Thursday, July 11, 2013

How to (Not) Make Tough Choices

I recently read an article about Decision Fatigue, that waning of our willpower that occurs when we've had to make a lot of choices. We seem to think that the more choices the better; but time and again we see that humans in fact make worse decisions when there is more to choose from.* The simple reason is that our brain is finite and if there is too much to consider, our brain can't get a hold on all the facts necessary to compute elegantly. We end up falling back on old safeties and strongholds like: pick the one on the right.

Of course we tell ourselves that we've thought it through and are making a well-reasoned choice. But statistics and our own little voice deep down tell us otherwise: we are predictable because we just don't have the time or the mental resources to make all the decisions out there. We have to go with the flow and "do it because they're doing it" sometimes. That's not necessarily a bad thing; we trust our friends and we take their advice. Experts exist for a reason: to be listened to. Much of the jobs in the modern world are about someone who gathers specific information and neatly packages it up for others to swallow easily.

I'm not trying to decry the systems of decision-making we have in place. Usually it's for the less important things anyways, like which brand of socks you are going to buy, which meal plan or dorm a college student should choose, or whether you should buy the organic apples or the local apples (my semi-expert advice: go with the local ones). But what about when bigger decisions come along?

One thing is certain: we are good at decision-making early in the day, and get progressively worse. The reason for this is that we use up our choosing power as we go along. Eventually we can't hack it any more. How can we deal with this?

First off, only make important decisions earlier in the day. Instead of using the evenings to discuss important things with your spouse, discuss it in the morning when you're both fresh and better able to make decisions. Do this especially if you have roommates. It will make conflict easier to avoid and a compromise easier to come to!

Secondly, avoid temptations. We in our culture tend to think we can have the chocolate in view and resist eating it; we can be alone with our girlfriend/boyfriend and resist the urge to have sex. Maybe we can. But studies show that having to constantly resist temptation will quickly deplete our willpower. In other words, you may be able to resist now, but you won't after an hour.

Do yourself a favor and keep from getting in a tempting situation in the first place. The summer before we were married, my husband was working on the other side of the country for three months. He came back one week before the wedding and we decided that for that one week, we wouldn't be left alone together unless we were in a public place like a restaurant. We had made the decision to not have sex before we were married, and we knew that we missed each other so much and were yearning so much to be married that staying true to our conviction would be tough; we really loved each other. Maybe we could have resisted the temptation and successfully been alone together, but it wasn't worth the risk to us. The cards were stacked against us that our willpower would run out!

Avoid getting yourself into tempting situations. Don't buy pastries when you're on a diet. Have your roommate or spouse change your facebook password if you're trying to stop procrastinating. If it's tempting, get away from it!

Last of all, simplify your life and get rid of decision-making points. Routines are good for this. I do the same shower and breakfast routine in the mornings, and I read my Bible first thing when I wake up so I don't have to decide, in those first few groggy moments, what to do with myself. Some people take pictures of themselves in a large selection of complete outfits from their wardrobe, print the pictures out, and paste them into a notebook to refer to every morning so they don't have to decide what to wear; they just flip to the next page. Some people even make the same 10-14 meals in order for dinner, repeating every 2 weeks or so. If you simplify the number of choices you need to make, you'll save yourself for the big choices.

Here's one way to avoid making a choice (and save that decision-power for more important things): do all three of these solutions instead of trying to pick one!

What are your solutions for making decisions easier?


* The social research on this is summarized as an easy read for the layperson in the book Nudge.