“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!”
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.”
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.
- 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.”
- 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).
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.