Jenga
Photo: Levi Brown
I felt like punching Benjamin Moore in the face. My husband and I had just moved across the country, and after a flurry of big decisions, we were down to the nitty-gritty: what color to paint our new apartment. The previous tenant had gone with blood red, midnight blue, and tan—a look I referred to as "depressed Betsy Ross." Hoping to achieve something more cheerful, we sat on the floor surrounded by dozens of paint samples—Classic Gray or October Sky? Silken Pine or Mystic Beige?—when all I really wanted was to be able to just flip a switch in my brain and let my rational self determine the perfect choice.

It turns out, though, that for most people there is no such thing as a purely rational self. Decision making is intrinsically linked to our emotions, so much so that when a person suffers damage to her orbitofrontal cortex—a part of the brain just behind the eyes that's strongly involved in processing emotions—she can lose her decision-making ability entirely. (We're talking any decision, like which day to schedule a doctor's appointment or whether to use a blue or black pen.) "If it weren't for our emotions," says science writer Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, "reason wouldn't exist at all."

One way our emotions help us decide is by creating a physical response to information we don't even realize we've noticed. When we slam on the brakes at the sight of an unexpected car, for example, it's because our subconscious mind has recognized danger and translated it into a flash of fear; we decide to act without any conscious thought.

But our emotions can also lead us astray, as when they encourage us to give a doomed relationship another try or to keep feeding quarters into a slot machine. Since every choice represents a battle between your rational conscious and emotional subconscious minds, the key to good decision making is learning how to pick which side should win.

The best decision makers let the situation guide them. The more experience you have with a particular type of decision, the safer it is to go with your intuition, since your subconscious has a wealth of reliable information from which to draw. A professional decorator would have a good instinctive sense of which colors work best for a room, for instance, but if you're a novice like me, it's good to think more analytically.

Which is exactly what my husband and I tried to do: After we attempted to gauge our emotional responses to various shades of beige, we began to systematically evaluate how they looked against the door frame. We got nowhere. According to Barry Schwartz, PhD, a psychologist and professor of social theory at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice, we were confronting another challenge common to the modern-day decision maker: too many choices.

Anyone who has stood paralyzed in the cereal aisle of the supermarket knows that even if some level of choice is crucial for happiness, too much can feel overwhelming. "We're constantly being told that we can find the best if we try hard enough, and that if we don't, it's our own fault," says Schwartz. "It's a recipe for misery." Too much choice not only makes a decision harder, he continues, but also makes it more likely that we'll regret our selection. To improve our odds of reaching decisions we feel good about, Schwartz suggests figuring out ways to reduce the options to a more manageable number.

In the end, my husband and I chose Soft Chamois—not because it stood out from all the others but because we ran out of time. The painter was scheduled to come the next day. The irony is that, after all our deliberation, it essentially looks white. A gentle, creamy white—but white nonetheless. There was a time when I would have regretted this and tortured myself wondering if Hot Spring Stones would have looked better. But these days I'm trying instead to live Schwartz's number-one rule of decision making: that good enough is often good enough.

Next: 7 steps to better decisions

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