We live in this new digital era, where there is so much to do, so much to choose from, and things are constantly changing at such a fast rate. Consequently, our lives are way busier than they used to be; these new super fast-paced lives that we live require us to make a lot more decisions, on a daily basis, than our predecessors ever had to.
For the majority of us, often making decisions can be quite a stressful process. A lot of us experience a great deal of discomfort and anxiety when it comes to making decisions. This is no surprise when we think about the implications that our decisions can have on the lives we live.
A good decision could be the difference between a promotion or losing your job. A good decision could be the difference between a loving, fruitful relationship or a destructive and draining one. In some cases, a good decision can be the difference between life and death.
This mental discomfort often leads to people avoiding making decisions entirely. This can be a big problem because often avoiding making choices stops us from progressing in life and inhibits us from pursuing potentially life-changing opportunities.
If we take the typical workplace for example the higher, better-paid positions almost always involve making more difficult decisions. So, there is great value in being able to make more effective decisions more quickly.
Even when it comes to less important choices that we know most likely aren’t going to impact our lives in any great way, like what to order at a restaurant, or which trainers to put on tonight; a lot of us will still experience some level of mental discomfort when having to process these decisions and can spend a great deal of time on them. I know I can easily spend 1–2 hours just mulling over which film to watch in the evening, and although it isn’t the end of the world, that time would be much more useful spent elsewhere.
Why the decision-making process is so uncomfortable and difficult.
As I mentioned before, we avoid making decisions as a means of shirking responsibility and avoiding potentially harmful consequences. However, this is only one dimension of the problem, it doesn’t explain why we struggle with even seemingly inconsequential decisions.
To get to the crux of this, we have to look at the decision making process.
When making a decision we look at all the information that’s available and extract whatever is relevant.
We then try to analyse and evaluate this information in such a way that we get the “correct decision,” which we can also think of as the “optimal decision” or the “perfect decision” — I’ll be using all of these terms interchangeably.
Whenever someone is trying to make an optimal decision, there are a number of issues that arise:
Too much information
This issue occurs because the number of variables our mind can process at a time is limited, while the amount of relevant information we would need to consider for a decision — both direct and indirect — is vast. even for seemingly simple decisions. For example, someone deciding whether to move across cities for a new job would have the following to consider: will there be a salary increase? How much of a difference would the increase in salary make to you? How much would it affect your friends and family if you left? What about your spouse? What’s the new city like? What kind of reputation does the firm have? How much would you miss your current workmates? What would the long term career impacts be? These are just a few examples, you could go on and on if you really wanted to make a “fully informed” decision.
There is a quote by alan watts — the late British writer and speaker who popularised eastern religion to the west — which perfectly illustrates this notion of too much information for the decision:
“People have a great deal of anxiety about making decisions. Did I think this over long enough? Did I take enough data into consideration? And if you think it through, you find you never could take enough data into consideration. The data for a decision in any given situation is infinite.”
Whilst, on the other hand, Graeme S Halford et al (2005) conducts a study on the number of variables that the conscious human brain can process at one time and concludes that this upper limit is 4.
Too Little Information.
This issue is the inverse of the first point about too much information, however, both problems can occur within the same decision-making process. Too little information arises when the variables that we need for a decision are not available. For example, when a stockbroker is picking a company that he wants to invest in, it would be useful for him to know if the current CEO is going to remain for the next 5–10 years, but that information just isn’t available right now.
Alternatively, it could be that the park you chose to go for a run in today is filled with teenagers who’ve decided to carry knives and harass locals. You have no way of knowing these things, yet in both instances, they are vital information.
Too many options
This aspect of decision making has become a lot more significant in the last few centuries, with the production of goods increasing astronomically. You can go to a restaurant and be met with a menu full of diverse but equally appealing options. You can go shopping for jeans and find hundreds of great pairs if you look for long enough. Visiting a new city, although exciting, can also be overwhelming, as you’re bombarded by a sea of options: which clubs to go to, which attractions to see for the day, which hotel to stay at. Our modern-day lives are overloaded with options, and this can make choosing an option extremely laborious.
In his book, the paradox of choice (2004), Barry Schwartz debunks the fallacy that more choice leads to more freedom, which in turn leads to greater welfare for society. Instead, Schwartz writes that having more choice actually just leads to paralysis as opposed to liberation, because people’s brains become too overwhelmed. The result is that people avoid making decisions.
Schwartz gives a perfect example of this paralysis in one of his Ted talks: a colleague of his got access to the investment records of a mutual fund company called Vanguard — housing about a million employees and 2000 different workplaces.
This colleague found that for every 10 mutual funds the employee offered, the rate of participation went down by 2%. So, if they offered 50 funds, 10% fewer employees would participate than if they offered 5. In this case, when offered more choices, people were actually less likely to pick because it’s harder to decide between more options. Schwartz also gives more examples of this in the book.
