You’re at a restaurant.
“What’ll it be, sir?”
“I’ll have the steak … No! No! I’ll have the chicken …”
“Nah, never mind. I’ll get the tacos.”
The next time you see your server, you flag him down and change back to the steak, and when your food arrives, you’re disappointed. Should have gotten the chicken, you think. Or maybe the tacos …
In all likelihood, you weren’t disappointed because the food was subpar (it’s a steak, and all steaks are awesome). More likely, you were disappointed because indecisiveness fundamentally creates disappointment.
To explain, we turn to Dan Gilbert. Dan’s a psychologist, and he studied this exact phenomenon. His experiment went a little like this:
- Harvard students were asked to take photos of things that were meaningful to them. They were then given a lesson in developing photos and developed two of their favorites into beautiful, glossy 8×10 prints.
- Half of the group was told to pick one photo; they were told that the other photo would be mailed off immediately, and they would never get it back. They needed to make a choice and live with it.
- The other half of the group was told to pick one photo and give up the other; however, if they wanted to change their mind, they could do so within four days.
- The group that couldn’t change their minds reported consistently higher happiness with the photo they chose — immediately after, four days after, a week after. The people who had the option to change their minds reported negative feelings about their photo during those same intervals and ultimately was unhappy with their choice, whatever it was.
The takeaway is clear: When you waffle over a decision, you’re typically unhappy with the result. When you’re decisive, you’re not. Simple as that. There’s also another important element at play: When you have the opportunity to be indecisive, you often will. Putting it all together, here are a few ways you can improve how you make decisions so you don’t end up feeling like crap:
Decisions have no more than three phases and should last no more than 24 hours
People often take days or even weeks agonizing over a tough decision. If you’ve ever been here, you probably know that you rarely stumble over meaningful information in the 11th hour that magically improves the outcome. In reality, you just stalled in the second phase of making a decision and are torturing yourself. A tough decision should look something like this:
- Your initial gut reaction. Your intuition is the first step to making any decision. What feels right? People often don’t give this step enough credit. You have access to a wealth of subconscious intelligence automatically. Use it. You know that SAT rule about how your first instinct on a multiple choice question tends to be the right one? Same principle.
- Weigh the pros and cons. Here’s the part where you try to logical it out. Perhaps your gut told you one thing, but when you look at the numbers, it’s totally different. For example, the earth feels flat, but the numbers tell us it’s not. Note that you really only need an hour or two to gather the necessary info. A day at most. There are exceptions, of course, but too often people end up researching and researching with no end in sight and no purpose to the additional research. They already have the criteria they need to make a call, so in reality, they’re just using research as a form of procrastination. Once you have your key criteria, move on.
- Check back in with your gut. You’ve done your research, so check back in with your intuition. Did your research confirm your intuition, or did it dispute it and cause you to feel that a different course of action was right? Whatever you feel at this point is what you should decide.
There you go. Done. Decided. Often times, you can decide in fewer steps, but this list is the maximum. The key is that you do it within a day or two. You’re not likely to learn anything beyond that time frame that’s going to help, and often times, you can accomplish these steps in an hour or two.
When you make a decision, cut yourself off from the alternatives
Equally important to the decision-making process is what you do immediately after you arrive at a conclusion. To combat the feelings of regret and dissatisfaction that Dan Gilbert’s experiment illustrated, you need to make sure that you can’t change your mind.
Let’s say you are casually seeing two women. Things are starting to get serious, and you know it’s time to exclusively start seeing one. To keep from doubting your decision, you need to immediately break things off with the other woman. If you’re deciding about your career and realize that your current job is awful, that means you need to quit your job as soon as you can and leave no possibility that you could return. Creating finality keeps you from waffling on your decision later and trying to switch things around at the last minute.
I’m not going to act like it’s easy. It’s not. But when you decide something, decide the shit out of it. It might be uncomfortable, it might be a little painful, but it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll be happy with your decision.