How to Make Decisions When You Have Too Many Options

You know what it’s like. You stand in the toothpaste section trying to decide between ultra-white, super-white, or optic-white. Perhaps you need to choose between the 354 shades of white paint at the home center. Or maybe you’re stuck behind a person in the coffee shop who is overwhelmed by the difference between the upside-down caramel macchiato and the cookie mocha crumble macchiato with whip.

The world has too many choices. The other day, I needed to send someone a very large digital file. I Googled my options. On the first page alone, I found five alternatives, all free. They just wanted my email address. It can be exhausting to navigate through the average day when you’re bombarded by thousands of options.

So, how do you make well-considered decisions when you’re faced with too many choices? Allow me to share a few strategies from the top thinkers I’ve interviewed and observed over the past three decades.

Make fewer decisions – Every decision you make, large or small, consumes some of the blood glucose (sugar energy) your body needs to function. This is the reason you feel tired having battled traffic on the way to work. The same is true if you spend the first 30 minutes of the day clearing emails, Slack messages, texts, and Linked In notifications. The best decision-makers take stock of all the decisions they make during the typical day and work to eliminate, delegate or automate as many as they can. This leaves them with more energy to focus on the issues that count.

Focus your criteria – When was the last time you made a significant decision based on impulse? The options overwhelmed you. You might have simply surrendered because you were tired of thinking. You might have said, “Fine, I’ll just go with that option,” just to get the issue off your plate. The most effective decision makers take time to think through the elements and options before going to the meeting, entering the store, or meeting with the vendor. They also prioritize these elements to reduce the chance of getting sucked in by the “bright shiny object” rather than the critical consideration.

Ask for advice – Effective decision makers proactively ask for the input of others. Where others hesitate for fear of rejection or appearing dumb, these individuals approach anyone they think might be able to share helpful information or insights. That said, they are careful to examine the context within which the input is provided. In an unfamiliar restaurant, they will ask a nearby patron for menu recommendations rather than the waiter who wants to upsell them. In choosing a vendor, they will listen to other customers rather than the team member who keeps pushing for a particular option. Don’t be afraid to ask for input. Just keep it all in perspective.

One of the main reasons people have a hard time making decisions is that they are afraid of losing options. As a result, it can be easy to get stuck out of a desire to keep your options open. This phenomenon has been magnified in recent years by the endless choices on the internet. The best thinkers recognize how easy it is to be overcome by the fear of making a mistake. In response, they work hard to make fewer decisions, focus on their priorities and ask for trustworthy advice. In concert, these three practices enable them to act with confidence and without fear of failure or regret. You should too.

Are You Saying “Yes” Too Much?

Do you say “yes” too much? You probably know what it’s like. A colleague asks for help with a project and you end up doing a lot more than you planned. You agree to volunteer for a local event and then discover that it’s going to take a lot more time than you assumed. Maybe a friend asks you to help them move, especially if you have pick-up truck. Sound familiar?

At the end of each of these endeavors, you may have asked yourself, “Why did I say yes to THAT?” Or you may have said, “Never again!” Then you went ahead and said “yes” again anyway. But here’s the thing, all these incidental “yes’s” are contributing to the decision fatigue that drags you down.

So, why do you say yes when you kind of know that it’s going to cost more time and energy than you had figured? There are several reasons:

  • You want to be perceived as a nice person.
  • You might feel guilty if you don’t say yes.
  • You say “yes” because you want a feeling of belonging or to be part of something larger.
  • You’re paying it forward in hopes that others will return the favor.
  • You were caught off-guard and said “yes” before taking time to think.

There’s nothing wrong with saying, “yes.” I do it lots of times myself. But I have learned to stop and consider before agreeing impulsively. It is human nature to be accommodating when approached for a favor or participate in an activity. Sometimes saying, “No” can seem almost discourteous. But saying, “No,” may be the best decision you can make. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  1. You’re not the best person to make the decision or participate.
  2. Adding this task to your plate will interfere with or impair your effectiveness in accomplishing more critical responsibilities.
  3. The person asking may be just trying to “turf the task.”
  4. You’re just plain tired and need a legitimate break. (They’re aloud, you know.)

One of the ways effective decision-makers manage their energy and focus is by avoiding less- than-strategic commitments. “But how do you say no?” you might be asking. Here are three responses that help:

  • “Thanks for thinking of me. I just don’t think I’m the best match for this task.”
  • “At this point, I can’t really take on another responsibility. I trust you’ll understand.”
  • “You might approach _______________. I think she might have more interest.”

