Decisions, Decisions

“Be decisive. The road of life is paved with flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.” (Unknown)

My parents had volumes of advice for every situation. What’s more, they insisted I follow their pearls of wisdom. To call them “control freaks” would not be a stretch of the facts. They saw no good reason, they said, why I should make the same mistakes they had made (they never elaborated on the details of these woeful errors of judgment). They’d already been (whatever age I was at the time) and intended to save me the trouble. I remember stomping my foot and shouting (okay, screaming), “But I wanna make my own mistakes!”

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and no one else has yet stepped up to claim responsibility for them.

Of course, when I made my declaration for independent choice, I had no inkling of the scope or significance of decisions that life would throw my way, a Pandora’s Box of options about work and relationships and kids (and with the kids, more choices with weighty impacts). I just wanted to be the one to decide whether I could go to sleep-away camp that summer.

How Much of Our Lives Do We Waste Spend Making Choices?

How many decisions do we make in a day? When I googled this question, the phrase “various sources estimate 35,000” popped up in a myriad of entries. Having had the necessity of source verification beaten into my head by numerous journalism professors, I clicked away to discover that “various internet sources estimate 35,000” was a round robin of one site quoting another, the actual source a chimera.

I wasn’t alone in my search for hard numbers. A follower of Skeptics Stack Exchange, a Q&A site for scientific skepticism, was seeking the same holy grail:

Q: I saw [an] advertisement posted on the way to work today, and it made the claim that people make “about 35,000 decisions a day.” A quick Google search shows that this claim is widely parroted but never sourced. Is there any evidence for or against this claim?

A sampling of replies suggests decisions are slippery little beasts to qualify or quantify:

[The Pragmatist]: There are 86,400 seconds in a day. If we subtract 8 hours sleep, that leaves 57,600 seconds. So you would be making a decision roughly every 1.5 seconds. That does not leave much time to think about them, or to actually execute them!

[The Stickler for Detail]: Well, consider that as I’m typing this, each work choice is a decision. And if I notice that I mistyped ‘work’ for word, going back to correct it involves a series of decisions – do I backspace, use the cursor keys to move there, the mouse, or should I even bother to fix it? So there’s more than one decision per second – some of them in parallel, like spelling, word choice, sentence structure.

[Dr. Johnson’s Clone]: I don’t think this question is answerable without a coherent definition of decision.

The Mirror, which markets itself as “the intelligent tabloid,” dialed back the numbers significantly (but equally without justification), declaring: The average person will make 773,618 decisions over a lifetime – and will come to regret 143,262 of them.

There’s something admirable about that kind of precision, however unsubstantiated and ridiculous it is.

Let’s just say, we make a lot of decisions, and some of them don’t turn out so well.

If Choice is a Gift, Why Isn’t Decision-making More Fun?

The arbiters of how we experience life out there in the big world have their roots in our individual genetic make-up; our class, race, and gender; our family of origin and sexual orientation; where we grew up, the kind of education available to us, and the things we choose. Of all these factors, only our choices—the decisions we make—are within our control. Perhaps that’s what makes decisions so scary. The outcome rests squarely on us.

People approach the minefield of decision-making using a variety of tactics to avoid self-annihilation. There are the admirable folks who calmly weigh the facts at hand as they chart the pros and cons of each option (I like to imagine them bent over their Excel spreadsheets neatly graphing the chances of happiness with their beloved in 20 years time), after which they make an informed decision and move on without another thought.

Then there’s the rest of us.

 

  1. The Agreeables

Agreeables are, on the surface, very easy-going folks. Whatever movie you want to see is fine with them. You want to eat Italian tonight? Sounds great, they say. Would they mind if you leave your two sets of twins and your pitbull “Piranha” with them for a month? No problem, they grin.

