sunday life: how to make decisions

Posted on July 26th, 2009

I’m crap at making decisions. Not big decisions. I’m quite good at those. I can move cities within two weeks of the idea first occurring to me (I’ve done it twice). And I’m nimble in a crisis. No, it’s the banal ones that bog me down, like deciding what to eat.

Food ordering can see me spiral into existential paralysis. It’s got worse recently. On Monday I spent 10 minutes dissecting a breakfast menu. I finally ordered spelt toast with avocado, watched the waiter put the order in to the kitchen, and leapt up and asked to change it to porridge. I then got food envy when the baked eggs arrived at the next table. And so ordered a side serve of spelt. No avocado. If you can follow the logic. I know the waiter didn’t.

My sense is that this is quite a female affliction. Yes, it’s a gross generalisation that, quite frankly, I’m unable to support with a succinct evolutionary theory about how primitive man hunted wildebeest on grassy savannahs and that’s why your husband can’t find the butter in the fridge. I can only say, with eight years of food industry experience behind me, I’ve seen a lot of women do what I do. We also suggest, “sharing a whole heap of small things”, which essentially dilutes decisions, or, as my friend Nadine helpfully noted (because I’d be reluctant to own this myself), “we just ask the bloke to order for us”.

What a terribly bourgeois dilemma, you might say. You’d be right. And of course, toast or porridge, who bloody cares! But this paralysis, in whatever piffy guise it takes (morning wardrobe meltdowns, everyday workplace ruts), points to a broader malaise. I call it perfect decision syndrome.

Like many conditioned A-types, I’ve walked this earth convinced perfect decisions exist out there – always, already. They’re simply waiting to be “made” or accessed via cleverly sought-out advice, concerted research, pro and con lists and consulting yahooanswers.com. When you believe that perfect decisions exist it can seem everyone else is making perfect decisions, or decisions perfectly, in that they actually make them, seem happy with them and move on from them. This has always made me feel so isolated; how do all these other folk cut a clear path to the right choice? When God was handing out the ability to spot a decisive path amidst the rabble of flaccid outcomes, where the hell was I? (I’m guessing, standing in front of a blackboard menu strung out between, um, pea and ham soup and, er, the beef bourguignon.)

Good decision making has become big business lately. There’s been xx’ The Paradox of Choice , Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings, all of which argue that decision making has, thank you very much, become harder due to too much choice. And that snap judgments are more effective than rationally weighing up countless options. Thing is, such theories still imply there’s a perfect decision “out there” to be made, or accessed, albeit via nebulous concepts such as intuition. Which sends your average decision tail-spinner in even tighter circles.

But do perfect decisions exist? This was a quandary I had to solve this week before I could be let loose on another cafe.

It occurred to me I’d already been given the answer a few years back when I was editor of Cosmopolitan. I’d gone to see publishing doyenne Pat Ingram, who, incidentally, left the industry this month after xx years, with a cover image dilemma. Angelina in red dress or Angelina in green dress… or some such. I was in a decision rut. Pat proffered this: if you’re tossing between two options, just choose one. Presumably, she said, they’re both (almost equally) good options if you’re considering them so closely in the first place. So just decide. Bham! It doesn’t matter which. What matters – and here’s the bit to sit up straight for – is the conviction with which you do it.

When you decide with conviction everyone around you becomes convinced it was the right decision.  The graphic artist will be enlisted in your choice and then feel positively inclined to make Angelina in green (or whatever) look superb, indeed the best. The subbing team will join the progressive party with sparkling coverlines. And so on. Everything and everyone will flow toward it being the right decision. It just always, already does.

Now, the red dress option might have been the better option, if all considerations were meticulously assessed and plotted in some monolithic flowchart. But it doesn’t matter.  The point is, (again, sit up straight), whatever you decide will always become the best option because you chose it. Decisions become perfect only when you make the decision. Whatever that turns out to be.

And the cacciatore is the best decision. However it turns out to be.  Which makes me feel like carrot cake.

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