Decisions, decisions...
March 4, 2013 12:06 PM   Subscribe

How can I avoid analysis paralysis in decision-making and pick what's "right for me" more consistently? How can I minimize regret?

I seem to be incapable of making a good decision.

No, I'm not talking about "bad decisions" in the sense of drinking and driving, or playing hockey on a pond with a "thin ice" sign.

Instead, I'm talking about not being capable of deciding which restaurant to meet someone at, what time to make an appointment at, or what color tie to wear. In other words, decisions where there is no "right" choice, though I may indeed enjoy one of the choices better.

I know traditional "decision-making" advice tends to be things like "make a list of pros and cons, weigh the outcomes, etc.". However, I try to think too logically, and get stuck in analysis paralysis...often, over the stupidest things! (Unfortunately, the problem happens with decisions on every scale, unless there is indeed a clearly logical, "right" choice.)

Thinking vs. preference/feeling have a battle.

It's worse when someone else is involved.

I develop a sense of regret easily (especially if it is a large-scale decision).

I'd like to follow something along the lines of Steve Pavlina's "is it me" advice (which I consider very valuable), but the "logical" side of me inevitably tries to suppress it.

Any advice would be appreciated!
posted by Seeking Direction to Human Relations (25 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
I used to do this a lot more and had to teach myself to move on. If a decision will not have a significant impact on my life (what order to do things in, how to get to the appointment, what day to schedule the party) I try to make it as quickly as possible. When I start thinking, Maybe I shouldn't have picked X, maybe Y would be better, maybe my friend would prefer Z, I say to myself, "Forget it. It's done," as many times as necessary until I move on to thinking about something else. Over time it got easier.
posted by chickenmagazine at 12:14 PM on March 4, 2013

One piece of advice I've read on the green before is that if it's really hard to decide between two things, it probably doesn't matter too much. That helps a bit.

Emotion helps too - either This American Life or RadioLab had a show awhile ago about people who have emotional difficulty(? can't recall the condition) and who have to make decisions with logic alone - and how much more difficult this is. I used to think that emotional decisions were BAD - I'm trying to relax a little.

Restricting your choices helps too. I restrict menu items based on cost, or starchiness. This usually brings my choices down to a manageable number. And if I still can't decide I just ask the waiter which they recommend.

Selfishness helps too. Figuring out what is really BETTER for me - sure, I could have that meeting at 11.00, but if I have it at 2.00 when I'm already on that side of town it will be much easier.
posted by bunderful at 12:15 PM on March 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

I got some advice the other day that startled me, but which I've come to love: the harder a decision is to make, the less it matters which option you pick. If it's that hard to choose it's because both options are good; both would be fine if they were the only one available.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:15 PM on March 4, 2013 [13 favorites]

Get a coin out of your pocket.

Before you flip the coin, think, "If it lands on heads, I wear the blue tie. If it lands on tails, I wear the red tie." Don't forget which side is which! Heads = blue tie. Tails = red tie.

Flip the coin.

The moment you see what side it landed on, you should feel an instantaneous pang of either disappointment or relief. This quickly turns into mental self-argument, justification, etc. Forget all that stuff. If you felt relief, go with the coin. If you felt disappointment, do the opposite.

I didn't invent this method, in fact I think I actually read it here, but it really does do a good job of short circuiting the logical part of your brain and figuring out what you actually want.
posted by theodolite at 12:16 PM on March 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

You can also just ask yourself: "Will it matter tomorrow?" and if not pick whichever is on top, or closest.
posted by bunderful at 12:16 PM on March 4, 2013

Instead of making lists of pros / cons, try this exercise: next time you have narrowed a decision down to two choices, flip a coin.

Immediately after looking at the coin, how do you feel? Disappointed? Satisfied? Confident? Uneasy?

If you feel disappointed or uneasy, do the other thing.