Other people rarely have issues with Agreeables, but Agreeables have a big issue: They’re living everyone’s life but their own.  It’s a peacekeeping tactic that can blow like a bottle of bubbly uncorked after shaking. Agreeables are the folks who shock everyone by walking away from a decades-long marriage having never once complained. Finally, a decision they made independent of what others wish or think. Good for them I say. Better late than never.

But earlier would be better still.  

  1. Second-guessers

Second-guessers make decisions. The problem is, having decided, they keep on deciding, hashing their choices over and over. Would they have been happier with the apartment in Queens rather than the lease they signed in Brooklyn? The job they chose pays better, but the one they turned down offers more opps for advancement. Will they regret it down the road? Second-guessers are the people the maxim Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good was coined for.

The road to madness is paved with second-guessing. In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that while freedom of choice is essential to our well-being, many of us experience deep distress as we struggle to figure out which is the absolute best choice when faced with a dazzling array of possibilities. Second-guessers beat themselves up post-decision for (maybe) missing that ultimate choice. If no decision ever feels quite settled for you, Schwartz’s Ted Talk on the subject is well worth a listen. Bonus prize: His great sense of humor.

  1. Contingency Planners

Mea culpa, this is a category I know well. Faced with a decision, Contingency Planners try to foresee all negative outcomes so they can put out fires before they spark. In this way, Contingency Planners are the opposite of Second-guessers. We do all our suffering upfront. Once a decision’s made, we move on, but the extreme vigilance beforehand, as we scout every choice for hidden high-explosives, is cortisone-drenched, high-stress territory.

If Contingency Planners actually had X-ray vision, capable of seeing 20/20 into the future, all the angst might be justified, but we don’t, and The Future is a tricky beast—like Hurricane Irma—capable of changing course and intensity in ways known only to itself. There is just no way to know in advance if possible life-partner, Mike, will still have his great sense of humor, a penchant for spur-of-the moment getaways, and noteworthy abs in twenty years.

In many instances, we’d do just as well to consult a Magic Eight Ball and heed its counsel.

  1. The Defeatists

When I was in grad school, I lived in a large Victorian house with a dozen other students. We had a common kitchen, living room, and bath. One of the tenants—I’ll call him Jim—paid his rent by cleaning the common areas. He did a good job. In fact, Jim did a great job, scrubbing and vacuuming, evenings and weekends, while the rest of us were out falling in love, falling in lust, falling down drunk.

I mentioned this to him once. Actually, I had to shout to be heard over the vacuum cleaner.

“Hey JIM!”

He turned off the machine.

“Maybe you should take a night off, go out, have some fun.”

He frowned.  “I don’t know. What if I ask a girl out and spend all that money and then find out I don’t like her?”

“But what if you do like her? It could turn out great.”

“It probably won’t,” he said, and resumed vacuuming.

The Defeatist eliminates the risk inherent in all decisions by making one blanket choice upfront: To avoid the unknown. The Defeatist doesn’t know every new venture will end up a regret. They’re just freaked by the idea of regret itself. Except the regret of never having tried at all.

  1. The Abdicators

Abdicators, too, steer clear of making decisions but for a different reason: They like to leave their options open. All their options. While Second-guessers stew after a decision, fearing they might have made the wrong choice, Abdicators are certain something better always lies ahead, so why commit to anything in the present?  They don’t take the job offer because tomorrow or six months from now they might get one that pays better with more perks. They never commit to their current squeeze because they want to be available for the sexier, funnier, more understanding person they’re sure is over the next rise.

The problem for Abdicators is that other people do make decisions—take the job, sign the lease, commit to the relationship—leaving those who don’t with fewer choices and lesser options. As the Rush song says, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

  1. The Paralyzed

The Paralyzed would like to make a decision. They’re not afraid of commitment itself. It’s just committing to the wrong choice can have nasty consequences. You can really end up paying for a long time. Risk is, well, risky.

