Can’t make a decision?

Oliver Burkeman has some tips for avoiding decision fatigue at work


Can’t make a decision?

The project

‘Looked at one way, modern office work consists of nothing but decisions, from big dilemmas (Should you take that job? Should your firm invest millions in a new HQ?) to tiny choices through the day. Yet few of us learn the art of decision-making. Is it best to go with your gut, or make lists of pros and cons?

The aim

Making decisions takes time. It’s stressful. And it leads to ‘decision fatigue’: it uses up energy, so subsequent choices you take later in the day may be worse. The trick is to invest the right amount of thought – not too little, not too much – in any given problem. It’s easy to get mired in ‘analysis paralysis’, hoping for the perfect answer, when a rough-and-ready one would suffice.

The theory

Many of us are ‘maximisers’ who try to make the best decision every time. But it’s often better to be a ‘satisficer’. First, figure out what would be a good-enough outcome; then, pick the first option that ticks those boxes. Imagine booking a venue for an event: you need a room of a certain capacity, with certain facilities, for a certain price. The maximiser spends days hunting for the ‘perfect’ place; the satisficer chooses the first one that fulfils those requirements. Don’t assume big decisions always require careful consideration, either. Some studies indicate the opposite. Huge decisions – like ‘should I move overseas for work?’ – are so complex that you’re better advised to trust your gut.

Try it out

  • Use the coin-toss method. That doesn’t mean consigning decisions to luck. When facing a big dilemma, assign heads or tails, toss a coin… but don’t look. Ask yourself which outcome you’re secretly hoping for. There’s your answer.
  • Ask someone. We like to think we’re unique, but in many contexts, we aren’t. You’ll often make a good decision by asking someone who’s faced something similar, and doing what they did.
  • Use the time-travel technique. Imagine you’re in the future. Will this decision matter a year from now? If not, it’s only worth a modest amount of effort. If it won’t matter in a month or a week, make any choice – it’s not worth the worry.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

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