The Decision-Making Diet: 5 Ways to Take Back Your Life
By Leigh Newman
June 15, 2011
A bajillion choices...24 hours in a day...and an easy method to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
It's 11:23 a.m. Since waking up at 7 a.m. this morning, I've had these choices: feeding the kids crappy processed cereal or hot nutritious pancakes (cereal); wearing or not wearing the beautiful spring blouse with the poster-paint stain (wear); racing down the four flights of stairs and giving my husband a kiss goodbye or not racing down (raced); putting the baby in front of a DVD or just rescheduling the conference call from work (DVD); arranging a babysitter to take my kids to the afternoon birthday party of a neighbor's child or not arranging for one, taking the kids myself and making up my work tonight at 9 p.m. (arranged).
And those are only the choices I can remember. In our home, work and career lives, most of us are constantly deciding and then living with the resulting consequences, which inevitably leads to yet another round of options. The stress can be relentless. What if we pick wrong? How can we possibly contemplate making big life changes—say, moving homes or having another child—when the tiny ones are already so overwhelming?
"What's beautiful about choice," says Sheena Iyengar, Columbia University professor and the author of the insightful book The Art of Choosing, now out in paperback, "is that it gives meaning to everything we do. It is the only thing that enables us to go from who we are today to who we want to be tomorrow."
And yet, as her clinical research demonstrates, a multitude of options doesn't always result in happiness. While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Iyengar investigated the connection between optimism and fundamentalism—anticipating that inflexible religious rules would cause followers to experience lower levels of contentment. Instead, she found that atheists struggled most frequently with unhappiness, while members of strict faiths enjoyed higher levels of hope and optimism. "Many of their choices were taken away, and yet they experience a sense of control over their lives."
Inspired by this and subsequent research Iyengar outlined in her book, The Art of Choosing, we asked her for advice on the art of a decision-making diet.
1. Pass the Buck—Now
Jot down a list of all the things that you feel responsible for. What you feel in charge of indicates which outcomes you would like to influence. The list may be two pages long or 15 pages; it doesn't matter. This is a record of all the things in your life that require you to make decisions—sometimes a lot of them.
Now scan can through the list and circle the things you can possibly delegate—considering your preferences, your family and friends, and your income. What would happen if you let somebody else handle this particular item? Do you really care about who cooks breakfast or what is served? The list of responsibilities that you end up with is usually very short and important to you.
Real-life decision slimmer: In Iyengar's neighborhood, birthdays are very big events. Busy with her writing and teaching, she did not have a lot of time—or interest—in picking out the color scheme of paper plates. She handed off her son's birthday planning to Grandma, then assigned his playdate planning to his babysitter and was left with "being responsible for making her son feel loved," which meant choosing to walk to school with him every morning and telling family stories instead of organizing his social life.
2. Think Big When It Comes to Little Stuff
Settle for one large, long-term solution instead of lots of tiny, short-term ones.
Real-life decision slimmer: Drinking a glass of juice should be simple. But is it? Do you want to use a glass or a plastic cup that the kids can't break? Or a wine goblet for a brunch? What if none of them match? What if you can't stop caring if they don't match—even if you know it's not exactly crucial?
Break the whole cycle from the get-go. Instead of buying a different kind of glass for every kind of drink and person, just buy 50 or 100 plain but classic ones that can be used for everything. If one breaks, throw it out, get another from the cupboard and move on. A single overarching solution saves daily angst—and possibly makes an understated design statement.
3. Ask Around, But Don't Ask for Approval
First define what you want, then ask for other people's impressions of what you have selected. If their impression matches your goal, you're set. If not, choose something else.
Real-life decision slimmer: Let's say your goal is to look chic. Put on a pink blouse. Don't ask friends or shop clerks if they like the blouse. It does not matter what they like, and they will say that they like anything to be polite. Instead, ask them what images comes to mind when you wear it. If they say "romantic" or "young," switch shirts. Try a red tank or a blouse with long sleeves until someone says "sophisticated" or—bingo!—"chic."
4. Be Your Own Social Researcher
When in comes to tough, life-changing decisions, compare your life situation with others.
Real-life decision slimmer: It's exhausting to make big decisions—say, whether to go back to full-time work—by how you feel. You feel differently at different times. When you're sitting enjoying a cappuccino in the afternoon, free for the day because you only work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, you love your part-time job. When you want to go to the dentist but can't because you don't have benefits, not so much.
So try looking outside yourself. Find people in a similar situation—in terms of their life, not their personality—and observe them. Does this particular individual, who has a similar profession (graphic design), a similar family (husband, no extended relatives, one child) and a similar lifestyle (athletic, lots of travel) look overwhelmed by working 45 hours a week and keeping up with all her other commitments? Or does she seem a little tired but excited by her work challenges and her ability to rise professionally? Look at the sacrifices she has made and the gains she has earned. The challenge is to be ruthlessly honest: Would you be okay with those same trade-offs?
5. Don't Decide
What if you didn't make up your mind? What if you allowed yourself to keep discussing the two sides of a particular issue, even as you experimented with one option to see if it worked?
Real-life decision slimmer: Iyengar comes from a traditional Sikh family, where brides and grooms meet the day of the wedding. Growing up, she often felt trapped by the lack of choices in her own life. How could her parents have stood to enter into an arranged marriage? And how did their relationship turn into such a long-lasting, deep love? Perhaps, she thought, her parents did not decide about each other until after they had spent a few years together.
Iyengar wasn't ready not to decide when it came to her husband, but when it came going to college, she didn't get picky about her career path. She tried marketing, but when it didn't work out, she ended up majoring in both statistics and psychology. When statistics turned out to be another ill-fitting match, she went on to get a doctorate in social psychology—and became a leader in her field. Taking this approach requires you to be deeply present—to take action before you make a final decision.
What if you did not make up your mind about moving but instead rented an apartment and tried out living in a new neighborhood? If you love the new area, you sell your house and stay there permanently. If you don't, you can head back home. The same goes with selecting a school for your child. Enroll her for a year and see what happens. Then choose to have her—or not have her—remain once you already know whether she's in the right place for her.
If you are doing something—instead of thinking about doing something, or worrying about doing something wrong—you'll find handling uncertainty easier. You can proceed in life without being 100 percent resolved and let experience resolve the debate for you.
As with all these strategies, Iyengar says, "The trick is to be choosy about choosing."