Notice this list does not include, “I’d love to help, but . .” This phrase telegraphs you are open to other opportunities. As a result, people will continue to approach you. Remember, you have every right to be selective about the decisions, tasks, and other responsibilities you take on unless, of course, they are assigned by the boss. Even in that case, there are tactics for more effectively managing the situation. But that’s a topic for another post.

The next time you’re tempted to say “yes,” take a few seconds to consider the request. Ask a couple of questions about what it would really involve. Perhaps you can say “yes” to part of it. Making this a consistent practice will save time, energy and relieve you of some the decision fatigue that diminishes your productivity and effectiveness.

How Many Exclamation Points Does It Take?

I was spending some time with a colleague in her home office. As we chatted, an email popped up on her screen with an exclamation point in the subject line. She glanced at it and then went back to talking with me.

“Aren’t you going to pay attention to that?” I asked. “It looks important. It’s got an exclamation point.”

“Oh,” she said. “I don’t take messages seriously until they get up around three or more exclamation points.”

“Tell me more,” I said.

“Well,” she said, “It’s like a priority system. One is normal communication. Two is probably something you should respond to. Three is, ‘Hey, this is important.’ Four and five are critical. Drop what you’re doing. And six or more is usually someone just pissed off about something.”

“How did this get started?” I asked.

“You see,” she said,” we had a manager who seemed to think that everything she sent was critical because she was the boss. So, everything she sent had one or more exclamation points. But after a while we all figured that out most of what she sent out wasn’t all that critical or timely. A few people started mocking her by sending out emails with exclamation points as well. It became kind of a joke and we all adapted.”

“Is she still in charge?” I asked. “Did she ever catch on?”

“Oh, no!” my colleague said. “She’s long gone and no, she never figured it out.”

“So why still do it?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it’s because we all think it’s a bit of fun. You just have to learn that if you come to work with us, you shouldn’t take anything seriously unless it has at least three exclamation points.”

So, what are the take-ways from all this? In a way, it’s like the boy who cried “wolf” so much that nobody took him seriously when there was a wolf. Or maybe the person who yelled “fire” in a crowded theater as a joke and scared the crap out of people. Neither is a good thing to do. The same thing can happen in the workplace. Sadly, the lack of professional maturity on the part of this previous leader unknowingly incited this practice and impaired the communication of the unit until people adapted to her beliefs and practices.

At the same time, this example demonstrates people’s ability to adapt to and read others. When everything is promoted as critical, nothing will be taken as critical. But this team took a step back and adjusted to this leader’s behavior. As a result, they rebalanced communication on their own. On top of this, they also found a bit of humor and perspective in what happened.

What can you learn from this example that will help you lead your team?

Has Fractionalization Distorted Our Decision Making?

Sixty years ago, Newton Minow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, famously called television “a vast wasteland.” This was at a time when there were a total of three networks. On any given night, you could choose between the offerings on CBS, NBC or ABC. Period. Candid Camera host, Peter Funt, recently asked Mr. Minow his thoughts on the seemingly unlimited choices now presently available. I found his response rather insightful.

“Fractionalization of the audience provides more choice,” he said, “but we pay a big price. Our country now is much more divided because we don’t share the same news or believe the same facts. I used to think that providing more choice was in the public interest. But I’m not sure today.”

In other words, part of society’s present polarization is being caused by a population that no longer shares common interests based on media. Thirty years ago, for instance, people watched The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Then they discussed his monologue the next morning at the office. Now, on any given night, you can choose between more than a dozen late-night talk shows, all of which that have hosts projecting partisan political viewpoints, something Johnny was careful not to do.

Another television phenomenon of thirty years ago was “Who killed JR?” from the night-time drama, Dallas. People spent weeks arguing about who pulled the trigger. Why? Because millions were watching the show every Friday night. In essence, it created a sense of community. You could get on an elevator and ask the stranger next to you, “Who do you think shot J.R.?” and they would immediately get the reference. Today, there are so many choices from which to choose, we have balkanized ourselves into micro affinity groups. So, the chances of the elevator stranger watching the same thing you did last night are remote. Besides, we don’t talk to strangers. We bury our heads in our smart phones.

This fractionalization is not limited to today’s media. The same thing is true with pretty much every product, topic or issue. As a result, we have not just become fractionalized, but hyper-fractionalized. Without shared experiences, it becomes so much easier to hide behind the beliefs with which we feel comfortable. We seek out others who share those beliefs and avoid those who might have a different point of view. Digital algorithms enable all this, feeding us links and suggestions based on our past browser use, unless we periodically clear our cache and history.

