The Deciding Factor: Stop Indecisiveness and Kick the "What If" Habit

Is a spiral of what-ifs wearing you down? Experts say decision overload is an epidemic. Here's how to stop driving yourself crazy.
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The Goldilocks Effect

It's the plastic storage bags that sink me. I mean, I know which bread I like and I'm loyal to my brands of pasta, sauce, and cookies. The cat eats only one flavor of Friskies, so that's easy. But sandwich bags are thorny: Yes, the store brand is cheaper, but is the plastic too flimsy? Brand B (quite sturdy, I know) promises an extra 50 bags for the buck, but the box won't fit in my kitchen drawer. Brand C looks good, but check out that price per hundred.

Perhaps, like me, you can -- and do -- go on like this for minutes at a time. And not just about minor decisions, but about all manner of judgment calls, small and large: whether to have friends over; where to go on vacation; which car to buy (or should you lease?); whether to look for a new job, change careers, or stop working altogether. So you ponder, you research, you flood your brain with information, endlessly weighing the pros against the cons. And still, you're just so... indecisive.

But before pinning that label on yourself, consider that researchers who study the way we make decisions (there's actually a field called decision science) have uncovered a fundamental paradox of modern life: Although we have more choices than ever, as well as more information to help us decide, the process isn't getting any easier. On the contrary, having to choose so often among so many good options is stressing us out.

"There's just too much data to process," says Michael McKee, PhD, vice chairman emeritus of psychiatry and psychology at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio. "You can't keep track of it all. That's stressful."

It's also rampant. "When I give talks, I lay out the areas of life in which we have decisions to make," says Barry Schwartz, PhD, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. "Then I tick off everything where there used to be no choice and now there are many -- from romantic relationships and spiritual beliefs to small and large purchases. Nearly everyone I speak to has a problem with choosing something."

It was easier a generation ago. Take the familiar Oreo cookie. In 1970, your mother could purchase one kind of Oreo, the same one that had been around since 1912. But in the mid-1970s the Double Stuf Oreo was introduced, and the genie was out of the bottle. By 1991 (the year the Mini was introduced), six Oreo products were on the market; by 2001 there were 15; and in 2006 there are 35 -- count 'em -- varieties of Oreos on my grocer's shelf, including a version for spring that features purple filling. Jeez, now I know why I come home from the supermarket exhausted.

Continued on page 2:  Maximizers vs. Satisficers


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