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

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.

Maximizers vs. Satisficers

There's a lot to be said for having choices, of course -- especially for women. "I would never want to go back to the 1950s, when the career choices for women were so narrow as to be almost nonexistent," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. "Indeed, people who live in countries characterized by freedom, democracy, and equal rights are happier than those who don't."

Dr. Schwartz agrees, maintaining that added choice has afforded us the ability to determine who and what we want to be -- essential, he says, "to well-being, both moral and physical." The mistake is believing that if some choice is good, more choice is even better. "That was a reasonable assumption when you were moving from no choice to some choice," says Dr. Schwartz, "but we know now that a point is reached where the correlation between choice and happiness starts to reverse itself."

In other words, an overabundance of choice has created some negative side effects. For starters, it has turned many of us into "maximizers," decision-science jargon for people convinced that there's a perfect choice out there among all the options available. Maximizers expend vast amounts of time and energy researching a decision and are usually inordinately disappointed when, inevitably, the final choice fails to be "perfect" after all. Research has shown that maximizers are less happy than their opposites, whom Dr. Schwartz calls "satisficers" -- people who weigh a limited number of options and are content with a "good enough" decision.

But even if you're not a maximizer, the abundance of choices can raise your blood pressure by gobbling up that most precious of commodities, time. While it makes sense to deliberate at length over a life-altering decision, too often minor matters tie us up for hours. "People think the Internet has solved the time problem because you don't leave your house," says Dr. Schwartz. "But say you sit down at your computer to buy a toaster. Before you know it, you've blown three hours looking at dozens of Web sites for a single toaster."

The Trade-Offs of Choosing

Worse is the anxiety that decision making whips up. "People agonize about the consequences of their decisions," explains Lynne Tan, MD, a psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center, in New York City. "There's always the fear of getting it wrong." If you experience even minor decisions as difficult, anxiety may be an ever-present companion.

But why does more choice make the act of deciding more stressful? After all, if you're a person who likes mint, having mint Oreos as an option should make your choice a no-brainer.

Yes and no, says Dr. Schwartz. If you've always dreamed that Nabisco would someday market a mint-flavored Oreo, you're in luck. But most of the time we don't know exactly what we want or can't predict exactly what will be best for us, particularly when it comes to a product (a digital camera, say) or a situation (moving to a new city, for instance) with a multitude of variables. Choices usually involve trade-offs: Your current job, A, boasts good benefits, hilarious coworkers and a midday yoga class; the switch you're considering, to job B, would boost your salary and trim your commute but the benefits package is less attractive and the corporate types seem humorless.

Because neither option is all good nor all bad, you imagine a tantalizing third scenario: If you keep looking, keep researching, you'll achieve decision nirvana by finding job C, your not-too-hot, not-too-cold, just-right job. The reality, of course, is that no job (or TV or camera or house) is just right in every respect. But as you continue to look and reject any number of perfectly decent choices, something interesting happens: Because each choice you pass up has some terrific attributes, you feel a tiny sense of loss when you kiss it good-bye. Is it any wonder, then, that you are less satisfied with your ultimate choice than would seem appropriate after all the time and money you invested?

Another regrettable result of endlessly searching for the "perfect" choice that never materializes is that you end up not choosing at all and instead stay stuck in the status quo for months, even years, on end. Other people "decide not to decide," responding to the surfeit of choices by opting out altogether. Both of these approaches have significant drawbacks, says Theresa Fassihi, PhD, a psychologist at the Menninger Clinic, in Houston. "There's always a risk, when you must choose among options, that you won't make the best choice," she acknowledges. "But in not making any choice you may also be passing up the best choice."

How to Make a Firm Decision

Clearly, there's no turning back from the choice culture we live in. Nor would we want to. Rather, we must arm ourselves with some tactics that can prevent us from wasting time and wilting under the pressures of having to decide.

Start by dumping the "indecisive" label, advises Dr. Tan. "Making decisions is important to our growth," she says, "but you can't get that unless you stop telling yourself, 'Oh, I'm so indecisive.' Instead of seeing decision making as a problem, try to view it as an opportunity to grow." Practice making small decisions, then gradually make larger ones, she suggests. Even if you get no further than managing not to sweat the small stuff, you'll have significantly reduced your stress levels -- because what is daily life but a series of small choices?

Also, learn to delegate. A travel-agent friend, for example, finds department stores overwhelming, so she hires a personal shopper. "I pay full retail," she concedes, "but I keep everything for five years." (Hers is a smart move only if you don't embark on a frenzy to find the absolute best personal shopper for you.)

If you'd rather handle the job yourself, strive to become a satisficer, someone for whom "good enough is good enough," says Dr. Schwartz. "You can't know what the best choice is in every situation," he adds, "so quit looking for it."

Next fix your priorities before you start researching. Otherwise, some feature you never even knew about may suddenly become essential, further complicating your decision. For example, I'm in the market for a new car. My top priorities are great mileage and a trunk large enough to hold my weekly supermarket haul. Now I've discovered that many new models offer MP3 player compatibility, and I feel the need to educate myself about that. According to Dr. Schwartz, I should stick to my original plan and evaluate cars strictly on the basis of my primary needs. (I'll try, I promise.)

Setting limits also helps, says Dr. Lyubomirsky. "Allow yourself to try on three pairs of jeans, and only three," she suggests, "or give yourself no more than four hours, whether in stores or on the Web, to make a major purchase." She also recommends curbing the tendency to "dwell repetitively and unproductively about choices, going over and over the decisions in your mind."

Finally, simplify decision making by establishing traditions and habits. Make Monday pasta night. Wear a skirt every Thursday. Watch a vintage comedy every Sunday -- it's easier than trying to figure out which of two DVDs will satisfy everyone (the answer is neither, anyway). Cutting down on the decisions you have to make -- even at the risk of being a bit boring -- will make you that much calmer. "When I've made a decision and forced myself to move on, it's like a weight off my shoulders," says my travel-agent pal.

"Becoming more decisive gives you a sense of control and competence," agrees Dr. Fassihi, "and in the long term, that leads to more confidence and higher self-esteem." Surely that beats standing in the supermarket fretting over which plastic bags to buy.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, April 2006.