The Paralyzed imagine every decision in apocalyptic terms. Absolute Success or Abysmal Failure. But short of deciding to step off the ledge of the Empire State Building, very few choices are entirely irreparable. The first car I bought, based solely on its being the cheapest, only ran when it felt like it. But I’ve since added other criteria (like reliability) and now I have a much better car. My first husband, likewise, had his quirks and problems, but I learned what I need in a partner and now I have a wonderful husband.

Most less-than-optimal (or downright bad) decisions can be amended. Not without bruises, maybe, but you get a lot of good stories from your screw-ups, and sometimes a little wisdom, even if only the wisdom to know I never wanna do THAT again.  

 Managing the Uncertainty Factor

Chances are you haven’t hit The Mirror’s quota of 143,262 lifetime bad decisions (the 10,000 times you’ve chosen to make microwave popcorn with extra, extra butter at midnight don’t count—unless you have a serious coronary condition).

Chances are you are doing the best you can.

In the world of blog advice, there seems to be a penchant for writing things down and sticking them in jars—the best thing that happened to you that day, one thing you feel thankful for, the thing that’s troubling you most at the moment. So, if you’re wracked by paralysis or exhausted from second-guessing, feeling defeated in the face of risk or stressed-out by trying to predict outcomes into perpetuity—or maybe you’d just like to hand off all those pesky decisions to someone, anyone—then here’s a little “sticking things in jars” idea that might bring peace:

Over the next month, write down all the decisions you make that are more significant than whether to have Cheerios or granola for breakfast. Stick them in that fabled jar. Leave them to brew and go on with life. After six months have passed—yes, it’s a long time, but you need perspective for this—open the jar and read through your decisions.

Chances are you’ll discover mostly good choices, peppered by a few wrong turns. Many decisions, in hindsight, probably won’t seem like such a big deal—why were you so worried? And some you’ve likely forgotten completely.

The problem with life, hence decisions, is that everything may go to hell. And then again, it might not. (This is what makes us fork over budget-crippling premiums to insurance companies.) We really have no way of knowing how the future will play out, or play us. All we can do is to “act, act in the living present” as Longfellow wrote.

Maybe we should just get on with it. Make the decision. Cross our fingers. Take the leap.

And buy a Magic Eight Ball.

 

 

 

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Back Away From The Edge

“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.”  Alvin Toffler

It’s 8:30 in the morning and I’m rushing through showering/hairwashing/teethbrushing,                            so I can get dressed and eat breakfast,                                                                                                                     so I can have 15 minutes to deal with the most important e-mail,                                                                        so I can squeeze in 1 hour and 45 minutes of writing before I go to the gym.

2:15 p.m. Really like to get some more time on the novel, but I’ve got a blog post to write, the garden needs watering/weeding/deadheading, there’s estimated taxes to do, and my Inbox has become an avalanche. I need to be finding markets for my short fiction. I need to be researching agents for my historical novel. But it’s my turn to cook dinner and I have to run to the store to get red peppers and garlic.

Oh crap, I forgot to tweet my last post @MondayBlogs. Stop, do that.

It’s 10:00 p.m. and I’m hustling like crazy—do the laundry, change the cat litter (still haven’t started those estimated taxes!)—because I really want to get to my current read before 1:00 a.m. And I haven’t spent a single moment on FB or Twitter. So I breeze through notifications, RT the books/blogs of my writers’ circle, and follow-back all my new followers—ping!ping!ping!—one eye on the clock. Strict 30-minute limit. I used to do a quick trawl of new followers’ feeds and send a brief thanks. No more. Attila-the-Hun could follow me and I’d hit the follow-back button reflexively. Time’s up!

1:45 a.m. I close my book, turn out the light, and review the many things I did not accomplish today, hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles. Tomorrow, I think…

The Age of Accelerations

Thomas Friedman, in his book Thank You for Being Late (an Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations), discusses how technology, market forces (globalization), and environmental stresses are accelerating simultaneously at an unprecedented speed. To shed light on what this acceleration looks like in the arena of technology, he cites Moore’s Law—the prediction made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 that the number of transistors one could fit on a microchip would double every two years.