And then don't look back. Don't second-guess yourself. You listened to your heart or feelings or body or whatever, and it told you. Trust that it knows.
posted by gauche at 12:17 PM on March 4, 2013

I deal with small decisions by using a simple set of rubrics. Like for restaurants: "Something close, something I haven't eaten before, something cheap, what don't they eat?" Then out of the short list, I just pick something randomly. This is what I use for low-consequence events like restaurants and ties. I don't look back as long as there isn't a negative out come. If someone else is involved, I make my short list and then give it to them to choose from.

For large decisions, I do the list of pros and cons. Outcomes and alternatives are important, but it's best to actually write them out. For example:

Should I take this job?

Case 1: I take the job
Outcome I love the job: Yay!
Outcome I hate the job: I work at it and start looking for my next job

Case 2: I don't take the job
Definite outcome: I'm back on the job search
Outcome I could have loved the job: Lesson learned, or I try to reapply.
Outcome I could have hated the job: bullet dodged.

For thing X, if I do it, then A happens. If I don't do it, then B happens. And on. There's also the issue of, what're the odds that various outcomes or situations occurs. If I can't tell, then it's not a factor.

That's what I tend to do to break the paralysis. Don't try to make decisions on empty stomachs, those are the worst.
posted by Mercaptan at 12:19 PM on March 4, 2013

I have the same problem, always viewed it as a symptom of my anxiety issues. The regret is very similar to other OCD type mental loops I can get stuck in. Treatment is the same, manage anxiety day to day, acknowledge when I'm getting stuck in loops and practice mindfulness.

It has also helped to have some framework that makes my decisions for me. I stopped eating gluten and it's cut out 90 percent of the decisions I have to make in a week. Only one or two restaurant choices, only a few items on the menu to look at! Only about 30% of the grocery store is actually edible now, half the time I pick up a new food I check the ingredients and put it back without ever thinking of it again. Can't eat it, no decision to make. I can understand why someone might decide to follow seemingly random and strict religious guidelines.

We get decision fatigue from the seemingly minor day to day things, I've found I have more energy for other decisions now that that has been taken out of my hands (and thoughts).
posted by Dynex at 12:20 PM on March 4, 2013

Making decisions is hard for me, because I dwell on the downside of each possible choice. It helps to think about it this way: Each of these options sucks in some way. I could regret either/any of them. Which suckage am I most willing to tolerate? Which of the likely regret scenarios seems most manageable?

You're going to be anxious every time you make a decision. You can't make the anxiety go away completely, before or after deciding -- but you can find little ways like this to keep the self-nagging somewhat in check.
posted by wryly at 12:23 PM on March 4, 2013

First of all, I understand. I occasionally can't handle deciding what accessories to wear to work so I bring several in my purse. Deciding where another person and I should eat something is stressful because I worry that they won't like the place.

That said, when it comes to decisions like what color tie to wear, I try to remind myself that, like you said, there is no wrong answer and both could be right. Sure, I might prefer one over the other but it's not that big of a deal. If it was a big deal, I would have stronger feelings about it. And if I realize that I would have preferred something else, I try to mentally store that information for use later.

It may help you to listen to this episode of Radiolab. Also, you can try to minimize the number of small decisions you have to make by developing routines or shortcuts. For example, President Obama only has navy and grey suits. Here is a quote from a profile by Michael Lewis:

"You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
posted by kat518 at 12:24 PM on March 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Instead, I'm talking about not being capable of deciding which restaurant to meet someone at, what time to make an appointment at, or what color tie to wear. In other words, decisions where there is no "right" choice, though I may indeed enjoy one of the choices better.

There is no "wrong" choice, either. Most restaurants you are familiar with will be perfectly fine. Any tie outside of a "novelty tie" is acceptable if you're wearing a white shirt, and the time to make an appointment is a time that fits into your schedule. So whatever decision you make will be perfectly fine. The decision is of no consequence, and the decision is not even the point: it matters less what restaurant you go to than that you find a convenient place to hang out with your friend. It matters less what color your tie is than that you are wearing something colorful to break up your dark suit and white shirt. It matters less what time you make an appointment than that you actually have the appointment.

