Don’t Sweat Small Decisions
Is sweating unimportant decisions keeping you from making smarter ones?
I’ve just returned to Australia after a very rewarding but not very restful 6 days in the US. As a ‘frequent flyer’ I’ve learnt the importance of giving myself permission to make imperfect decisions, and less than optimal choices, when I’m away from home. I’ve discovered (the hard way) that this doesn’t just make travelling less stressful, it makes me more productive.
The reason is simple: trying to make the perfect choice, about everything, reduces your capacity to make excellent choices when it actually matters. Personally, I know that trying to optimise every decision, every logistical arrangement, every meeting, every column inch, and every minute of my day is not only impossible and exhausting, but it reduces my mental and emotional capacity to make great decisions about the things that matter most.
Let’s face it, we live with a gluttony of choices today. From which resort you should book for your next vacation to what car you should buy (and which color!). From which PowerPoint template to use to what shoes to pack. From which mobile carrier to sign up with to which airline to fly. While freedom of choice clearly has its upside, the constant pressure to make perfect choices can actually rob us of our freedom. Ah, the tyranny of choice. It wasn’t a problem my grandma had to worry about.
The irony is that people who try to make the perfect decision every time– from what they order for dinner to whether to do carry on or checked baggage on a week-long international business trip (I opted to check!)– tend to suffer more anxiety about their decisions, be less satisfied with them afterward and, unsurprisingly, are less productive than people who just go with ‘good enough.’
The habit of aiming for the best conceivable option every time actually robs us of satisfaction and effectiveness. As Barry Schwartz wrote in his book The Paradox of Choice “Maximisers spend more time and energy reaching a decision yet they’re often less happy about what they decide upon.”
Better than trying to maximise every choice is to make a ‘good enough’ choice that meets a basic level of satisfaction. It’s about setting the minimum standard you need to be satisfied and deciding that when you find the situation or answer that meets that minimum it will suffice and you are free to move on to other choices. This spares you the anxiety and pressure of making the best possible decision.
So you didn’t get the best possible hotel at the best possible price? Move on. So your choice of blue for your sunroom was a little too light… or dark? Move on. So you didn’t have the best possible format for your PowerPoint presentation? Move on. So you didn’t pack the best possible combination of clothes for your conference? Move on. So you ordered the beef when your friend’s chicken turned out to be the nicer meal? Seriously, move on!
The irony is that people who live by the ‘good enough’ maxim actually get more done because they aren’t wasting precious time and energy on decisions that really, in the grand scheme of things, don’t really matter.
So how can you make smarter decisions? Here are five suggestions.
Firstly, stop comparing your decisions to everyone else’s but make the best decision you can now with what you know and leave it at that. So your partner’s chicken dish looks better than your beef, let it go!
Limit Your Choices
Second, try to limit yourself to fewer choices on those things aren’t really critical. Steve Jobs wore only blue jeans and either a black or white t-shirt to work every single day so he didn’t have to waste his energy each morning deciding what to wear. You may want to give yourself more choice than Jobs but you get my point; having fewer options frees up your time and brain space for the really meaningful stuff.
Lower Your Bar
Lower your decision-making bar to what is ‘good enough.’ Decide the minimum criteria you need to move forward and when you find it, make a decision and move on. My hotel in New York wasn’t the best combination of location and price but it was good enough. (I hardly spent any time in it anyway!). This article isn’t written with Shakespearean-like mastery but really, does it need to be?
Make It Irreversible
Finally, consider making some of your less important decisions irreversible versus keeping your options open so you can hedge your bets. That leaves you wide open to drowning in second guessing (not fun). I recently booked 10 days of accommodation for a family holiday in Italy. After about an hour on the internet I realised I was comparing lots of good options and that until I got there, I could never know which was the best. So I just went ahead and locked in my best guesses to spare myself weeks of more web searching and second guessing. It’s simply not worth any more time and I’m sure wherever we land will be just fine.
Be Decisive Despite Your Uncertainty
Too often we let our fear of making a wrong decision keep us from making a right one… or making any at all. We need more information, more data, more certainty. All the while life marches on and windows of opportunity close. As research has found, the most successful people don’t sweat small decisions and they don’t spend years analysing and realising the big ones. They make the best decision they can and if it ends up not being ideal, they pivot. Delaying a decision may seem like the safest thing to do but often it’s the riskiest.
Of course, there are many genuinely important decisions you need to make throughout the course of your life. Like who to marry (or ‘unmarry’). Which career to pursue or when to change it. What business to start or when to sell it. Whether you’ll have children and how to raise them. Save your energy for those ones and just make the rest as efficiently and effectively as you can.
Most of the time, good enough is truly is good enough. As I wrote in my latest book Make Your Mark,”Don’t let your fear of making an imperfect decision distract you from making great ones about those things that matter most.” Starting with what are you doing with your one and only precious life? Now that’s a decision worth thinking about.
If you want to make some brave decisions about the things that matter most in your work, relationships and life, I’d love you to get a copy of my latest book Make Your Mark: A Guidebook for the Brave Hearted and, if you live in Australia, join me at my upcoming Live Brave events in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne this May.