The metro or the bus?
The green dress or the blue one?
Get up when the alarm goes off, or hit snooze?
Cake or cake?
The story of our life is told in each decision we make. We are, more or less, the sum of our decisions – and how those decisions interact with our surroundings.
That’s why the ability to make better decisions is paramount to leading a better life, and why it’s one of the focuses of Cracking The Happiness Code.
We’ve talked about money, jobs, weight loss, learning languages, traveling, and a whole host of other ideas here, but it is decision making that ties these diverse topics together like that knot in your headphone cables. (To readers from the future: Remember when we needed cables for things? How quaint, am I right?)
Of course, science has shown us that most of our decisions are actually made unconsciously – by reflex if you will, before being rationalized by consciousness to give us the appearance of agency.
But whether you believe in free will, determinism, or are somewhere in between, improving the process by which we make decisions will improve the results we get in life – and hopefully enable us to improve the lives of others too.
When it comes to making decisions, the biggest barrier is choice.
In fact, plenty of studies have shown that in a wide variety of circumstances – when forced to choose between many options, many people will do nothing at all – much to the chagrin of any restaurant sporting the 10-page, omni-choice menu.
Indeed, no choice is our default setting. There are quite a number of regions that, as a part of acquiring one’s driver’s license, have an option to become an organ donor upon death.
How do these regions maximize the number of people saying “I will donate?” By making the default option donation, and forcing the individual to mark a box on their registration form that they’re opting out.
In the country I was born in, Canada, the reverse is true. People have to check a box to opt in. And our opt-in rates are way lower because of this. All it takes is one check box to change the donation status of millions of people!
In other words: Statistically, often our opinions matter less than whether we have to take action.
This is important to realize, because it can help us to start acting in our own best interest.
Once we have really internalized the fact that our minds find choices difficult and prefer the status quo, we have a lot more power to overcome procrastination, change our habits, and act more effectively.
First, by recognizing that when there is a choice, often the best thing we can do is simply make any choice, instead of trying to deduce which option will make us happiest.
Will the Leg-o-lamb burger with Swiss cheese, garden-fresh tomatoes, and chili be better than the Double Chocolate Fudge Supreme cake? While readers of this blog know it’s the cake, the answer, in general, is less important than the fact that we’ve decided.
Yes, there are monumentally important questions like “should I have a baby?” that deserve planning and consideration – where making a choice fast is the wrong choice.
But this is exactly why we need to learn to identify all these minor decisions and cultivate the habit of knocking them off as quickly as possible – so we save the mental energy for the few choices that are going to seriously impact the quality of our lives.
Here’s an example I often read Ramit Sethi giving on his blog: People trying to improve their financial situation will often try to cut back on things like their morning latte at Starbucks, when this is a statistically meaningless choice compared to what mortgage they have.
Choosing a mortgage, or possibly choosing to move, or rent, are all much more significant choices with much bigger consequences than whether to get the latte – or even new Air Jordans. Yet we often focus our energy on the minutia.
That’s like driving halfway across town to save a nickel on gas when the simple reality of owning a car means $100s in insurance, upkeep, and depreciation costs lost each month.
So we’re agreed now, yes? That there are some decisions that have a wildly disproportionate amount of influence on the quality of our lives – whether they be related to our health, finances, relationships, careers, or anything else.
And there’s one very simple sort of question we can ask to help guide our thinking here:
Will this decision matter tomorrow? A week from now? A year from now?
Start asking yourself this when you feel tension surrounding a decision. You’ll start to see what sorts of decisions you’re spending way too much time and energy analyzing.
Perfectionism gets in the way here. I get it. You don’t want to miss out on something good.
Act more times, make more decisions, get more experience. That is the perfect choice – the one that’s been made.
And if there’s residual tension and you just can’t decide – ask yourself, “what’s the worst that could happen here?” If you can live with your answer, then it’s time to take action.
This is not about being brash or reckless, it’s about becoming the type of person that makes spectacular things happen – for themselves and for others.
In my experience, people all over the world are far too cautious.
Abundant choice feels like risk when really, wondrously little is there. Fortune favors the bold – and so do the statistics.
Now get out there and make things happen. And wear the green dress. It goes with your eyes.