Some ways of avoiding "analysis paralysis" are to create heuristic rules that short-circuit the decisionmaking process (eg, "red or blue ties are good colors, and should be about the same width of your suit lapels", "Bob likes trendy restaurants, while Jane likes family dining", etc.)
posted by deanc at 12:29 PM on March 4, 2013

I too am useless at small decisions (the huge ones are so much easier.) For some of them it helps a lot to develop a sort of "rule" about yourself. Like, "I like to make appointments as early as possible." And then stick with it. Of course if there are particular circumstances, like you'll be driving into the city to get to a certain appointment, so it would be better to make it later to avoid rush hour, you can do something different in that case. With restaurants, you could decide to always try a new one if possible, or always suggest one of your favorite three places, or whatever it is. Again, if you make that decision and then think, "Damn, I actually really want to go to ___ instead", you can always deviate from your rule that time. You can also decide to switch your rule later.

With clothes, whenever I've worked in jobs that require me to put on proper clothes really early every day, I've picked them all out the weekend before. Just line up 5 ties in a row and wear them as they come up. You can change that too, like if they announce tomorrow is blue tie day and you had a green one lined up, but otherwise set things like this up in advance to save yourself from thinking about them in the moment.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:33 PM on March 4, 2013

I wouldn't worry about little things like ties or restaurants. These are inconsequential and should not prey on your mind. Don't give them space in your brain. If you find yourself regretting your tie choice, you can always wear a different one tomorrow. No biggie. Narrow down your choices. You probably have a few favorite restaurants. Stick with those few that you know you will enjoy. Keep in mind which restaurant is good for socializing with friends or clients, which one is good for a quick, inexpensive meal, and which one is good for a romantic date, etc.

Before making an appointment, before you pick up the phone, decide on a time that would be ideal. Don't take what they offer, try to get the best time for you and your schedule. Sometimes we have no choice. When you do have a choice, don't necessarily agree to the first thing they offer, ask for what you want.

This might be along the lines of the "Is it me?" advice but I have heard the advice to never make a decision that doesn't support your goals. If I am in the mood to sit down and eat with a fork, I'm not going to go to a hot dog stand. Don't know what you're in the mood for? Well, it's probably not that important and I wouldn't sweat it. Sometimes you're just hungry and anything will suffice. Don't make things more important than they are.

If I have a desire for my house to have traditional decor, purchasing a lucite coffee table on sale wouldn't support my goal. If I hate cold weather, I won't commit to a job and a mortgage in Buffalo. Pinpoint what you really want and what's important to you. Almost every decision you make should work to promote your goals.
posted by Fairchild at 12:48 PM on March 4, 2013

Regarding post-decision regret I live by "Once you've bought, stop shopping."
posted by workerant at 12:52 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I read "You're Not So Smart" from same author as this blog,, and one of several sections that stuck with me was on decision-making. When people lose the ability to use emotion in decision-making they often get stuck in a circular rut unable to make the simple choice. As I recall there was something like brain damage involved in one of the examples. I can't find the example on the blog and don't have the book on me to give more details. It struck me at the time that this is me, trying to make the decision rationally without emotion ... and guess what that doesn't work on some decisions, there is no non-emotional answer to come to in some cases. This explains some of it though not as well as the book pointing out that buyer's remorse (regret as you say) may be based on making a logical considered decision instead of an emotional one or at least as far as choosing art goes (study described in the link) and really isn't picking a restaurant (you like) or a tie (you like) an emotional (like) decision?
posted by RoadScholar at 1:06 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to have a lot of trouble with this, and many of the suggestions above were helpful to me.

First of all:

Is it me? Who you are is an emerging constellation of traits. You are not one thing, you are a process of living. Is it me will happen over time as you try things and see if you like them. If it isn't you, don't do it again. Some things are partly you and partly not. Every decision does not implicate your identity; you are you even if you eat at a restaurant you don't like. Removing your identity from consideration will help a lot in making small decisions.

