It’s universally accepted that we have more options—and thus more decisions to make—than ever before. And if you sense that the wealth of data, products, and services available to us contributes to general sense of malaise, you’re right. Studies repeatedly show that it is not the absence of choices that makes us unhappy, it’s having too many. Faced with a firehose of products and price offerings, we freeze up in search of the best value, highest quality, and fastest shipping. And the analysis paralysis isn’t limited to goods and services—our lack of confidence in making smart choices extends to weightier life decisions, too.
Fear of Better Options (or F.O.B.O.) is typically the terror underlying our decisions. It’s a condition born of information overload (thank you, World Wide Web). In order to move from analyzing options to making a decision, we have to tick through the options and select the best one. With pages of black flats or summer rentals to scroll through, reviews, ratings, and prices to factor in, what used to be the work of a few minutes can literally take days. Time-stretched and overwhelmed with options, surely it’s time for a life hack for making decisions?
Case in point: The other day my daughter came to me for help. A favorite clothing company was having a sale that would last only a few more hours. Bookmarked on her computer were four sweatshirt options, all basically the same price. How to decide? After listening to her describe the individual appeal of each one without sensing a frontrunner, I fell back on a strategy my college roommate used to employ when making a decision: “Suppose I say you absolutely can’t get this one. How do you feel? Relief? Regret?” After a few passes, the trick helped my daughter identify the one she felt the most disappointment at being denied. So, she ordered it.
Time-stretched and overwhelmed with options, surely it's time for a life hack for making decisions?
It turns out, my roommate was onto something with her approach to decision-making. In seeking to understand how we will feel once a choice has been made, we can sometimes tease out the safest choice. This underscores a key aspect of decision-making: Making a choice is often as much about sidestepping regret as picking a path.
How Jeff Bezos minimizes regret
In their book Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, authors Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths discuss how Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made the life-changing decision to quit his hedge fund job and start an online bookstore: “The framework I found, which made the decision incredibly easy, was what I called—which only a nerd would call—‘regret minimization framework.’ So, I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, ‘Okay, now I’m looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have.’ I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this….I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried.’”
Life decisions on the scale of starting a company are not conundrums we face every day. Typically, it’s routine choices that wind up costing valuable time and energy…often far more than is warranted.
Writing for Wired, Jonah Lehrer discusses the phenomenon by which seeing an array of choices makes simple decisions painful: “Call it the drug store heuristic: A cluttered store shelf leads us to automatically assume that a choice must really matter, even if it doesn't. (After all, why else would there be so many alternatives?)” As noted by Lehrer, “the modern marketplace is a conspiracy to confuse, to trick the mind into believing that our most banal choices are actually extremely significant.”
We all have those friends who appear to make decisions easily, with minimal angst. It may be that they’re not necessarily better at evaluating options, but instead excel at putting healthy boundaries around the task and then moving on once a decision has been made.
Spoiled for choice
According to Patrick McGinnis, the man responsible for the term, F.O.B.O. is an “affliction of affluence. In order to have F.O.B.O. you must, by definition, have options. It is a byproduct of a hyper-busy, hyper-connected world in which everything seems possible, and, as a result, you are spoiled for choice.” Intriguingly, McGinnis describes F.O.B.O. is a form of “narcissism,” in that “’People with F.O.B.O. put themselves and their needs and wants squarely [above] the people around them — all of the people who are adversely affected by their F.O.B.O.” (While it was disconcerting to consider my fixation with choosing just the right Airbnb for winter break a form of narcissism, it did shame me into making a decision more quickly.)
Asked how he combats the paralyzing effects of F.O.B.O., McGinnis explains: “’For everyday things, I do what I call ‘Ask the Watch.’ I whittle something down to two options and then assign each item to a side of my watch. Then I look down and see where the second hand is at that moment. Decision made. It sounds silly, but if you try it — asking the universe — you will thank me.’”
If you’re looking for a more scientific approach to beating analysis paralysis, consider this: According Steven Johnson, author of Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter Most, studies have shown that when facing a choice, seemingly between two options, we would be wise to consider a third.
Another misstep, according to Johnson, is limiting the people we use as sounding boards when faced with a big decision. Just as you get in touch with certain friends when you’re in a certain mood and need support, the people we choose to share a decision with are unconsciously or consciously selected because we already know how they will vote.
Take a recent dinner conversation I had with college friends, seeking advice on a job search. Bottom line: I knew what I wanted to hear, and I knew who to go to for reinforcement. Sometimes, whom you choose to share your predicament with will tell you volumes about the direction you’re leaning.
The stories we tell ourselves as we contemplate a decision are as important as they are problematic. Back to the sweatshirt example. When imagining owning or giving up each sweatshirt, my daughter was buying in to a host of assumptions she probably didn’t recognize as such. Which leads to a relatively new scientifically-supported approach to making a decision: to ensure you consider the right factors before making a decision, psychologist Gary Klein recommends conducting a “premortem.” He says, “the premortem has proved to be a much more effective way to tease out the potential flaws in a decision. A whole range of bad cognitive habits — from groupthink to confirmation bias — tends to blind us to the potential pitfalls of a decision once we have committed to it. It isn’t enough to simply ask yourself, ‘Are there any flaws here in this plan that I’m missing?’ By forcing yourself to imagine scenarios where the decision turned out to be a disastrous one, you can think your way around those blind spots and that false sense of confidence.”
"By forcing yourself to imagine scenarios where the decision turned out to be a disastrous one, you can think your way around those blind spots and that false sense of confidence." - Gary Klein
Have you created the space to hear yourself think?
Other ways to encourage good decision-making? Exercise, meditate, journal, doodle, get enough sleep. Mindfulness brings us back to a more accurate state of awareness about our current situation and needs, a position that’s helpful when making a decision. Research has shown that when people are stressed, they tend to pay more attention the possible upside of a decision, potentially granting it more weight than is warranted, or wise. Meaning a new home that costs less, but is next to the freeway, may seem like a boon in the short term, when in fact a home that’s a bit more expensive, but in a secluded neighborhood, would bring greater happiness in the long run.
Of course, when facing an important life decision, circumstances sometimes conspire to limit options—which can be godsend for those of us prone to dwelling on a decision long after it’s been made. Recently, I made the decision to quit freelance writing and return to work full-time. How did I manage to make this critical decision, the biggest change my family has faced in recent years? Presented with two options, health insurance or no health insurance, the choice was an easy one. And there you have it, a life-changing decision, made with (so far) no regrets.