The agony of choice

“The agony of choice – Head, stomach or heart? Make decisions and stick with them”

“It is our choice … that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” – Joanne K. Rowling

You may know the story of the donkey that stood between two equally large haystacks and sometimes tended to one side and sometimes the other, but couldn’t decide between the two. – What happened with him? He hesitated with his decision until finally, lingering in the middle, he starved to death.

It doesn’t have to be a matter of life and death, but if you don’t want to end up like the donkey, you have to make decisions. Every day we consciously and subconsciously make thousands of decisions, important and not important, trend-setting and banal. Sometimes it is easier for us, sometimes more difficult. Whether it’s about your career prospects, current projects or your lunch – turn it into an activity and train yourself to make the right decisions and stick to them.

Should I or should I not?
“I could… maybe I just have to… or what if I…?” Making a decision means choosing between two or more alternatives. In some shops, you occasionally throw a dice that to make the decision for you with options like “Yes, right now!”, “Wait for while” or “Not good”. They are nice gadgets to play around with, but when it comes down to decision making, we have to make them ourselves.

Gut decisions
There are people who make important decisions very quickly and often completely based on gut instincts. And interestingly, they turn out mostly as the right ones. Gut decisions save a lot of pondering and toggling between options, but in most decisions, especially at work, the intellect is involved. Animals usually act instinctively; in stressful situations, they unconsciously choose one of the three Fs: Fight, Flight, and Freeze. Depending on the situation, they decide to fight the attacker, to take a flight, or remain motionless until the danger is over. This pattern is immanent.

It is a bit more difficult for us as humans. What happens to us when we are spoiled with choices? According to the neuroscientist António R. Damásio, every person “marks” all events and things in memory with an emotional evaluation. These emotional markers enable us to make so-called gut decisions and create a subjective list of arguments when making decisions. That way we know spontaneously what we like and what we don’t. In other words, they represent personal experiences and are the basis of our intuition. However, the more important a decision, the sooner and more often we usually fall back on our intellect. Since we want to feel comfortable with the chosen alternative, heart, stomach and mind should “work” together whilst making a decision.

Deciding means being active
If you decide for yourself, you keep all the trump cards close to your heart. What this means for you: Don’t let anyone make the decisions that you are supposed to make. Deciding means being active! If you are faced with the decision to quit your unloved job in order to re-orientate yourself or to carry on in that job, then no one else can solve this conflict for you. Consider carefully, perhaps note down the positive and negative consequences of a decision. The smaller the uncertainty, the easier it is for us to make a decision. Take your time, but without putting off a due decision. Because a good decision quickly turns into a bad one if it was too late (remember the donkey …).

One tip: decide on the unimportant things as quickly as possible! Because: what can happen?

Don’t be afraid of wrong decisions!
Once you realise that in very few cases, life depends on a single decision, this one decision no longer weighs so heavily. It is hardly possible to find the perfect way out in a complex situation. So don’t expect the ultimate solution from yourself. That will take the pressure off. Nobody can anticipate all the consequences in advance, not even you. There is extremely rare or never with great certainty that you are making the right decision; after all, you cannot see into the future. A little courage is part of every decision. The main thing is that you don’t hold it against yourself, even for a decision that has turned out to be bad. Remember: “I have considered everything that was possible in advance and decided to the best of my ability.” Then the only thing that helps is, to look ahead and think about how to make the best of the situation.

Please everyone?
Harmony is good, peace of mind and success is better! Decisions have consequences, often unpleasant ones too. This can affect colleagues, co-workers, friends and partners, for example. If you always try to please everyone, in the end, it will not help anyone, because then, it was not your own decision. You will not be able to please everyone, especially with complex decisions. So don’t even try!

Stand by your decisions!
Once a decision has been made, you should hold on to it. Not at any price, but as long as nothing really significant changes. As a manager or senior executive member at work, you are always criticized by one or the other. So making a decision also means taking a firm stand for what you think is right. If the assumption turns out to be wrong, the decision must then be reversed.

What to do?
There are often more options to choose from. Every now and then you will find good combinations of different choices or options so that it is not a black or white decision, there is often also a middle ground even in difficult situations. The danger is, that the decision that is due will be weakened or postponed. If in doubt, it also helps to briefly describe the situation to colleagues or friends and to seek advice. Get used to asking yourself when decisions are due:

  • What is the rational for/against the various options?
  • What speaks emotionally for/against the one or the other option?

That helps a lot to become clear about advantages and disadvantages.

Start small: just make quick decisions at lunchtime in the restaurant that have a relatively narrow range of food. Fish option or vegetarian option? Gradually increase the difficulty. Spring time is also a good time for clearing out your wardrobe. You can start to practice decision making with that, like: should I keep the boots or not? Another tip: Buy a paper shredder! You have to make irrevocable decisions pieces of paper by pieces of paper. It will strengthen your awareness of the important and the unimportant stuff.

One last thing
Allow others to make completely unselfish decisions! You are always one decision away from a totally different life. “When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” – Roy E. Disney