The problem with this, of course, is that when we all retreat to our individual corners, we lose the perspective to make truly informed decisions. This is reinforced by the highly partisan politicians, activists, media and colleagues who choose to press their beliefs on others without remaining open to alternative points of view. The best decision-makers accept that their beliefs are not the only ones out there. They ask questions, knowing that the answers or opinions they receive in response may not be to their liking. But they accept that colleagues, friends and strangers can have diverging beliefs without being evil, hateful, stupid, or any one of a number of other invectives. Effective decision-making is the result of seeking out the best information, opening yourself to thoughtful discussion and acting knowing that you might be proven wrong.

Without discourse, we lose the freedom of speech upon which this nation was founded.

Good Decision Makers Always Say Thank You

Jay Leno tells of buying a half gallon of milk at a grocery store. When he got to the checkout stand, he said, “good morning,” to the cashier. She didn’t look up. He asked, “How’s your day going?” Still no response. He gave her two dollars for the milk and the change came rolling out of the coin dispenser. He scooped up the change and said, “Have a good day.” Still nothing. At this point, he’d had enough. “Aren’t you even going to say, Thank you,” he snapped. Finally, the cashier looked up. “It’s on the bottom of the receipt,” she said.

This story always gets a good laugh, because we’ve all been there. But here’s the thing; Jay’s been telling that story since the 1980s. I have had the privilege of getting to know a lot of good decisions makers. Hopefully, you have too. One of the things that has made a lasting impression on me is how unfailingly appreciative these people are. They’ve recognized that if they say thank you, it is generally reciprocated. This plants the seeds for other opportunities.

I say “thanks” for even the smallest gestures. If nothing else, it generally brings a smile to the other person’s face. In some cases, I get a “You’re welcome” in return. Once in a while someone will say, “I really appreciate that. No one seems to say “thank you” anymore.”

I learned a long time ago that if you are appreciative, the other person is more likely to share that feeling of goodwill. I’ve been upgraded on airline flights any number of times, for instance, because I was one of the few passengers treating the gate agent with warmth. That has always bedeviled me. Why would you be gruff to the person who controls your seat assignment and level of service? Yet so many people do.

We are increasingly living in a less-than-civil world. But that doesn’t mean we have to respond in kind.  The best decision-makers know this and use it to leverage their relationships and influence. Besides, it just feels good and is what a civil society requires.

When Good Enough is Good Enough

I can become consumed trying to ensure I have done the absolutely best job or made the absolutely best decision. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist, but I know that the details count. I want to be proud of the work I’ve done. As a result, I sometimes find myself going down “rabbit holes” in pursuit of the exact words when I’m writing, the perfect look when I am recording a video, or the absolutely choice finish when I am creating something in my workshop. Sometimes I get so focused on getting it right that I look up and suddenly realize I’ve spent way too much time on an element of the effort that no one else would care about.

Of course, I am not alone in this. I’ve had colleagues tell me it took them three years to write a book because they wanted to get the words just right. As a result, they wrote and re-wrote sections and still weren’t happy when it eventually went to press. There is a place for this kind of exactness, of course. It’s been said that Ernest Hemmingway sometimes struggled for weeks in crafting a single sentence. Fred Astaire rehearsed dance routines until everyone’s feet bled. Top comedians have been known to take months to hone 15 minutes of material. Golfer, Chi Chi Rodriguez used to spend hours a day on the putting green.

In those types of performance environments, I applaud their dedication. But outside of this, it is easy to be consumed by details that matter little in the overall outcome. I’ve watched teams spend hours on the details of a proposal rather than on focusing on the relationship with the prospect. I’ve participated on boards where insignificant issues have been allowed to coopt the mission or primary outcome. I suspect you have as well. When we look back on the time and effort put into some of these dalliances, will we even remember what they were about?

One of the mantras I have adopted over time is “Good enough is good enough.” (This is a cousin to the phrase, “Life’s too short.”) Most work does not need to be that precise. That doesn’t mean I’m sloppy. It is important to meet the expectations of the supervisor, stakeholder or our own sense of quality and integrity.

But “good enough is good enough.” I’d rather get my project, article, product out to the people it can help rather than delaying endlessly until it is my idea of perfect. I have to balance the time and effort expended with a reasonable outcome. There will always be imperfections. This past summer, for instance, I replaced the stairwell of the deck on our house. Did I make a few minor mistakes? Yes. Do I notice them when climbing those stairs? Sometimes. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to rebuild those steps this summer to correct errors no one else will notice. Good enough is good enough.

When I begin to realize I am hyper-focusing on the minutiae, I ask myself three questions.

