how to make easier decisions

Posted on April 5th, 2011

I love this article on why easy decisions are so hard by the ludicrously young and authentic Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide and Proust was a Neuroscientist. I’ve mentioned it here on this blog a lot…that I struggle to make the simplest of decisions, like what toothpaste to buy. And other such”first-world problems”. (As an aside, for thyroid disease folk…indecision is a very AI trait).

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I loved, mostly, how Jonah confesses that he’s crap at making toothpaste decisions, too, despite being an expert on how we decide. He picks the research apart and finds that we stall with dumb decisions because we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking they’re important decisions simply because they’ve been made complicated (mostly by too many options):

“Call it the drug store heuristic: A cluttered store shelf leads us to automatically assume that a choice must really matter, even if it doesn’t.”

The analysis paralysis makes us think the decision is important…which intensifies the paralysis. And around and around we go. It’s a very real issue for more of us. We’re bombarded with more stupid options daily.

This is how I simplify decisions?

  • Narrow your choices. Actively.
  • Avoid megaplexes with too many unnecessary choices.
  • In fact, avoid shopping where possible. People are prompted to go shopping when they notice they’ve run out of coconut milk. Use the tin of coconut cream down the back instead – or cook something Mediterranean instead – and put off shopping another few days. More shopping trips = more analysis paralysis spiralling.
  • Have a brand that works for you and stick to it.
  • And develop a criteria, an approach to life, that cancels out as many options as possible (I won’t buy non-free range, organic eggs – this wipes out 70% of options at Woolies).
  • Be happy – thrilled!! – with imperfection. Choose the crappiest cafe. The most garish brand of tooth floss. Choose the first thing you see on the menu and see what happens. I interviewed renowned medical intuitive Caroline Myss once. She’d been writing about making decisions by going against reason. I asked how she chose. “I choose the first thing I see,” she said. “Why not?” She decides. And lives with it. Moves on.

Indeed, there’s no perfect choice. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, does it!?

PS. you might also like this link on Brain Pickings…Five perspectives on the science of choice.

Related Posts with Thumbnails
  • http://sweeter-living.blogspot.com/ Kris

    I constantly struggle deciding what I want for dinner…
    Most of the time I would just rather someone else make a decision for me! :)

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    Jason Reply:

    Your blog look surprisingly familiar.

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  • Connie

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2010/2991617.htm

    Download the podcast. Totally worth it and relevant.

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  • Nicole

    I make big, life changing decisions almost on whim (i.e. the thought pops into my head, and several minutes later I’ve decided to go with it), such as:
    - Leaving great paying job to go back to study full time for two years
    (and four years after that)
    - Leaving great paying job to backpack for twelve months
    - Ending relationships
    - Moving houses (to a completely different area)

    When it comes to tiny decisions I can hover in supermarket aisles for ages!
    This morning I took a good 5 minutes deciding weather to buy ‘pepita’s or ‘mixed seeds’ to have with yoghurt for brekky.
    Don’t even get me started on hair products/tampons/toothpaste!!!

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  • Caitlin

    Wow thanks for this post Sarah, so apt for me. I am a pretty crappy or slow decision maker and have even looked for a reason for it, like I am Libra rising, so it must be in the stars! NOw it is relief to know that there may not be any reason at all.

    This goes for the glandular fever I have had on and off the the past three years. I have been looking at the metaphysics of it but perhaps its just there because it is…and because I kissed a boy who had it!

    I like the idea of being less choosy and just picking the first thing, it seems to make choosing more fun, kinda like a game! for a perfectionist like me it does come as a relief and to quote a lyric I heard once, ‘perfection is such a f”§è”èg bore!’

    I am excited to adopt this new decision making style.

    x

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  • Caitlin

    Ps, my comment ties in with the Carline Myss interview you did!

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  • Caroline

    I took my 2 young nieces out for an icecream on Friday night. The 6 yr old walked straight into the shop, took one look at the options and decided there and then she wanted chocolate with sprinkles – easy. The 9 yr old seriously deliberated for over 25 mins. At one stage there were even tears when I told her she had 5 mins to decide or we were leaving. In the end she chose rainbow as she figured shes get a bit of everything. GRRRRRRRRR

    I’m like the 6 yr old. My decisions are quick and that’s it.

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    Jo - living savvy Reply:

    Caroline, I’m with you. My decisions are quick and made with a feeling of confidence that if everything goes to crap, I will be able to work that out too. Both my children make decisions quickly, they have had to if they dilly dally the opportunity is lost or Mum has gone, walked away, moved on ….. the little darlings have learnt how to keep up (and yes, I am pretty sure that has they grow this too will come back and bite me).

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  • Rachel

    Much wisdom in the bit about being happy with imperfection – for a lot of things in life (like your tooth paste brand), near enough will be good enough, and it’s just not worth stressing about those things. Now if I can just apply that to the decision I need to make about a curtain/blind/other form of covering for an odd shaped window and very public window in my new house, I’ll be very happy.