Here are a few other mental tricks I use:

- Give yourself a "mistake budget". When I'm overstressed, unhappy, traveling etc., I say to myself, I can spend $50 on mistakes today. So if I need to have an expensive lunch because it's the only one nearby, or take the more expensive form of transport or whatever, I'll just do it and not worry about it. I rarely spend it all, but it does help to have it "pre-authorized" in my mind.

- Perspective. I think "Will doing this 'right' win me a Nobel Prize?" If not, don't worry about it. I know lots of super accomplished, successful world-changing people and they all make minor mistakes about timing, phone calls, meetings, lunches, etc. The less time spent worrying on that stuff, the more time spent innovating, enjoying life, changing the world, etc.

- Judge-y voices are a waste of your time. A $20 mistake in taking a cab vs. the bus or ordering food I don't like really doesn't make much difference and the worrying is worse than the actual downside of doing the "wrong" thing.

- Get really, really, really busy doing things you think are IMPORTANT. Record an album. Start a company. Organize a huge event for a cause you care about. Get a really difficult graduate degree. Work three jobs that move your career forward. If you do things you care about and are super busy, the outcome of any small decision is swamped by the next small decision and so on until you just don't care anymore.

- Automate whenever possible. Sign up for services that will track emails and send you reminders if you miss one. Get a virtual assistant or a scheduling program. Have a good contact manager. Have a cleaner come to your house every month or so. If you aren't on the edge financially, these kinds of minor luxuries will save you so much heartache. Do this instead of eating out a few times a month and you will be waaay happier. They will also lower your anxiety and remove decisions from your life (Do I schedule this today or tomorrow? What cleaning solution do I use?)
posted by 3491again at 1:29 PM on March 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

The trick for me is to recognize the time I spend making a decision is something I will regret even more than if the decision I make is a mistake.
posted by srboisvert at 1:39 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Read The Paradox of Choice.
posted by misterbrandt at 2:18 PM on March 4, 2013

In any situation where you are picking between n choices, spending time picking is actually "choice n+1". In other words, I'm deciding if I should vacation in the mountains or the beach. My choices are:

A: Go to the mountains
B: Go to the beach
C: Agonize over the decision for so long that I'm not able to go on vacation at all

Until I decide, I've implicitly chosen option C, which is clearly the worst -- going SOMEWHERE is definitely better than going NOWHERE. Therefore, I set a time limit, and if I'm still waffling at the end of the time limit, I flip a coin. I don't flip a coin and see if I feel relief/disappointment/whatever like it says above, I just flip a coin and go with that. Because in many of these situations, not deciding is WAY worse than all other options.
posted by telegraph at 3:04 PM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Likewise, in your tie example, standing there waffling about which tie to wear until you're late to work is always worse than picking a tie at random (promise).
posted by telegraph at 3:04 PM on March 4, 2013

I remind myself that I make the best decisions I can with the knowledge I had at the time. I also remind myself that I am capable of making good decisions, and that I typically do make good ones.

Sometimes I outsource the decision. Friend, which restaurant do you want to try?

Other times, I avoid making the decision at all. For instance I'll wear the sweater, but pack the jacket just in case.
posted by oceano at 9:20 PM on March 4, 2013

I love this question because I totally relate.

If it's a small decision and I can't make it, it's almost always because the decision doesn't matter at all. Any choice is a fine choice. With these decisions, you can employ simple hacks to help you make them, and develop a mind-set that allows you to move on once you make the decision.

If it's a big decision and I can't make it, it's usually because there is something not right about the options OR because each option is equally good. With these decisions it's more important to be able to step back and determine why the decision is so hard, and get in touch with your emotional side / your "gut."

Small Decision Hacks: (overly logical tactics are fine for these)

1) Limit your options
ex. 1: I own less clothes and less colors so I have less to choose from.
ex. 2: Pick 3 random options and have someone select from that list
ex. 3: Have someone else pick 3 options and you select from that list

2) Keep lists
ex. 1: I keep a small list of "go-to" restaurants that I know are good and most people will enjoy.
ex. 2: I keep a list of groceries that I always buy on my phone. When I go to the store, I follow the list and only really venture outside of it on special occasions.