Number one, “What is an acceptable outcome for this effort?” Once again, that does not mean I don’t care if I do my best work. It’s just that there are only 24 hours in each day and only so much energy. Am I making the most of it? Number two, “What are the stakeholders expecting?” This past weekend, I painted some interior window trim. Truth is I did not paint the tops of the trim because no one is going to see them. Visitors to my home are not going to climb up to see if I did so. If I stumble over my words once or twice in a 15-minute video is anyone going to notice or care? Number three, “Is what I’ve accomplished good enough?” In other words, can I live with the present result? Five years ago, I published a book that won three awards. Are there thoughts in that book I’d like to go back and refine? Sure. But the book has already won three awards, so it must be good enough.

Have I made my point perfectly here? Probably not. But I hope I have given those of you who suffer from this time-consuming pursuit of perfection permission to know when good enough is good enough and make the decision to move on.

Stop the Use of Disingenuous Labels

I am a long-time blood donor. Every eight weeks, the blood bank calls me to provide another pint. I’ve never kept count, but they tell me I am somewhere north of seven gallons. I am NOT, however, a hero. That’s what the people who set up the appointments have been trained call me. Me, and the thousands of others who do so regularly. I’m happy to contribute to the cause in my own small way. But being called a hero for something like this troubles me.

As a society, we have taken to using hyperbolic labels for everything. Every little act, performance, and gesture seems to be awesome, phenomenal, fantastic, or unbelievable. Maybe this is a throwback to the parents who gave their kids trophies just for showing up. But the whole thing demeans those whose achievements are the product of real vision, focus, hard work, perseverance and sacrifice. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that the front-line employees who show up for work in the middle of a pandemic are not heroes. Yet we see large signs to this effect all over. Yes, we DO appreciate the risk they are taking. But if we compare that to the firefighters who run into burning buildings or the police officers who risk their lives protecting others, I’d argue there’s a considerable difference.

The misguided belief that a person will think better of themselves or improve their performance when you tell them they’re a hero for doing something ordinary creates a disconnect between management and staff. They know they didn’t do something extraordinary. In some cases, they even look at management as being silly for suggesting such a thing. The supervisors I know don’t want to look silly. Yet someone in leadership has decided that this is the way to inspire people. So they go along, not wanting to take a stand on something so insignificant.

The same thing is true of customers and those who contribute to a cause. Yes, I want to be appreciated. But a simple “thank you” will do. A salesperson who tells me I’ve made a phenomenal decision when I’ve purchased a set tires amuses me. They’re just tires! If someone wants to tap me for a pint of blood every two months, I am happy to comply. Pat me on the back, give me a tchotchke, or just say “thanks.”

The Future is Unknowable – Risk is Measurable

“Congratulations! You’ve won a package of sky-diving lessons.” Just the thought of this sends shivers down the spines of some people. A little informal research tells me that skydiving is five times as safe as flying commercially, which is five times as safe as driving a car, which is five times as safe as crossing the street in a big city. But for many, even the infinitesimal possibility of hitting the ground at 120mph overwhelms any thought of the experience being safe and exhilarating.

Economist Frank Knight observed that, “The future is unknowable, but risk is measurable.” In other words, it is best to ask “What are the chances?” when contemplating any decision of significance. By taking time to logically consider the risk of possible outcomes, we are able to manage the emotional discomfort that can distort our thinking.

As we come of age and mature through life, we are constantly influenced by those around us along with our experiences with success and failure. When something goes wrong, those around us help to interpret these consequences. Many times, unfortunately, these comments begin with sentences like, “I had a feeling this would happen,” or “That should teach you not to try something like that again.”

Listening to these laments engenders a fear of the unknown. When considering future opportunities, purchases, and relationships, these words of caution can come flooding into our minds and overwhelm any thoughts of excitement, anticipation and positive outcomes. Sadly, this cycle becomes a reinforcing expectation for most people. This results in their assuming the worst when considering opportunities. If they surround themselves with others who think this way, they begin to settle for certainty, even if it means sacrificing better jobs, better incomes, better relationships and a host of other opportunities. Even when they want to consider these endeavors, they are counseled by these risk-adverse friends to be careful and the cycle is reinforced.

So, how can someone break out of this rhythm? Here’s a good way to begin. Make a practice of asking yourself, “What are the chances” when considering decisions and opportunities. Then go about quantifying and qualifying the probability of each possible outcome. Next, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “If the worst was to happen, would I be able to manage it?” Finally, ask, “Does the value of the positive outcome outweigh the possible loss of the negative outcome? If it does, proceed. Logic is the great mitigator of fear. As the saying goes, feel the fear and do it anyway.

