It’s take-away night. What do you want? Greek? Sushi? Indian? Okay, we’re getting Chinese. So what shall we order?
The more restaurants to choose from, the longer the menu, and the more delicious every option sounds, the harder it is to decide what to order.
Food’s here. What are we going to watch? Film? Series? Okay, series. Funny? Dramatic? Okay, funny. Modern Family? Friends? Friday Night Dinner? The more options each streaming service offers, the harder it is to decide what to watch.
Next morning. No teaching today. What shall I do with my day? Could write a song. Could do some writing. Could try to get some more students. Okay, I’ll do some writing. Fiction? Something to help my students? My blog?
I know this isn’t just me. I talk to people. This is life.
But the most disturbing thing to me is that basically none of these decisions, in and of themselves, are of any consequence whatsoever. They don’t matter. So long as I order something I don’t hate, I’ll be happy, and survive until tomorrow. So long as I watch something I don’t hate, I’ll be entertained. And so long as I do something vaguely productive, I’ll feel good about my day.
Yes, there are better options and there are worse options. But the big lie is that the way to make the best choice is to give yourself the most options possible, and to spend as long as possible deliberating between them. It doesn’t work. In fact, it accomplishes the exact opposite.
The longer I take to eventually decide on a kebab, the more likely I am to wonder if I should have ordered of their pizzas instead. Or gone for Chinese. Or cooked and saved a bit of money.
The longer I take to eventually watch an episode of Friends, the more likely I am to wonder if I should have picked Modern Family. Or a film. Or nothing at all, just some music.
And the next morning, the longer it takes me to eventually settle on trying to write a song, the more likely I am to wonder if I should have tried to find myself some new students instead. Or pulled some weeds in the garden. Or finally sorted out all the things I’ve shoved in the spare bedroom wardrobe since we’ve lived here.
I don’t have scientific proof of this. But tell me I’m wrong. The longer you deliberate, the less happy you end up with whatever you decide on.
So what is the solution?
The closest thing I’ve found is this: Set a timer.
If the stakes are not life and death – and they seldom are – set a timer for sixty seconds. And by the time it beeps, have a decision. And then march forward in that direction.
There’s a reason why this works – when I follow it, that is. But there’s also a reason why we are so resistant to thinking something so simple could work. You see, we all operate under this assumption that we should get clarity, and then we should act – in that order. We assume that clarity comes from thinking, from deliberating, from consciously weighing this against that, and predicting to the best of our abilities how each one will make us feel.
And it sounds nice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s complete bullshit. It’s the total wrong way round. If you wait until you have clarity before you act, you will wait forever. Clarity comes from motion, and only from motion. Thinking and deliberation, seductive though they are, lock you in this endless circle of fuzziness. You can never know, from inside that circle, whether one thing or the other was the “right” choice. All you can do is continue to wonder. And if you do eventually make a decision, you will have little confidence in it.
Get moving, though, and you experience the best of both worlds. If, after moving forward with it, your 60 second decision feels like it was the right one, well, that’s awesome – aren’t you glad you made it in a minute instead of waiting for more clarity?
On the other hand, if your 60 second decision feels like it was the wrong one, well, that’s awesome too – now you can confidently discard it and try something else. No more wondering.