Okay, let’s do the math. If you start with, say, 10 transistors on a microchip, after 30 years of biennial doubling, that chip will hold 327,680 transistors. After 40 years, it will contain 10,485,760 transistors. Moore’s Law has had a pretty good run for fifty years. It wasn’t until 2015 that some folks in the tech industry started suggesting Moore’s Law had taken its foot off the accelerator. But don’t expect to rest on your old iPhone. In March of 2017, Stanford announced, “As Moore’s law nears its physical limits, a new generation of brain-like computers comes of age in a Stanford lab.” Read: Faster. More powerful. More angels dancing on the head of a pin.

While admitting that these accelerations have outstripped our ability to adapt to and manage such high-speed change, both at the personal and societal levels, Friedman contends “we have no choice but to learn to adapt to this new pace of change.” The pace of the digital age.

But what if we can’t keep pace?

In his New York Times review, John Micklethwait notes  “In two and a half years researching this book, [Friedman] had to interview all the main technologists at least twice, because things changed so quickly. Like everyone else, he has no time to think… ”

Fifty years of doubling acceleration, in evolutionary terms, is Darwin on steroids. Massive steroids. But we’re a nation on opioids, in part I suspect because we can’t cope with such rapid change. We are struggling to adapt.

Darwin tells us that adaptation is the process that makes organisms better suited to their habitat. Adaptation occurs through the gradual modification of existing structures. When our environment changes slowly, we have the opportunity to fit ourselves to our surroundings. But when the changes whizz by, we continually lose ground, scrambling for a toehold.

Assessing the Long View

Let’s pull back the frame for a moment and look at some highlights on the timeline of human evolution:

55 million years ago (MYA): First primitive primates evolve.

8 – 6 MYA: First gorillas evolve. Later, chimp and human lineages diverge.

5.8 MYA: Orrorin tugenensis, oldest human ancestor thought to have walked on two legs.

1.8 – 1.5 MYA: Homo erectus is found in Asia. First true hunter-gatherer ancestor, and also first to have migrated out of Africa in large numbers. It attains a brain size of around 1000 cm3

500,000 YA: Earliest evidence of purpose-built shelters – wooden huts – are known from sites near Chichibu, Japan.

280,000 YA: First complex stone blades and grinding stones.

195,000 YA: Our own species Homo sapiens appears on the scene – and shortly after begins to migrate across Asia and Europe. Oldest modern human remains are two skulls found in Ethiopia that date to this period. Average human brain volume is 1350 cm3

50,000 YA: “Great leap forward”: human culture starts to change much more rapidly than before; people begin burying their dead ritually; create clothes from animal hides; and develop complex hunting techniques, such as pit-traps.

10,000 YA: Agriculture develops and spread. First villages. Possible domestication of dogs.

5,000 YA: Earliest known writing.

575 YA: The printing press is invented.

Not exactly a speed race, is it?

But we’re talking psychological adaptation here. Exponential changes across our environment, both social and technological, press us constantly to move faster, learn quicker, and accomplish more in less time. There is much evidence we are not doing well.

The Age of “Great Stress”  

The June 6, 1983 cover story for Time pronounced stress to be “The Epidemic of the Eighties.” Fifty-five percent of Americans, the magazine reported, felt “great stress” on a weekly basis. By 1996, Prevention claimed the number had jumped to 75 percent.

If you are 40 years old or younger, a world of rapidly-escalating stress is the only world you’ve known. Expectations for what you should be able to accomplish in the narrow span of a 24-hour day have soared since your birth and continue soaring. The work day, for example, is no longer 9 to 5, or even 8 to 6. In many cases, it’s 24/7—we are expected to take the call, respond to the e-mail, solve the immediate crisis (and there’s always a crisis) during evenings, weekends, and so-called vacations. In short, we are never off-duty.