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  • Katherine

    i heard some advice with regards to decisions (even for little things) where you frame the choice/purchase/decision in such a way : “will this expand my life?’ … and wait for the little voice that says “yes, go for it, great decision” or “hmm, you know this really isnt what you need” I agree with limiting the number of choices available, especially when it comes to groceries. I now only buy chemical free toothpaste with herbal essential oils so at least i dont get trapped in the multitude of toothpaste brands in the supermarket aisle. And when it comes to yoghurts, nothing but greek yoghurt, preferably jalna pot set….the dairy aisle can send you into a trance of indecison! Good luck everyone…I think deep down we should know what we want…hopefully ha!

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    Ohhh, I like that “will it expand my life”!

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    Katherine Reply:

    I know, it was a good piece of advice I received. I used it in the op-shop the other day to avoid buying excessive junk. The rainbow silk flippy hippy skirt for $3.95 on the other hand was a definite expansion of my life experience! Too beautiful!

    Another cool little tool is to imagine a gauge that can oscillate from yes on one side to no on the other, and then ask the question…”do i choose _________ option” or “is _______ the right thing for me?” (frame the question however feels right to you) and once you practise your inner intuition to a fair degree, the gauge will automatically swing a certain direction to give you the inner answer. I guess this originates from the idea that we do hold all the best answers for ourselves somewhere inside us. Sometimes the gauge kinda swings indecisively, or stays stationary in the middle neutral. Then I assume that perhaps I don’t need the answer just yet. I hope this doesnt sound complicated, it actually works so quickly once you use it as a helpful tool, like almost instantaneously.

    If it helps, you can visualise something a little more tangible (or interesting) than a yes/no arrow type gauge, for instance, you can imagine a rose (your colour choice!) which bends one way for yes, and the other way for no. Helps to test out the visualisation on questions that you already know the answers to. Simple things, like “is my name Sarah?” etc

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  • Mia

    I totally get that there are too many options!!! Trying to figure out what to do with my life has taken me 27 years and I still have no idea. But smaller things I can manage… I shop for food online so I dont get distracted by choice, usually with the same list every week. I have my “favourites” in clothing, food, etc and dont often deviate from them – simple things seem to satisfy me. I dont believe there are such things as perfect choices. I believe the difference between a good choice and a bad choice happens AFTER you decide – when you either follow it with all your energy and back yourself 100%, or you continue to worry and fret about it.

    My boyfriend is terrible at making decisions. It makes me furious, because me having to always make them makes me feel like his mother. *shudder*

    I totally agree on the stop shopping point! In fact, stop watching/ reading advertsising too. It will soothe the mind and calm the ego.

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  • David

    I can’t even decide what to write here!

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  • Megan

    I read an article a few months ago on how Trader Joe’s uses that philosophy; offering fewer choices makes us feeling more active in the decision process and thus, happier.

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  • Hannah

    I love this quote:
    Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good – Voltaire (i think)

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  • Lalita

    I was trying to decide on which free range eggs to buy at the supermarket today and gave up! Too many choices … a woman shopping next to me commented saying it had taken her an hour and a half in the supermarket due to the same dilemma with multiple products!

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  • Amber

    I agree choice is paralysing – and find I am constantly stood in front of things I need and can’t make a decision. Sometimes I even walkout without said item – how wrong is that? I hate malls and stores jam packed with stuff. I definately appreciate a carefully edited selection.

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  • sash

    Hey Sarah! Totally unrelated.

    I wanted to ask if you could do a post on a particular topic: facebook haha.

    I love your blog, and often look to it for advice; anyway, I have just joined facebook and I am finding my self esteem sliding ever since I joined. I was wandering if you had any tips about handling facebook and not “taking it too seriously” if you get what I mean.

    I know i have had this conversation with my friends and a lot of them feel it’s making really low, it is great for keeping in contact, but other aspects have become hard to deal with.

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    Mel Reply:

    I don’t do facebook at all and never have because it seems to me it is very negative and narcisstic for most people. I hate seeing people snapping pictures when out and I can tell all they are thinking is how cool they will come across on facebook. I watched the film the social network and realised it came from a negative place from the start. You don’t have to do it, get out of the cycle. You get sucked into the initial thrill of finding old friends that you have little in common with now, I could go on and on.

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    sash Reply:

    ohhh I know! I agree with everything you have said, i got it just too stay in touch and now all the negative crap has kind of ruined it. :(

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  • David

    sash,

    If you dont mind some advice from others Id suggest mainly use it to quickly post updates that you know most your FB friends will appreciate; quickly read theirs; try to avoid replying to others’ update (if important reply in real life or email); remember written words can be misinterpreted; and remember you are NOT your Facebook page.

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    sash Reply:

    haha so true the last line. I feel like it’s very time consuming and don’t know if men are like this but it’s almost like girls are very competitive with what there doing, how they look etc. so I think like you said use it for important stuff then get of it!!

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    David Reply:

    Guys can be competitive too. It’s very easy to forget that a person isn’t just his /her looks, clothes and house. Same as those a facebook profile can only say so much and make me like you so much. Hell, someone could have had a horrible couple of years and all you see are some happy snaps and pointless updates.

