Top 10 Ways To Stop Killing Yourself With Choices

by Stephen Mills on March 17, 2009

Too Many Choices

A team of 15 people are going out for a group lunch.  Some organizing maven has everyone meet outside Sally’s office at 11:30 AM to figure out the carpools.  What follow is 10 minutes of mind-numbing micro-decision inanity to develop the perfect carpool assignments.  Nobody noticed the pained look on Stephen’s (that would be me) face leading up to the scream, the breaking glass, and the inevitable thud.

Choice is Stressful

You are probably stressing yourself out, wasting time and mental energy, and generally sabotaging your success and happiness by making too many decisions.  When our biology evolved, we had few choices.  Eat or die.  Run or die.  Hide or die.  Kill or die.  Our minds were built to look for patterns and make quick decisions in order to survive.

In our modern lives we are suffocating from an avalanche of choice.  Choice is generally good and it gives us the freedom to make our lives better.  However, we have limited bandwidth and we need to preserve our mental energy.  Expend it on the truly important decisions where sober reflection is appropriate and has a decent ROI.  We must stop wasting energy on the decisions that don’t really matter.

Rational Decisions Aren’t That Effective

Finally, and I know this is hard for most people to admit, but spending all that time doesn’t lead to better decisions anyway.  Your gut instinct or intuition is a far better guide than all the analytical tools in the world.

Less is more effective

You can put effort into the perfect decision and stew about whether it was the right decision or you can just make a quick decision and run with it.  Put 1% of the energy into the same decisions and get 90% of the results.  Your life is valuable so don’t throw it away on the irrelevant.

Here are some things that you can do to preserve your mental energy and get a lot more important things done.

  1. Put your decisions on autopilot by making them in advance.  Operate with guiding principles and spend your time and mental energy developing those principles.  Then operate your life by those principles.  Don’t decide to eat or not to eat the cookie at the time of temptation.  Decide what is on your diet and what is not.  It’s really as simple as that.  If you choose to cheat (I wouldn’t), then cheat and move on and forget it.
  2. Give up your choice to someone else and don’t gripe, care, regret, or even think about their decision.  I have the phrase “I don’t care” on continuous loop and I mean it.  Just ask my wife.  I have chosen to care about big decisions and I give the rest to someone else.  The lunch or dinner company is what I care about and I usually don’t remember what I ate.
  3. If multiple people want to be involved in a decision, then alternate instead of making joint decisions.  Truly give up your right to decide when the other party’s turn comes up.  My wife and I have total control over the vehicles we each primarily drive.  You can alternate restaurant choices, movies, vacation choices, how to spend the discretionary budget or whatever.
  4. If you don’t have to ponder then take the first choice you have.  I pick option “A” every time.  At the supermarket I grab whatever I recognize and move on to the next item as fast as I can.  You might save $0.50 on the crappy tasting peanut butter, but I’m at home reading a great book eating my JIF while you’re still there deciding.
  5. If you must ponder a decision, then put it on a clock.  For any decision that isn’t life changing, commit to spending no more than 2 minutes choosing between the various options.  To my female readers I must say: I’m sorry but we guys are not looking at the clothes (please note that I did NOT say we are not looking).  So it really isn’t worth the effort you put into the decision on what to buy or wear.
  6. For bigger decisions, but not yet life changing decisions just create some rules.  Only visit n stores.  Only review n brands. Only spend n days (e.g. car, furniture, housing choice).
  7. Just stick with what has worked before.  I buy JIF.  I’m happy with JIF.  I’ve always bought JIF and I have no interest in spending energy making the perfect decision on peanut butter.  You don’t have to try every new thing that comes out.  You are unlikely to improve.  If something better is out there you’ll hear about it from people you trust.
  8. Don’t offer others choices if you are the final decision maker.  This may be counter intuitive, but they will be happier as a result and so will you.  Do you want 9 out of 10 of your team members disappointed because you went with the suggestion of number 10?  Your kids will be happier if you tell them you are going to Macdonald’s rather than asking them where they want to go and then having a kids free-for-all.  At minimum make them alternate who gets to decide.
  9. Stop being a perfectionist.  Don’t expect every decision to be perfect or the best possible one.  You don’t have to be the perfect mate, mom, employee, etc.  Trying to be perfect makes you much less effective.  The time and stress you save will make it all worth it.  Remember the 90% benefit for 1% of the effort (OK, I made that up but it certainly is better than 80/20).
  10. No regrets.  Don’t worry; be happy.  Accept what you have without worrying about what you could have had.  You also could have had less but you tend to not consider those scenarios.  The past is the past.  Worrying about it or stressing over irrelevant decisions will not make your life better.  It will make it worse.

