Sometimes I spend ten minutes trying to decide which pair of pants I should wear. My wife has been known to agonize for weeks about what theme to choose for our children’s birthday parties. And my brother once spent two years debating which couch to buy for his living room. None of these are life-altering decisions, and none of us are unique in our occasional inability to pull the trigger. If you’ve ever stood in the paint aisle at a hardware store and stared endlessly at two shades of blue so similar to one another that you wouldn’t even know they were different if they were nine inches apart, then you’ll know what I mean.
In fact, our brains actually aren’t especially good at making unimportant decisions. We were evolved to make life-or-death decisions. Should I eat that, or will it kill me? Is the creature over there friendly or not? That volcano is exploding – should I stay here and get melted, or should I maybe run away as fast as possible? Because our history is so full of life-and-death choices, our brains sometimes apply the same intensity to decisions that carry far less weight. If I choose the pancakes for breakfast, will I regret not getting the waffle? If I don’t go to that party, will I spend the rest of my adolescence wondering what might have been?
I’m not trying to make fun of this tendency toward absurd indecisiveness – or rather, I am making fun of it, but I’m making fun of all of us equally. We all do this. These decisions aren’t massive, but they feel massive. How can we get past that? Here are a few ideas.
Ask Yourself, “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”
Since our brains are wired to make life-or-death decisions, it makes sense that some part of our brain worries that making the wrong small decision will actually harm us. So figure out if that’s true. In my ‘can’t decide what pants to wear’ example, the worst thing that can reasonably happen is that I look sort of dumb, and other people notice that but probably don’t say anything. (Except my family, who will certainly tell me.) Regardless, that worst-case scenario is a survivable one, and realizing that usually helps me make small decisions more easily.
See the Positive in Your Sea of Negative Options
Now let’s imagine that your worst-case scenario is not something you’re particularly excited about. You have an interview in an hour, you want to look your best, and if you choose the wrong outfit it might kill your chances. Since you don’t know what your interviewer will think, you can’t know which one will best impress him or her, which means all of your choices are wrong.
Which, interestingly, means that all of them are actually right. After all, if every option has the same chance of success or failure, then every option is as good as every other. So stop agonizing, pick something, and go get that job!
Try Making a Giant Decision Instead!
Nothing puts into perspective the unimportance of small decisions quite like making a big one. “So, I just proposed to you, and you said yes. Which is great, thanks for that by the way. Um, where would you like to eat?” Guess what? Who cares? Your new fiancée will be happy to eat absolutely anywhere, or do anything, because they just made a huge decision that makes everything else look like no decision at all. This is the same logic that, financially speaking, makes it far easier to spend an extra $200 on the ‘nice’ dining room table you really want after you’ve just spent $200,000 on a new house. If you’re already shelling out money, why not just pile it on?
Nothing will ever completely eliminate the process of spending way too much time making an inconsequential decision. But there are ways to waste less time on them. Which means more time to waste on the truly important things in life – badminton, Pokemon, spending time with family, hair braiding, laser interferometry, and pie. Have fun!