Don’t Make Me Choose!

I am terrible at making decisions. It frustrates people who know me, to no end. In some ways, it is comforting to know that I’m not alone in this. There are many people who have a hard time making choices between available options.


photo by piccadillywilson

Sometimes, this makes sense. If it’s a decision that will make a significant impact down the road, it makes sense to weigh your options carefully and deliberately before making a choice.

But the truth is that most of the choices we make aren’t life threatening, they won’t shape our destinies forever, and they won’t really matter in the long run. In fact, research shows that even a major life trauma only affects our happiness (on average) for a three month duration.

In fact, many choices are even reversible (although research has shown that this isn’t necessarily a good thing, and can actually make us more dissatisfied as time goes on!)

Every day, we’re faced with these more minor choices, and while we make most decisions without too much difficulty (blue shirt today, or green?), there are still often ones that catch us in choice-paralysis.

Smaller Decisions Are Hard in Their Own Way

In fact, some times, we can have an even harder time making decisions which have an outcome that seems inconsequential. Let me give you a personal recent example.

I recently was given a gift card to a nearby bookstore. Now, understand, I enjoy reading a great deal, and my “to-read” list is incredibly long. There are two books in particular that I’ve been wanting to read:

Neither are available at my local library branch, both are in-stock at the store, both cost less than the value of my card, both I’ve had on my list for months, and both even made it onto my Christmas list (note that I do know I am not receiving either as a Christmas gift, though I would have been equally thrilled with either). Suffice it to say, both are books that I really would like.

I’ve been to the store — twice! — to look at the books, flip through them, read a chapter or two, and see which one I would purchase. And both times, I’ve left empty-handed.

The thing is, in the long run, which book I choose to purchase really isn’t all that consequential. While both do have the potential to be life-changing reads (as far as I’ve been told, anyway), the truth is that I would probably be equally happy with either one.

Excuses for Choice-Paralysis

Initially, I thought that I could chalk my lack of decision-making up to being frugal. After all, both are somewhat cheaper online (if I were to get free shipping; however, both together are still a few dollars short, and I can’t justify getting a throw-in item just to push it over the top). I could put out an interlibrary loan and read one or both of the books that way, and save the gift card for something else.

But those are just excuses, and they don’t solve my underlying issue: I just don’t want to make a decision.

By not making a choice now, I’m just delaying the inevitable. Eventually, I will have to decide what to purchase with that card, be it for myself or for someone else. My only other alternative is to hang onto the gift card, and never use it — which is just dumb.

When it comes right down to it, the issue isn’t so much about frugality, although that certainly plays a part. The issue is an inability to choose.

Choosing Nothing is Still Choosing

As evidenced by my story, above, a typical response is to “avoid” choosing by doing “nothing” or “none of the above.”  In fact, studies have shown that the more options you provide to people, the less likely they are to choose one of the options, at all.

Barry Schwartz, psychologist and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, talks about this in his TED Talk. He recalls a study of voluntary retirement plans, which showed that for every 10 mutual funds an employer offers to employees, rate of participation declined 2%. So if you offered 50 funds, 10% fewer employees would participate than if you had only offered 5%.

Even when this meant giving up employer matching (free money!), people still were less likely to choose any fund when presented with more options, than with less. Why? Because people found it hard to decide, they just put it off for “some other time” — and that other time never came. In other words, they let “I don’t want to choose” be their motto.

Intellectually, we all know that a lot of times we create more trouble for ourselves by just not making a decision. Sometimes, as mentioned, that trouble takes the form of loss of opportunity. Not choosing also takes its toll in other ways. Take procrastination, for example: we spend more time fretting about which unsavory task to do first than if we just picked one, did it, and then did the other one.

However, picking “nothing” or “none of the above” still involves making a choice. That choice may be to “make a (final) decision later” or to just stick with the status-quo. But there is no such thing as not choosing.

Just realizing that can make it easier to make those small choices — when you realize that you have a choice to either do something, or to do nothing, but that either way you will be making a choice, you can get past the initial “but I don’t want to choose” moment, and move onto actually evaluating the decision in front of you.

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