Difficulty in Decision Making

“I know what my decision is,
Which is not to decide.”
On the Steps of the Palace, Stephen Sondheim

I read an article in this month’s Real Simple Magazine about Making Decisions that has gotten me thinking about how our decision-making process affects how we approach uncluttering and simplifying. The article, which interviewed psychology professor Barry Schwartz, says that there are two types of decision makers: “maximizers” and “satisficers.” That a maximizer looks at every possible choice to determine the strongest contender, and that a satisficer goes with “good enough.” The article states that satisficers are happier with their choices overall and that they also have more free time, since they’re not laboring over all the possible alternatives.

I didn’t have to think too hard about what I am. Definitely a maximizer. I completely agonize over decisions, sometimes to my own detriment. Not so much about which restaurant should I go to, but which event to attend, which dish to order, whether to get rid of that pair of pants, whether to go on that vacation, even whether to get married. And although I have mellowed as I’ve gotten older (some decisions just aren’t that important), there is a running joke (joke?) in my family about my ambivalence about almost everything. It isn’t really that I’m ambivalent; it’s just that I see the good and bad in everything, and that makes choosing very difficult. It’s a great quality in an ethicist and discussion moderator, but not so much when cleaning out my closet.

Before reading this article, I never really thought about the fact that being a maximizer is definitely going to make the simplifying process harder than it is for a satisficer. I just knew that decisions seemed to be easier for some people than for others. So maybe it’s more than I just can’t make a decision about whether to donate that coat (I collect coats like other women collect shoes); maybe it’s because as a maximizer, I am too caught up in making the best possible choice when just letting it go is going to be good enough.

The article states that choosing “good enough” isn’t the same as settling, and that’s reassuring, because who wants to settle? But it also reaffirms the angst that we maximizers go through in making sometimes even small decisions.

So how do we break out of it? Make a series of small decisions and realize that there isn’t a “right” answer. Just keep practicing and it will get easier. Do I give the coat away? Order the pasta or the salad? Stay in the job or move on? Ultimately, we have to have faith that all decisions lead to the next step on our journey. If we keep the coat, we have one more option for winter but less room in our closet. Maybe the next time we purge, we’ll be willing to let it go, or maybe come winter we will be happy we have it. Or maybe we will keep it and someone needy will come along and we’ll be glad we kept it so we could now give it away. Pasta or salad? OK, that one truly doesn’t matter (unless you’re on a diet). Stay in the job or move on? Maybe this job will lead to opportunities down the line. Or maybe leaving the job will do the same. Since we can’t predict the future, sometimes we have to have faith in the universe and just choose.

So with this new information, maybe the next time I have to make a decision, I will remember that the important thing isn’t so much the decision but the decision to decide. Accepting that there is rarely only one right answer should make the entire process that much easier. I hope that is the case. I’ll let you know.

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One Response to Difficulty in Decision Making

  1. Avatar Emily says:

    Love this! “Choosing good enough isn’t the same as settling” – wow, there’s some major truth in that. I’m trying to let work be “good enough” so that I can maximize other areas of my life, like my relationships with friends and family.

    Great post!

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