to have a clearly defined process to follow.
After researching and gathering information, you can make lists of the pros and cons or gains and losses involved in the choice.
You can rank risks and benefits, with weightings for criteria. You could make a spreadsheet.
This approach might help you to decide, for example, which make of car to buy, or which venue to book for a big event, or which holiday destination to choose.
Sometimes you can apply a carefully worked-out approach, which provides you with a solution, and something inside you says ‘Yes, but I still love the red one’ or ‘But the other place had a really good feeling.’
A logical approach may pay too little attention to the emotional dimension of decision-making. Following your gut instinct isn’t as random as it sounds.
Instinctive choices are based on information which you have subconsciously processed. Your spur-of-the-moment decision actually comes from an informed place.
See the bigger picture
The choice which presents itself might not be the real issue. What seems like a black and white decision (Shall I continue with piano lessons? Shall I extend my mortgage/gym membership? Shall I get a lodger? Shall I get a rescue dog?) may mask the bigger picture.
Ask yourself how the issue which you are debating relates to your overall goals and life vision. The true question may not be about piano lessons, but about the place of music in your life.
The true question might not be about getting a lodger, but about you and money or companionship or safety.
Rather than ponder over an either/or choice, you could come up with solutions to the central issue. Find all the possible ways of achieving an outcome which relates to the bigger picture.
For example, if your gym membership is mainly a way of meeting friends on a regular basis, identify other ways of meeting that need.
One or two ideas may appeal more than your original choice. You could throw in the odd suggestion which doesn’t fit the bill — a holiday activity you would never consider, the kind of house you really hate — and see how that sharpens your thinking.
Try an approach which runs counter to your instinctive preference. For example, if you are happiest with facts and figures and hard information, tap into your creative and emotional side.
Imagine yourself living in the situation engendered by one of your options. Think of a colour, or a piece of music, which represents the way you feel. Or you could make a collage of images which express the mood.
Identify how your body is responding to the situation. Are you feeling tense, excited, contented, relieved?
Now do the same for the other option.
If you are happiest with emotional and personal responses, try examining your choices in a structured feasibility study:
- Evaluate alternatives and give each a number out of 10.
- Do an outcome analysis. Make a flowchart leading to the desired outcome. Add to the chart with possible effects of the outcome.
- Remove one constraint
- How would changing one aspect of your situation affect your decision? What would you do if, for example:
— Money were not an object
— You didn’t have to think about parents or children
— You could live somewhere else, or wherever you liked
— You had a different job
Your response may help you to see what you really want and think about ways of achieving it.
Try the toss of a coin. Heads it’s Cornwall, tails it’s Ibiza.
Or ‘If my team wins tonight, I’ll go for Option A’.
If your heart sinks as the coin is revealed or your team romps home, you’ve got your answer. If you feel pretty steady about it, job done.
Satisficers v Maximisers
There are two main styles of making decisions, according to psychology professor Barry Schwartz.
- Maximisers like to consider all options and will only be satisfied with the very best. Every box needs to be ticked. They will spend time and energy looking for the studio couch, the birthday gift, the vacation spot which meets every one of their criteria.
- Satisficers make a quick choice, one that may not be perfect, but which is good enough.
If you find decision-making stressful, you could adopt the Satisficers’ approach. People who make quicker, less considered decisions based on limited criteria tend to be happier in life. You could start small by limiting choices in everyday matters.
If you’re buying a new outfit, decide to get it from one of two favourite shops. If you’re finding information online, limit your search to a certain number of websites.
The luxury of choice
Not that we want to go down the ‘check your privilege’ route, but in the end, the very nature of the choices we struggle with illustrates the abundance of our world.
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