Indecision is something a lot of people struggle with. If it takes you a long time to make a choice—whether it’s deciding which task you’re going to tackle first thing in the morning or which Netflix show you’re going to watch in the evening—it can be a real source of frustration. Or maybe you change your mind often—at 9am you decide you’ll reply to your boss’s email at the end of the day, but at 9.15am, you start wondering if you should reply now.
How to make an effective decision—and stick to it
Indecision can be linked to perfectionism. You want to make the best choice, so you spend a long time thinking about the alternatives. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have studied decision-making, and they noticed that some people can be characterised as ‘maximisers’ and others as ‘satisficers’. Maximisers want to get it right. Even if they find something that might suit their needs, they keep looking in case they come across even better products, better shirts, better partners. They’re only satisfied once they’ve assessed everything and gathered all the information, which can be time-consuming. And even if they find something great, the effort they put in to look for it was so draining that they can’t savour their win.
If a maximiser needs something repaired in their home, they’ll scour the internet for hours, looking at all the reviews of handymen out there, before finally making a choice. But even after the job is done, they might still not be happy because they think the handyman didn’t fix things as well as they should have. They project their maximising nature on to the handyman. Maximisers tend to struggle with certain areas of their life, and writing emails is a chore—they need to find the perfect words and can easily spend an hour polishing phrases.
But according to research, this pursuit of perfection doesn’t make maximisers all that happy. In fact, they might be less optimistic and tend to have lower self-esteem than other people. Because the process of finding something is so gruelling, maximisers often put off starting things. This is why striving for perfection and indecision are tied to procrastination—but there is a way out of this.
‘Satisficers’, on the other hand, go by the ‘good enough’ rule; they don’t try to find the perfect product and they don’t spend their time exhausting all the options before making a choice. They look at some options and if they come across something that suits their needs, they go for it. Let’s say you’re looking to buy a new winter coat, for example, so you go to one or two stores, make a mental shortlist, and then take your pick. Do you find the best coat there is in terms of price, style and warmth? Probably not. But most likely, you’ve found a coat that suits your needs now. So if you identify as a maximiser, trying to go by the ‘good enough’ motto can be helpful.
Because ‘satisficers’ are driven by ‘good enough’ and not ‘the best’, they also tend to not regret the decisions they’ve made. This is true even if they spot something better after they’ve made their original pick. The ‘satisficer’ mindset can be motivating and reduces the pressure of making perfect decisions. This mindset fuels action.
Less, sometimes, really can be more
We might think that having more choice helps us, but in reality, we struggle more. In one study, people were given the option to write essays from a choice of six topics. They were more willing to write and they produced better essays than those who were presented with 30 topics to choose from. The same thing can happen when we’re shopping: when people are presented with less choice for a product, they’re actually more likely to make a purchase. And after they’ve made it, they’re more likely to be satisfied with what they’ve bought so, in this sense, less is more.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the greatest challenges people will face in their lifetimes. Businesses closed down, people changed the way they worked, and the constant uncertainty made 2020 a difficult year to bear. But as we move into 2021, is there anything we can learn from the past 12 months that we could use?
Maybe one thing is that having more choice doesn’t always make us happier. Take the way we spend our free time: during lockdown, most people only had two options for fun—go for a walk or do something inside the house. It became difficult to meet new people or book holidays, and we couldn’t go to restaurants or shops anymore. This limited us, but at the same time, this fear of missing out seemed to subside a little and we began living more in the present. And maybe even, learning to be satisfied with the material items we had.
Learn to tolerate uncertainty
In this fast-paced society, where choice is on every corner — whether that’s online shopping or the bottomless pit of faces on internet dating sites—regret over making the wrong decision is a powerful deterrent. It’s a force that can stop you from taking action and to counteract it we have to learn to tolerate uncertainty. We have to learn to tolerate the unpredictability of life and realise that no matter how well we prepare ourselves, sometimes things don’t turn out the way we’d like, which can be an uncomfortable thought.
So instead, try thinking of it this way: if life was totally predictable, wouldn’t this be a little boring after a while? I’ve come to the conclusion after seven years of researching wellbeing and mental health that life is like bumper cars with its unanticipated swerves and turns. The bumps can be painful, but the excitement that catches us by surprise—like when we meet someone who makes us feel exhilarated or we get unexpected good news—may just be the thing we need as we move into this new year.
Dr Olivia Remes is a mental health researcher at the University of Cambridge and a life coach