Deciding to Decisively Decide
Scary but true: I spent as much time picking out my coffee table as I did picking a name for either of my children.
It’s not that I consider those choices equally important—not at all. It’s that, as psychologists would say, I’m a maximizer. I try to make the best decisions I humanly can. And if a decision, no matter how minor, is giving me trouble—as with that coffee table—I might just obsess about it for months. Even after I make up my mind and pony up some cash, the ordeal isn’t over. I keep Googling to see if I missed something better. I revisit every aspect of my choice, from stain color to leg height, and also begin to wonder if, on second thought, the very concept of coffee tables has grown a bit passé.
As you might expect, there are healthier ways to live. Chief among them: making good-enough decisions and moving on, a practice known as “satisficing.” (Think “satisfying” plus “sufficing.”) Unlike satisficers, my fellow maximizers and I tend to be unhappy with our choices—or so a recent study from Florida State University suggests. This regret can naturally dampen our moods overall. (Not to mention the moods of our loved ones. My husband, Bill, has a special Look of Pain reserved for when I say things like, “Can we hang that picture half an inch higher?”)
Maximizing also makes us sitting ducks for decision fatigue, the mental and physical drain that everyone feels after facing a bunch of daily dilemmas. Researchers believe decision fatigue leads us to overspend, overeat and suffer countless other failures of willpower; any day now, I’m sure they’ll prove that maximizers, who not only make drawn-out decisions but also remake and re-remake them, are headed straight for bankruptcy and The Biggest Loser.
But I don’t need studies to tell me that, when it comes to decision-making, I could use some serious New Year’s resolutions. All I need is math. In the past year, I figure I spent at least 150 hours fretting over minor choices when I could have been working, or enjoying my family, or—gasp—spending time on decisions that really mattered.
Take last fall. I had deadlines to meet and classes to plan, so of course the main question preoccupying me was what color to paint my living room shelves. I went to the paint store for paper strips in rainbows of green. I held the strips up to our burgundy walls. I went back for paint samples and brushed Sherwood Green, Georgian Green and Weathersfield Moss on big pieces of cardboard to see how they looked against the burgundy walls. I consulted with friends. I returned to the store for more strips.
“Pick something already,” said Bill, who was getting the Look.
“Green was a mistake,” I said. “I need to check out some blues.”
Back at the paint store, it occurred to me to ask the woman behind the counter what she thought. She glanced over the latest strips and samples I had piled up, plus photos I had with me of the living room. Then she started shaking her head and taking colors out of contention. Too bright. Too muddy. Too assertive for a whole piece of furniture. Within minutes, we were down to two shades of blue. They looked lovely, but still—only two? Didn’t she have another dozen or so that I should try? Nah, she said. Either of these colors would do the job just fine.
Clearly, I was in the presence of a professional satisficer. And for once, with Bill’s exasperated face in mind, I listened.
The path to healthy deciding hasn’t been smooth since then, I admit. Days after I picked one of the two blue finalists, for instance, I found myself getting sucked into an epic hunt for bathroom cabinets. White or brown? Metal or bamboo? But at least I realized what was happening and forced myself to make a choice that same night before bed. I felt pretty proud.
Which brings me to those New Year’s resolutions: Less maximizing. More satisficing. And focusing each day on the truly important things, such as making sure this column has the most fantastically inspiring, I mean, unbelievably insightful, I mean, thoroughly adequate ending.
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