Do you have any more ideas on how to stop wasting your life on unimportant decisions?

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car top news » Blog Archive » Top 10 Ways To Stop Killing Yourself With Choices
March 17, 2009 at 5:19 am
Living Free — The Rat Race Trap
July 4, 2009 at 5:18 am
The Tin Man » How to Make Decisions
July 2, 2010 at 12:00 pm

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Anthony March 17, 2009 at 8:23 am

Good advice, Stephen. I often find myself paralyzed by decision – even for something as trivial as what to have for dinner or what comment to leave 😉 – and this list is a good reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way.

And I’m glad to see that you’re no longer eating image formats on your sandwiches. 😉


Stephen - Rat Race Trap March 17, 2009 at 8:30 am

Chris, thanks for the comment. I am an interested observer of the paralysis you experience. I think it is something that most people could greatly improve upon. And your extra comments are indications of a quick and clever mind.

P.S. Those GIF sandwiches suck!


CathD March 17, 2009 at 8:50 am

Excellent post, Stephen. I think the old rational/ plan-everything-before-you-do-anything/ consider all options perhaps worked well for our parents’ generation. It’s just not tenable anymore. There’s too much info and we’ll get lost in analysis paralysis if we try to analyze it all. I see two options developing:
1.) get computers to decide for you, by giving them basic criteria/ rules and letting them zoom through all the info
2.) learn to use your intuition so you can make great decisions without going into the detail of all your options.

Your tips give some great direction on this!


Daily Jump Start Guy March 17, 2009 at 10:26 am

One of your best posts Stephen-good hard hitting advice in there, thanks and keep up the good ideas.



Stephen - Rat Race Trap March 17, 2009 at 1:15 pm

@CathD, I am big on intuitive gut responses. I think the evidence is pretty clear that for most decisions they are just as effective if not more effective than analysis. When you add the stress that choice brings then intuition wins. The computer idea is something that will obviously help at some point. We just aren’t there yet. Thanks for your comment.

@DJSG, Thank you for that. I appreciate it.


Kikolani March 17, 2009 at 3:09 pm

I think number 9 is definitely my biggest problem. I am always so paranoid that my decision will turn out to be a bad one that it makes it difficult to make even the slightest choice. Like picking restaurants, what if the service is bad and sets a bad tone with your company, or the food is bad and everyone goes home sick. I guess you just have to let go of the perfectionism and hope for the best.

~ Kristi


Phil March 17, 2009 at 4:21 pm

To me, number 10 hits me right in the forehead. I seem to regret almost every decision I’ve ever made in 45 years! It’s something I’ve been working on, but it’s hard!

Thanks for an interesting post.


Stephen - Rat Race Trap March 18, 2009 at 6:42 am

@Kristi, you need to relax my friend! It’s not that important. Axe the perfectionism and your happiness skyrockets. Trust me.

@Phil, It’s very hard to change your habits and your natural tendency. Kudos for trying.


Christine October 24, 2009 at 7:19 am

All 10 of these are so true.


hunter April 26, 2015 at 11:25 pm

I loved your article. Especially the part about hide or die, run or die. Funny and wise Thankyou.


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