It started with sandwiches. My mom would ask me which way I wanted my sandwich cut at lunch. Halves or quarters? Rectangles or triangles? It was a very low-stakes decision, and the result was always: a sandwich. It tasted the same no matter what cut I chose. Somehow, though, the tiny decision of what shape I wanted that sandwich became a matter of intrigue and great interest. Sometimes? I wouldn't have it cut at all. So many options! All of them equally good, too! I really have to thank my mom for helping me to be not only decisive, but also adventurous. It seems that being indecisive is both common and stressful for many people. I'd like to pass along some secrets of the "naturally" decisive.
There are no wrong decisions. Either the decision leads to a delightful result, a neutral result, or a negative result. For almost all situations, a negative result is seriously no big deal. It can be seen as a learning experience that provides a valuable piece of information. For instance, I tried a new brand of "protein cookies" that were peanut butter and chocolate chip. I don't particularly like chocolate, or peanut butter in desserts. They were dry and mealy and I didn't like them very much. I never bought them again. I was in marathon training at the time, though, and they were still COOKIES. After running a half marathon, even a dry, mealy, lame cookie is still calorically dense. There is no way I'm going to bewail the terrible fate of buying a mediocre cookie. I'll save that emotional energy for the big stuff, like marriage, career, and life purpose.
People tend to regret missed opportunities about three times more than we regret unfortunate decisions. I've been divorced, and I now see that as a learning experience that was good for me. It also allowed me to meet my current husband at a time when we were both available. My early first marriage was a terrible decision, and I've come to terms with it. On the other hand, I have huge regrets about not spending more time with my grandmother before she died, about not traveling more when I was younger, and about not taking my health more seriously earlier in life. Those are important decisions. Almost every other choice exists on a much less momentous level.
Most decisions can be made once. For consumer products, for instance, I have a default choice, and a range of acceptable fallback choices. Say I'm buying potatoes, and I really want Yukon golds, but they're out of stock. I'm fine with red potatoes instead. I won't bat an eye over a choice like that. Say I'm buying marinara sauce. There are five brands of organic sauce, and each one has four flavors. Which one? The one that's on sale, of course. Barring that, the cheapest one. If I've already tried the cheap one and didn't love it, I'll try the one I haven't had before. I'm not going to spend more than ten seconds on this choice because there is no negative outcome. The negative outcome would be if I tried to make lasagna with salsa or tomato soup instead. Over the course of a year, I may have tried every flavor of every brand, and at that point, I'll have a favorite. One favorite, eighteen backups, and maybe one do-not-buy.
Once I bought a loaf of bread by my favorite bakery. The kind I liked best was out of stock, and so I shrugged and decided to try an alternate flavor. Unfortunately, it was the "no salt" flavor. NB: Never buy no-salt bread unless you are on doctor's orders. I ate the whole loaf, because I'm super frugal, and it stuck in my mind always to avoid that flavor. Guess what? I didn't die. I just ate lame sandwiches at work for a week.
Roughing it can be good for you. I spend at least a week backpacking and camping every year. Why would someone deliberately forego hot showers, laundry facilities, and a refrigerator? Why would someone voluntarily sleep on the ground out in the cold? Why would someone subject herself to mosquito bites, stinging nettle, and fire ants? It's the price of the ticket to see some of the world's most beautiful places, observe nature up close, and interact with wildlife. It's also a way to develop physical and mental toughness. I can eat cold, flavorless food. I can carry heavy objects. I can kneel in the mud. I can assemble a tent and a folding chair and a camp stove, even if I have a cut or a scraped knee. When I need the emotional wherewithal to deal with tough circumstances, I have it. I live an easy, comfortable life 49 weeks of the year, and I use the other three weeks to remind myself that it isn't always butterflies and rainbows. Sometimes the cookies aren't very good and sometimes the bread doesn't have any salt. Oh well.
Most choices I regard as adventures. How long will it take me to taste every available flavor of jam? What cuisine have I never tried? What dish on this menu have I never had? What song have I not heard? Which route have I not traveled? Sometimes I make a choice and the result is MEH. Sometimes I pay $15 to watch a movie that wasn't very good. Sometimes I read a book and I rate it only three stars. Sometimes we go to the beach and the weather is too cold and windy. That's fine. In the grand scheme of things, most choices that I make rate four or five stars out of five. The occasional two- or three-star experience helps remind me how nice it is to have the four- or five-star experience. There will be other books, other movies, other restaurants, other days at the beach. The best experiences tend to make the most boring stories.
Other choices don't need to be choices at all. I made one choice to commit to my health, and one choice about how often to work out. I've changed my default workout many times, and I'll change it many more times in the future. I keep increasing my fitness level. That's to be expected. I've changed my go-to recipes many times as well, because I keep learning more about nutrition and developing my cooking skills. I've only had to make one decision to keep my house clean and organized. I've only had to make one decision about prioritizing my marriage. I follow a household routine that involves no decision making. The goal here is to preserve my mojo and my mental bandwidth. Decisions erode willpower. When we use routine and habit to get through the majority of the day, that willpower is preserved for the times when an important decision is truly necessary.
Decisions can be tough to make when every option seems equally attractive, or equally unattractive. Blessed with too many attractive options! Oh, the humanity! Which of these three awesome things do I want to do? Don't let FoMO get in the way, here. Pick one, go with it, and move forward. For instance, we brought home a puppy. There were four puppies in that litter, and we wanted one pup. Result: one pup. How could we possibly know whether we chose the "best" puppy? What if one of the other wee little dogs was more woofy than the one we got? Who cares? Spike is a pretty outstanding dog. A+.
When all the choices seem equally unattractive, that's a bad scenario. If the choice has to be made, best to get it over with. A really horrible choice may be better handled with support from a good friend. Anything that involves grief, serious illness, legal issues, relocation, or large sums of money may benefit from input from someone who isn't emotionally affected by the decision.
Analysis paralysis is a back alley that intersects with procrastination. The truth is that there will never be enough information to completely validate a decision. If it was obvious, there would be no decision involved. Decisions are a matter of personal preference. They're going to involve either routine matters of daily life, or unusual, life-altering change. Frittering away emotional and mental energy on routine decisions weakens the sense of confidence we need for the big stuff. Routine daily matters can be seen through the lens of potential lifestyle upgrades. If you don't have a strong sense of personal favorites and preferred lifestyle inputs, such as music or food, then making a few dozen low-stakes decisions can give you a private database. Decisions can be moments of playfulness, adventure, and imagination. It's worth a try.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.