It’s also important to note that by not participating, the employees were actually passing up on as much as £5000 a year from their employee who would match their contribution. So, offering too many options makes the decision-making process so uncomfortable, that people will actually sacrifice financial gain to circumvent it.
Having looked at the various innate obstacles and handicaps that characterise our decision-making process, it’s easy to see that making a perfect decision with our own conscious effort is almost impossible. And persisting at a task that we really aren’t equipped to deal with is obviously going to lead to mental discomfort.
What we are trying to do is comparable to using a tiny rubber dinghy boat and a broken compass to travel across the world’s largest oceans: the tools simply aren’t sufficient.
That’s not to say we can’t make great decisions, but to think that you can make perfect decisions all the time from your own conscious volition just isn’t true. Even the people that consistently make great decisions, how much of this is to do with their own conscious thought process? Think about all the things outside of their control and knowledge that could have gone wrong but didn’t. As much as some of these people may think their success comes solely from their amazing data gathering and logical thinking, there are an insurmountable number of things out of their control at play.
Change your perspective
What I suggest, is that you stop trying to make perfect decisions, simply because — as described before — you can’t (at least not in any kind of consistent way, with the majority of things in your life).
Once you’ve accepted this fact, you can change the game. Rather than playing the game of making the “perfect” decision, Just focus on making the best decision that you can with the information you have available. Change the standard by which you judge the success of your decisions. Because right now, most of us are judging ourselves on things which we have no possible way of knowing. You hear people say all the time, “I could have done this”, “I should have done this”, “If I had known this”. But the truth is you didn’t know, and in most cases, you couldn’t have known. You couldn’t possibly have known that some angry guy, who’d just had an argument with his wife, was going to walk past your car and throw something at the screen in anger. But all the same, you’ll blame yourself for making the decision to park there. When looking at possible companies to invest in, you can gather all the data you want, but you couldn’t possibly know that the CEO of the company you invested in was going to get done for fraud and embezzlement, causing the company’s shares to take a hit.
With this approach, you do not judge the quality of your decisions on things which you didn’t or couldn’t have known at the time you made the decision. You also accept that your limits, cognitive biases and deficiencies as a human being are going to mean you sometimes make imperfect decisions even if in “theory” you think you could have made the right decision with the information you had available.
For example, you may make a bad decision because you were angry or jealous at the time. You may think that this could have been avoided, however, that’s just a thought in your head, in actuality, it wasn’t avoided because just like any human being you sometimes express negative emotions which cloud your judgement; It can be avoided in the future.
Trying to be a perfectionist can be better for achieving desired outcomes if the alternative approach is not to do your best. This is because in trying to be a perfectionist, you will make more of an effort to make the right decision. You will consider more information, you will think it through more and you will spend more time on it than someone who isn’t trying to be a perfectionist. This can lead to better results.
However, in trying to be a perfectionist there can be some undesirable consequences. It tends to make us neurotic; trying to account for every piece of relevant data, in an infinite sea of data can lead to us over-analyzing a situation, spending endless amounts of time and energy trying to figure out things that we really have no way of knowing. All of these things are not just directly counterproductive when it comes to making an effective decision, but they cause unnecessary mental fatigue, anxiety and stress, which further indirectly reduces your ability to make an effective decision in addition to being an unpleasant experience.
However, if the alternative approach is to do the best we can, we are always going to be more effective than the perfectionist for the following reason: a person can only do their best. Even if they are trying to be a perfectionist, they can still only do their best. And so, the person trying to do their best will retain all of the productive aspects of the perfectionist, they will still be gathering as much info as they can, thinking everything through to their best abilities and putting in their best effort. But, the person whose intention is just to do their best does not have to deal with all the neuroses that arise from trying to be perfect.
I like to think about the neuroses that arise from trying to be a perfectionist, as the difference between what you can do and what you want to do. Because once you reach the point where what you’re trying to do is beyond what’s actually possible, all that happens is neurosis: unnecessary stress, tension and friction. Like a kid who’s trying to bench press 100kg but is only capable of benching 80kg. All they’re doing by trying to bench 100kg is causing mental discomfort, physical discomfort and wasting large amounts of energy.
In fact, they’ve caused that much strain on themselves and wasted that much energy on a futility, that by the time they get to actually accepting what they can do, they probably can’t even bench the 80kg anymore.
So, in this way the person who tries their best will probably end up being more effective in their decision making than the person who tries to be a perfectionist because they waste less time and energy, they cause less strain on themselves trying to do things beyond their capabilities, and so they are not weighed down as much.
It’s clear to see that simply changing your perspectives and attitudes towards decision making can be very powerful. However, it’s important to note that this model in which perfection is just defined as your best, isn’t an excuse to cut corners and cease gathering all the information you need for decisions. Just because a lot of stuff is out of your control, doesn’t mean you stop trying to predict things and integrate those predictions into your decisions. You still do all of that because it really does help. However, you accept and understand your limitations as to avoid the energy-draining neurosis and overthinking that come from trying to be perfect.