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    sash Reply:

    very true, thanks :)

  • David

    Sarah,

    I think youve mentioned The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz. It is interesting with many tips similar to yours. (I guess the main he added was to not waste time with small decisions and just move on and accept your decision.)

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  • Katrina White

    And the reality is that most decisions are actually undoable but we think once a decision is made, that is it. Yes, sometimes but mainly no big deal to just change or reverse the decision.
    And I like to think of myself as “perfectly imperfect”

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  • Jason

    Choice is great. I like having more to choose from than white and brown bread, cereal without the crystalized fruit square bits and a gold logie nominee option that isn’t Bert Newton. It’s brilliant. Take a look at non-alcoholic beverages for example. Sugar free, natural, functional etc. We are lucky to have a choice.

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  • Jak

    wow, some dangerous living going on up in Byron – lighting fires and watching Tudors!

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  • Nat

    What about pillow fights at high noon.

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  • Connie

    It is dangerous to dismiss choice. It’s part of freedom and opportunity. I get that it often causes anxiety but it’s kinda like saying that i wished someone chose a partner for me. Yes it is confusing but choice teaches you to develop intuition. We need to grow up, stop blaming the system, and start trusting ourselves more while being open to the opportunities that choice brings us.

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  • http://jessicamullen.com jessica mullen

    This is how I make decisions (http://jessicamullen.com/2011/03/24/how-to-make-decisions/)
    2 choices.
    The one with the most of the following qualities wins:
    - feels good
    - easiest
    - most fun

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  • Kate

    So excited – have just made 2 excellent decisions for the day:

    Decision 1 – booking a business vs economy class return ticket to the US
    Decision 2 – not telling dad I knew his frequent flyer number

    I’ll worry about the consquences later!

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  • sonja cardwell.com

    sarah you freak me out just about everything you say I get ,thats all ,thank god for people like you who say what they mean x sonja

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  • http://www.trustlifetoday.com Leslie Green

    Sarah, another good article. Thank you. I’m glad I found your blog.

    I saw Jonah Lehrer give a speech at a community college in north Dallas year before last. As I awaited his arrival to the stage, I remember reading the prompters regarding his accomplishments – a short bio, if you will. THEN HE WALKED OUT ON STAGE. I was blown away! You’re not joking – super young man! I was all the more impressed. And what a great story-teller. I was glued to my seat.

    One question for you – could you explain what you mean in () when you mention thyroid disease folk, indecision, and AI trait? i can pretty much tell from the context, but raising a son with congenital hypothyroidism, I’d like to better understand the comment and make sure I’m connecting the dots correctly.

    Thanks!
    ~Leslie

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    Mia Reply:

    I have noticed that thyroidy types tend to be perfectionists. It’s all or nothing. If the perfect choice cant be found, we tend to get anxious and fuss and waffle and nothing gets done. Also, very rarely does the perfect option exist… hence the indecision. I dont know whether thyroid illness is the cause or the effect, but it seems to be true for a lot of people.

    Hope that helps.

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  • http://evolvercoaching.weebly.com Donovan

    Eckhart Tolle talks about ‘ready formed realization’…that comes to us from inside…although our mind or ego may then come in with doubts or reasons why not. Ready-formed realization though I think is mainly for big decisions…the macro-choices.

    Otherwise my approach it to go more by *feel*, and less by thinking. This can be a very profound difference…and it goes along with realizing that the purpose of our life is not gain/acquiring (money or even experiences) but service/giving/expansion. The first one is basically a personality life (not wise) and the second is a Soul Life. (As an example: are we buying a new cell phone to feel important/special, or because it will truly help us serve others and enjoy life better?) Our life’s direction and directive is really to e-x-p-a-n-d, and ascend – which really just means to rise up or evolve in consciousness into a state of greater peace and joy…and that’s for all of us, not just meditators or health coaches.
    And if we make the big choices well, we *will* do just that. And having the best quality guides and mentors we can (or just books) really, really helps. Personally, I will not see psychics anymore as I do not believe it to be right-relationship – the best guides will not tell us what is best for us – they know they don’t know and everything is changing all the time. But they will empower us with tools and practices to get better at finding our own answers (there’s the part about feeling more and thinking less again!)

    Along with those perspectives I also enjoy using flower essences, in particular the Flourish Formulas, and regular meditation…since I also have a really hard time with decisions sometimes. Just to mention, color energy I also find particularly powerful, and living outside of cities.

    I think the main reason we struggle with ‘stupid’ options, is really fear. But it’s really not personal. Fear is like a note on the planet today, and it is strong. It’s like a jacket we can very easily and quickly find ourselves wearing..again…even tho we had a wonderful, peaceful meditation at home this am. So it’s important to be gentle with ourselves. The main challenge with wise decision making I think it calming our strong emotions (hence the use of essences). Strong emotions tend to drive us, but we really want to make decisions from *a calm clear place, and trusting our heart and gut*. The masters make decisions without thinking or worrying or endless comparing…because they don’t experience lower emotional nature anymore.

    Other things too I can suggest, but i don’t want to hijack your blog…contact me if you like… btw I just started with IIN, and I think I have a book coming!

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