How many times a day do you think you exercise your decision-making capabilities? The little choice cogs are constantly whirring, continually re-evaluating whether scratching that itch is worth the energy right now; whether you need the loo badly enough to pause iPlayer now or wait for a natural break; at what point during your friend’s monologue is it polite enough to interject (Now? Now? Now would be great if she leaves a decent pause before starting again); etc etc. Some would have us believe that at each point that we could have chosen differently, another universe in which we take the other path jumps into being. Think of the millions and millions of other worlds created every millisecond if that were the case.
When some of these choices present themselves, I’m sure we’ve all experienced the paralysis that accompanies having to choose between what appear to be completely equal end goals. A great example of this happened to me the other day, when I was approached by a flight attendant offering me a second drink: ‘Any water? Juice?’ I was just about thirsty enough for water, but the prospect of something sweet was also appealing; was I willing to go for healthy sweet (juice) or bad sweet (the Coca-Cola I could see on top of the trolley); or did I in fact want alcohol? Or did I need caffeine? In the time it took me to decide that I didn’t actually want anything, my finger slipped on the Color Switch pause button and I lost the game just as I was about to beat my best score. So while deep down I didn’t really need anything extra, being given the choice of something extra was compelling enough that I had to consider it, with deleterious effects on other parts of my life. In this context, maybe it’s worth considering whether all the decisions we burden ourselves with are really necessary.
- Dilemma: The five minutes in front of the wardrobe every day. That dress could be good but it’s verging on too hot for tights and too short for bare legs; those second option trousers could work except the only two tops that match are either slightly inappropriate for work or worn two days ago; choosing one or other of the shoes that need reheeling or are a bit on the smelly side will influence the decision; I was resolved on wearing my new necklace but it doesn’t go well with all of the above; my fourth option top doesn’t match anything …
- Dilemma: I wake up. I’m hungry and dirty. The pleasant experience of showering will be ruined by my gnawing stomach; the pleasant experience of breakfast will be spoiled by my feeling of grossness. Either way, the morning is not off to a good start.
- Dilemma: I’m in the kitchen. I’m carrying a dirty plate in one hand and a clean mug in the other. I need to put the plate in the sink and turn the kettle on. The sink is 1.5 metres away; the kettle is within arm’s reach. If I want to turn the kettle on first, I’ll have to put the mug down on the table (within arm’s reach but not the arm that holds the cup) before going back to the kettle and thence the sink. Otherwise, I could put the plate in the sink first and then go back for the kettle. The Gossip Girl credits are about to wind up and I’ve got less than 10 seconds before the next episode plays automatically. What’s the most economical way of doing it?
- Dilemma: “Do you want cinnamon on top of your chai latte?” – at Caffé Nero
Comment: Having trouble over this decision every morning is the result of already having made bad retail choices. Common sense dictates that we should ensure that any new clothes match our existing clothes, are 100% work-appropriate, and suit the season; it’s silly to buy things just because there’s a sale or because you think you need retail therapy. There’s a reason successful people like Steve Jobs wear the same thing to every public appearance. Just think: if you weren’t worriting about your clothing choices, you could be inventing the next iPhone.
Comment: The simple behavioural change of showering the night before could avoid this unpleasant early-morning dilemma.
Comment: Now this is just over-thinking. There’s really no need to optimise your movements so savagely. Netflix has a rewind button, for goodness’ sake. Accept that there are some choices whose outcome really doesn’t matter, and that life may be as much about dealing rightly with the choices you make as making the right choices in the first place. This can apply to the big things too, like whether to move countries or switch jobs; there is often no really correct decision here; it’s ‘what you make of it’.
Comment: This was a personal favourite from the other day. This is the most pointless choice I have ever had to make. The taste is no different either way.
Now remember that you are bombarded with these dilemmas every minute of every day, and remember that in most cases the ratio of time spent to benefit gained really doesn’t make it worth the time thinking about some of these things. Too many of these pointless choices can only slow us down: ‘overchoice’ is a documented phenomenon that describes how difficult it can be to make a decision when you have no prior preference and no outcome is obviously better than the others. More alarmingly, the possibility of ‘decision fatigue’ shows that having to make too many choices not only slows us down but drastically diminishes our decision-making capabilities, such that a judge who spends all day hearing parole appeals becomes much less lenient the more petitions (s)he hears. Our ability to make a free choice is in delicate balance with the quantity of free choices that we are enabled to make. So choice and freedom are good, but they’re not the ultimate good: they’re good only until they interfere with other goods, such as mental headspace, free time and free will. The solution to this might be to ‘live simply’, to artificially reduce our own choices in service of a better life; we don’t have to downsize, shop locally or get a worse-paid job immediately, but could start by avoiding things like CompareTheMeerkat.com and Tinder, and letting something better flourish in that spare headspace.