3) Stick to a routine. Too much flexibility in your schedule can be a source of decision-paralysis.
ex.: Block out a specific day/time-range in your schedule designated for appointments. Only make appointments during that block of time. It doesn't matter exactly when the appointment is, as long as the appointment falls within the block of time.

4) Plan ahead. Less time for panic, more time to accept the decision and move on.
ex. 1: Look a restaurant menu before getting there, and decide what you want
ex. 2: If there are two events on one day, decide which one you are going to in advance, and wipe the other event out of your mind. It is no longer an option.

5) Friends/Decision "outsourcing." Never underestimate the power of friends who can appreciate this problem.
Tell a good friend that you have trouble making small decisions and that you might call or text them about really stupid ones and they should humor you and help you decide. I've called a friend and said: "Hi, which sandwich do I want: chicken or tuna?" and they've chosen for me. (Sometimes I disagree with their decision and sometimes I agree.) I have another friend who regularly texts me pictures of two outfits she is deciding between, and I pick one.

Big Decision Hacks: (aka emotional-awareness hacks)

1) Lie down, close your eyes. Imagine your life if you chose choice A, then imagine your life if you chose choice B. Which feels better?

2) Meditation. Similar to above, but more focused on the physical reactions in your body. Guide yourself through thinking of the options and try to identify the feelings they stir within your body - tension, anxiety, relaxation, etc.

3) Flip a coin. (see advice from theodolite and gauche)

4) If there are only options A and B, and you really can't determine which is better, create an option C that you like, instead of allowing option C to default to "indecision." Perhaps C is a viable option, or one of the two other choices gets you closer to that.

Personally, I've tended to get a bit stuck in logical-mode when in the midst of a decision, and fallen into emotional backlash once I've actually made the decision. Here are some things I've learned in retrospect:

- If both options seem good, they probably are equally good and you will be fine with either decision.
- If both options seem bad, it's possible they are equally bad and you need to extract yourself from whatever situation is making you choose between two (or more) bad options.
- Learning to accept (and move beyond!) the decisions you have made is more useful than trying to make all the "right" decisions.

I also find that most decisions are less stressful and produce less regret the more satisfied I am with my life in general. The less happy I am with life in general, the more I imagine small decisions will alter my life in huge irreparable regrettable ways.

When I am finding many large-scale decisions difficult, it can signify that I am losing sight of the bigger picture and letting my life become a series of decisions (that I potentially freak out about or avoid) as opposed to being an active participant in my destiny. If you are starting to do that, it is important to step back and try to see the bigger picture - What do you want out of life and where do you want to be in X number of years? Are you doing things on a daily basis that support that vision?
posted by emoemu at 2:07 AM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

For big decisions that really matter, ask experts and go with what they recommend.

But do not try to optimize your everyday actions. Do without deciding. Your life will be more interesting (and you will be more interesting) when things are a bit random and ever so slightly up and down.

For instance, when we go for a walk in the woods, at each possible turn we choose left or right randomly (we each show a random number of fingers at the same time, add them together, and then go left on odd or right on even). We end up places we've never been.

If restaurants are your thing, keep the names of all possible local restaurants in a jar and pull one out each time you're going out to eat. If you need to narrow it down to a subset that night (vegetarian or pizza or whatever), just keep drawing names until you hit one that meets that night's criteria.

If you're into computers, you could write a day planner app that makes random choices from your database of favorites and that applies limitations (such as "restaurant must be vegetarian") when needed.
posted by pracowity at 4:54 AM on March 5, 2013

Started to write my own experience with a five year long homebrew experiment in combating indecision, and then remembered that I had already posted it in response to a previous question. It certainly won't work for everyone, but it continues to do wonders for me.
posted by eotvos at 8:00 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Understanding how my brain works helps me with issues like this. Try reading How We Decide; it may at least shed some light on what's going on.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:28 AM on March 8, 2013

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