The unending work day has resulted in mega-burnout for millions of workers. A group of Stanford business professors has estimated that job stress adds as much as $190 billion dollars per year to America’s healthcare costs. In January of this year, a new law went into effect in France to protect workers’ private time. Companies with more than 50 employees are now required to set hours when staff are free from the tyranny of emails. Cutting the electronic leash, as one French legislator put it. The German labor ministry enacted a similar law in 2014. The U.S. Department of Labor, however, does not yet recognize being on-call 24/7 as constituting “working hours” unless the employee is required to remain on-site for that time.

Too Tired to Live 

But the workplace is only one area where we are expected to accomplish a ridiculous amount of stuff. In the age of accelerations, everything has been super-sized. Subtly, and more often not so subtly, the one-two KO punch of rampant consumerism and envelope-pushing technology has stretched our expectations/assumptions about the “average” American middle-class lifestyle to the breaking point. Not only must our homes be kept to magazine-perfect standards, but they must be big homes with the kind of square footage once reserved for English aristocrats and Hollywood film stars, outfitted with walk-in closets (that encourage greater consumption), “smart” refrigerators that manage our grocery lists, and more bathrooms than residents. The yard surrounding these single-family palaces must be landscaped and regularly groomed. If we can’t manage it all ourselves, we have to hire help and work more hours to pay for it.

Our stuff mirrors our inner state: overloaded schedules and crammed to-do lists. We’ve got to schlep the kids to their many social engagements and enrichment activities. Find time for a workout at the gym. Call the plumber. Walk the dog. Schedule a mani-pedi. Visit the dentist and the optometrist. Shop for groceries. All this is exhausting, so we order take-out or a delivery from Blue Apron (if we have the extra bucks in our bank account) because we are too tired to cook. Too tired to invite friends over. Too tired to go out to a movie—it’s so much easier to stream whatever’s on Netflix, and we can watch it, sort of, while catching up on social media or texting the friends we’re too tired to see.

And if we find ourselves with a spare moment, we rush to fill it. In his humorous and thought-provoking essay One Hundred Seconds of Solitude, author Alex Mar speaks of being at a writers retreat at the MacDowell Colony. He was “churning out pages in record time” until he discovered a spot on the northernmost corner of his cabin’s front porch that had 3G access. Wired to the universe once more through his iPhone, he could not resist checking and rechecking his messages.

The treadmill is the symbol of our age, and if we can’t crank it up to 100 miles an hour, the bills won’t get paid, the project deadline will be missed, and no one will have clean clothes for the morning. But no matter how fast we run, we never escape the nagging sense we’re falling further behind. As Micklethwait noted, “Man has sped up his own response times. It now takes us only 10-15 years to get used to the sort of technological changes that we used to absorb in a couple of generations; but what good is that when technology becomes obsolete every five to seven years?”

You have to ask yourself, what is all this doing to us?

Chronic Stress: A Bad Cocktail

We are a stressed-out nation in a high-stress world. Many of us wear our stress like a badge: See me? I don’t collapse under pressure. Life is tough but I’m tougher. I can take it. While the sentiments behind such a declaration may be admirable—a testament to our ability to endure, “to take a licking and keep on ticking,” in the words of the old Timex ad—the results are anything but healthy. It has been estimated that 75-90 percent of all visits to our primary care doctors are for stress-related issues. And it’s not just adults who are feeling the crunch. College students, teens, and even little kids are reporting high stress. In the age of accelerations, stress “tends to be more pervasive, persistent, and insidious because it stems primarily from psychological rather than physical threats.”

The stress hormones released by our adrenal glands (adrenaline and cortisol primarily) when we’re frightened help us to think and act quickly. In an emergency, they can save our life. When the danger is past, they dissipate rapidly.

But chronic stress is a bad cocktail. Continuous elevated levels of stress hormones lead to a nasty list of health problems including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis, digestive problems, weight gain, liver disease, ulcers, and Type 2 diabetes. Sustained levels of cortisol also weaken our immune system and alter our reproductive system.

