The world offers us more choice than ever. As psychologist Barry Schwartz pointed out in his classic TED talk that can mean 175 varieties of salad dressing to choose from or hundreds of channels (of mostly dreck) to watch on TV. But it's also true in a broader way. In our lives we are blessed--and cursed--with being free to choose our careers, our homes, and our life partners in a way that our ancestors could never have dreamed of.
That's a wonderful thing, but as any panic stricken 20-something who is still making all those decisions can tell you, also terrifying. Choice is fabulous, but also stressful--the more options we have often the higher our anxiety, the more whiplashed our brains and often the slower our decision making.
In today's consumer paradise there is little you could do to narrow down the options available to you (even if you wanted to), but experts say there are handy tricks you can use to power through your brain overload and get to good choices in less time. What are they?
When faced with 175 salad dressings (or the life equivalent) you make your task infinitely harder if you haven't decided before hand whether you're more concerned about, say, nutritional value or rich, creamy goodness. Smooth decisions proceed from clear values whether you're in the supermarket or the trenches of your small business.
As Wise Bread's Jacob McMillen has reminded readers in a recent blog post, "the best decision makers don't wait until the moment of decision to choose. Their choices come from a set of a predetermined core values that make the momentary decisions easy and consistent."
Remember Multiple Choice Tests?
It may be hazy, but remember your days of taking multiple choice tests back in high school? You might not have known the exact answer, but generally you were pretty sure that one or two of the possiblities was definitely wrong, so you immediately mentally crossed those out to leave yourself more brain waves to focus on the remaining options. That process still applies today. When you're feeling decision paralysis creep in, take the immediate first step of eliminating clearly inferior options to give yourself a little more space to think.
The 70% Rule
OK, this one comes from a comedian, but it still makes sense. As the ever insightful Louis C.K. points out, it isn't necessary to be 100% sure of a decision before making a choice. He offers advice for "situations where I can't make a choice because I'm too busy trying to envision the perfect one--that false perfectionism traps you in this painful ambivalence: If I do this, then that other thing I could have done becomes attractive. But if I go and choose the other one, the same thing happens again. People do this trying to get a DVD player or a service provider, but it also bleeds into big decisions."
Sound familiar? If so try this, he suggests: "My rule is that if you have someone or something that gets 70 percent approval, you just do it. 'Cause here's what happens. The fact that other options go away immediately brings your choice to 80. Because the pain of deciding is over."
Board a Mental Time Machine
Humans are notoriously lousy at making decisions today that will boost their future happiness. Why? Among other reasons, we forget that we're always changing. As Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert reminded the audience at TED: "Time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect... Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished."
So when you're faced with a paralyzing decision, try to remember that you're choosing not for the person you are now but the person you will become in the future. "Look at this moment from the future," suggests McMillen. "Forget what feels comfortable. In ten years, what will we wish we would have chosen today?"
Stare Failure in the Face
Let's be honest, if you choose a less than optimal salad dressing or go with the second best vendor, will the world stop turning? There are big decisions out there where the length of your deliberations should match the impact of the choice, but those are rare. When you find yourself getting stuck on a decision, take a minute to ponder exactly what the consequences would be if you chose badly. If the answer is no big deal or a simple about face, adjust the energy you're devoting to deciding accordingly. And remember, less than fatal missteps are often the best way to learn.
"Understand the cost of making the wrong decision and limit your investment in your analysis accordingly," suggests software consultant John MacIntyre on a Quora thread addressing analysis paralysis among techies. "Will people die? Or might it cost you an hour of rework later?" he asks. Different answers demand different levels of fretting.
How do you fight analysis paralysis?