We live in an age of choices, when something as simple as picking toothpaste— do you want to fight cavities or tartar? whiten your teeth? freshen your breath?— is complicated enough to send us to the candy aisle for comfort. So if you occasionally suffer from indecision, rest assured you are not alone. In fact, your confusion might be a sign of an extraordinarily rich mind: Buridanitis, the term for the mental gridlock we all experience now and then, afflicted great thinkers like Socrates and Saint Augustine, whose imaginations saw endless options and opportunities.
Contemporary philosophers have developed a science to overcome indecision, the principles of which are used by major corporations and government agencies to decide anything from hiring employees to allocating money. The good news is you can apply those same methods to resolve everyday situations.
"People are afraid of making decisions because they're trying to find the perfect answer, and there is no perfect answer," says Gary Klein, whose company, Klein Associates, Inc., trains high-powered executives to make choices. He is also the author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, for which he interviewed firemen, nurses, and others who are paid to make up their minds in just seconds.
People usually make decisions in one of two ways: They analyze the pros and cons, or they go with their gut instincts. In psychology and business journals, writers who you'd think have better things to do use up gallons of ink arguing about which approach is better. Klein recommends a combination of these methods, in this order:
Get in touch with your gut first. Once you start listing pros and cons, your rational mind will drown out your intuition. Klein defines intuition as the accumulation of experience converted to flash-fast thinking. "As you ponder that new job, you might think about the way you were treated at the interview and that may color your reaction," he says. "Even a bit of body language could instill some discomfort that could be warning you off." To uncover your intuitive point of view, you can even flip a coin—not to make the decision for you, but so you can register your gut reaction to the result. How do you feel when one option drops out? If you're disappointed, ask yourself why.
Open up the options and visualize each one. Doing research is obviously valuable, but sometimes the fear of making a mistake can keep you researching beyond the point of productivity. On the flip side, the hunger for the relief of making a decision, any decision, can keep you from doing enough legwork. Without overdoing it, brainstorm a lot of options. Think creatively about combining the best pieces of each one by compromising or going whole hog: You could buy both the red and the black sweater.
Banish vague fears, such as "It may be a mistake," and instead try to see yourself in a specific scenario. Ask yourself concrete questions about the possible outcome: What's the worst that could happen? What would I do then? Could I live with that? "It's more important to visualize how each option would turn out," says Klein. "If you can, actually walk through them or do something on a trial basis. It's hard to evaluate things you haven't really savored."
Let go of the idea of the perfect answer. You cannot possibly get all the info, nor can you foretell the future and calculate all the risks. Chill out. "The harder a decision is to make, the closer the outcomes are to each other, and the less it matters," says Klein. "If you are agonizing over different resorts in Hawaii, you're just beating yourself up. There is never a guarantee that you're making the right decision. Just accept that."
Trust yourself. Improve your intuition by examining your decisions after you've made them. Look at whether you would do it the same way again.