Non-stop stress hormones do a number on your head, too. Not only can they render you anxious and depressed, they actually create free radicals that kill existing brain cells and halt the growth of new ones. Good-bye memory. Hello impaired concentration.

The Mayo Clinic suggests these strategies to manage stress:

  • Eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise and plenty of sleep.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, and meditation.
  • Take time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music.
  • Foster healthy friendships.
  • Volunteer in your community.
  • Seek professional counseling.

There’s only one wee rub here: All these strategies take time. Time we feel we haven’t got and can’t possibly find.

What is Too Much?  

Some years ago, while doing research for a novel set in the early 20th century, I was struck by the references to time in the letters and diaries of that period. Never was an hour named. People harvested the crops “this morning.” The reverend’s wife will visit “tomorrow afternoon.” There was a dance at the grange “this evening.” Rural, small town life needed no timepiece in 1920. It was the farthest thing from the nanosecond.

Fast forward to 1985, the year I moved from Boston to western Massachusetts. I’m sitting on the deck of an informal seafood and burgers joint in Vermont, overlooking the Connecticut River. Everything is tranquility—except me. In this still spot, I’m suddenly aware that my nerves are humming at high speed, an inner noise I never noticed because the din of the city was so much louder. Now, thirty years later, that din is everywhere. We are all buzzing all the time. The merry-go-round spins ever faster. We can’t change the speed of the ride. We can only seek a different  mode of travel. A slow boat to sanity, perhaps.

The life of machines is only measured by how long they function, but human beings are infinitely more complex than the most intricate high-tech gizmos. Our lives have meaning beyond the number of tasks we can accomplish in a day, the speed at which we move.

Too often, I have the uncomfortable sense that I’m not actually in my life. I’m just ticking boxes in a never-ending flurry of activity to “get it all done”, or at least to keep from falling too far behind. What is enough? What is too much? There are no absolute answers to these questions. Except what our gut tells us. We need to be listening.

My friend Rachel’s parents grasped this. Journalists, authors, and scholars, they used their money not to buy a big house but to pay for household and other help that would free them to do the work they loved. Summers, they stretched their dollars by taking Rachel and her brother camping until school resumed. They led long, productive lives, but they did not live on a treadmill. They did not run a rat race. They understood the limitations of a day. Valued focus and purpose.

We cannot have it all, cannot accomplish it all, and trying to do so is what’s killing us.

The Reckoning: What is Essential?

So, we who are not machines, what do we really need? I offer a list here:

  • Healthy food and clean water.
  • The love of family and friends.
  • Exercise of some sort.
  • A place to call home and a way to pay the rent/mortgage for it.
  • Regular sleep.
  • A sense of general safety.
  • Frequent laughter.
  • Pursuits that bring us joy.
  • Access to medical care.
  • Basic clothing, basic household goods, a car or bicycle if we don’t have access to a good mass transit system.

Conventional wisdom says to ask yourself, if you died tomorrow what would you regret not doing? It’s a good question—if you can manage to winnow your bucket list down to a nonstressful length. But lately I’ve been thinking a better question might be: What would you most miss? I’m betting not your 24/7 workday or the struggle to keep up with Facebook and Twitter. Not your closets full of stuff. Or the endless list of repetitive home maintenance tasks.

Whatever you would most miss in this life—reading, writing, hiking, going dancing with your partner, playing with your kids, strumming the guitar, political involvement, painting sunsets, kayaking, hanging out with friends—whatever is on that list, THAT is what you should be doing more of now. And pare everything else back as far as humanly, fiscally possible. Because what else is your life for if not to engage fully with what you love most?

Perhaps more than anything, in this frazzled age of accelerations—where however fast we’re racing, the clock is racing faster—we need time to think. And time not to think.

No one will give it to us. We must claim it for ourselves.