 

Is It Okay to Play Solitaire at Work?

Much has been made about the amount of time people engage in non-work activities on the job. I’ve seen estimates that range from 30 minutes to more than three hours per day. The reality is that no one can remain focused for eight hours at a time. As a result, they look for other distractions. These days, digital technology and the on-line world stands at the ready to take your mind off of the tasks at hand for hours at a time. This is true for everyone, not just the person punching the clock. We all need periods throughout the day to recharge our batteries. If we don’t, decision fatigue sets in and we make careless errors because we’ve lost focus.

So, how to you step away from the current project without losing more time than you had planned? My solution? Solitaire. No, not the type you can find on your smart phone. But the kind you play with actual cards. Why? Because there are no distractions built into the process. When you play solitaire on-line, the screen is filled with other pop-ups, messages, gifs and emojis designed to steal your attention away from the game at hand. If you decide to watch “just one” video on YouTube, you can end up squandering 30 minutes or more because of the algorithms designed to keep you fixated. It’s like Lays potato chips. You can never eat just one.

When you take a break with something offline, you are much more likely to draw line after a shorter period of time. Solitaire with playing cards takes about five minute, two minutes if you deal yourself a really bad hand. I keep a deck of cards close by so they’re easily within reach. I might play two hands if the first one is short. Sometimes I deal two bad hands. Then I know the universe telling me I should get back to work. Whether its Solitaire, reading an article, going for a short walk, or anything else, these short breaks are essential to conserving your energy. Just don’t do them on-line.

Now that I’ve finished this post, I think I’ll take a break and play a game of solitaire. Who knows? I might even win!

Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

Are you one of the millions who will sit down later this month and layout your resolutions for the new year? I sure hope not. We value all kinds of traditions here in the United States. But this is one that should be abolished. Why? Because it doesn’t work and never will.

Here the simple reason. The brain hates change and uncertainty. Your brain’s first job is to keep you safe. Every time it perceives a possible threat to your well-being, it responds in two ways: 1) It introduces two stressor hormones into your nervous system, adrenaline and cortisol. This focuses your attention and prepares you for what it perceives as the threat. That’s why cortisol has been called “nature’s alarm clock. 2) Using systems neurologists still don’t understand, the brain brings to your attention all ways this perceived threat could harm you. (Granted, this is an oversimplified explanation.)

Here’s the problem. Your brain can’t tell the difference between a perceived physical threat and a perceived emotional threat. If a foul ball is barreling toward you, the brain is remarkably good at calling your attention to it so you can get out of the way. That’s a good thing. But when you’re faced with emotional unknown such as approaching a stranger, initiating a difficult conversation or making a presentation, it reacts the same way. It floods your nervous system with adrenaline and cortisol and calls to the front of your mind all the ways emotional catastrophe could strike.

The same thing is true of initiating a change of routine or habit. Routines and habits are predictable, even if some of them are harmful, such as smoking, eating too much and a dozen others we might list. But once a habit or routine is well established, the brain takes comfort in these predictable outcomes and sensations. Eating a quart of ice cream when you’re upset is not good for you, but it provides relief for the moment and that’s what the brain craves. That’s why they call it comfort food. So, if you attempt to resist these temptations, the brain actually increases the thoughts of these cravings to keep you focused on your desire for safety and comfort. You’re also surrounded, of course, by environmental triggers such as ice cream advertisements and the fact that they place ice cream right next to the frozen tofu in the freezer aisle.

The same thing is true if you try to initiate a new routine or habit. The brain says, “I don’t know. This could be a threat. So I’ll make you uncomfortable and compel you to think about all the ways you might feel bad if you try this new practice.” (Again, an oversimplification.)

This is the reason why new year’s resolutions don’t work. The average person sits down on December 31st and says, “Okay, I’m going to change the following six things. But on January 1st, what you’ve done is introduce six new sources of discomfort into your daily life all at the same time.

Is it any wonder that the average person gives up on their new year’s resolutions within a week or two? It’s better to start out with one and practice it and establish it for 30 days. Once you’ve established that practice, go on to the next habit you want to change. Doing this with six habits or routines over six months is much better strategy. Starting them all at once just initiates six new sources of stress into your life all on the first day of the year. Why would anyone do that?

Rather than sitting down later this month and listing all the routines and habits you’re going to change or establish beginning January first, list these habits and routines. Then prioritize them and schedule them for implementation throughout 2021. Your brain will still resist these attempts, but you’ll be able to overcome this resistance when you’re establishing these changes, one at a time.