So much of our time is consumed with making, or trying to make, decisions about the infinite choices and compromises that life presents every single day. Take the morning I sit down to (ostensibly) write this feature. It is a Monday, and there are four emails in my inbox that have been winking at me since Friday. I could dispatch each of them with a two-line response, but something is holding me back.
I look at them, knowing I’ll feel calmer and able to move onto a bigger task – actual work! – once they’re dealt with. Still, I can’t quite bring myself to reply, because each email relates to a future event, and I don’t know if it will be the right thing for future me to take an afternoon away from my desk for research that might lead nowhere, or for me to agree to attend the party of a much-loved friend who lives 250 miles away.
The tyranny of choice, the idea that more options make decisions harder without improving the outcome, is not a new concept. But I wonder if we’re now close to peak personal choice. For me, at least, the avalanche of so-called “choices” to decide on each day has left me barely able to choose between having a cup of tea or coffee
The many inconsequential decisions that plague our days can add up to an average of three hours, according to a survey of 2,000 adults by weight-loss app Noom, with 87 per cent admitting to changing their minds about things they’ve already decided on.
I know that these myriad tiny choices (tea or coffee) don’t really matter, but when they start to pile up they become intimidating, and it can seem like the decision between a salad or a sandwich may have far-reaching consequences. I can well believe that on some days I easily waste three hours on pointless decisions, returning to miniscule issues as if they are genuine dilemmas. I overthink and overanalyse negligible daily events, and can’t maintain the focus to resolve them. I am not disorganised, but I am stuck. It feels like decision paralysis.
With all this in mind, I feel pretty stupid when I hear about the Harvard professor who believes that no decision, big, small, or life-changing, really matters. Why? Because we have no power over the outcome. We make decisions under the “illusion of control”, explains Ellen Langer in her new book The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Lasting Health (Robinson, £19.99).
“The problem with current views of decision-making is that we tend to get stressed not only by consequential decisions but also by inconsequential ones,” she says. “I myself have been stymied by whether to buy a Milky Way or a Snickers”. I feel a little less stupid now. But Langer’s premise is that the stress generated by these persistent decisions can negatively affect our health. I want to work out how to stop wasting time both making decisions, and then thinking back over those decisions.
Langer has been teaching a course on decision-making for as long as I’ve been alive. Can her insights help me? “A decision is just a prediction or a guess,” she says. “We think we can predict, but all we have is hindsight.”
I am cautious about disagreeing with someone so wise and decorated. Langer, 76, is the first woman ever to have received tenure at Harvard, but almost didn’t accept a job there because she knew it rarely progressed junior staff to tenure. A hunch led her to the job anyway.
If a decision either way makes no difference, why do I find it so hard to respond yes or no to so many emails, both work and personal? I take a deep breath and empty my inbox, aware this cavalier attitude will haunt me for days. As Langer says, whether something is good or bad is in our heads. The problem is how to get it out of my head and get on with everything else. Once I’ve decided that I’m not going to pursue the opportunities in the emails, it’s up to me to shelve them and move on.
I don’t find reframing my attitude to align with Langer’s advice an easy fix. I’ve long relied on the idea we can study empirical evidence to make worthy decisions, and the alternative feels like less stable ground. But Langer says that the cost-benefit approach to making decisions uses up chunks of our working memory, which isn’t limitless. Experiments show that attempting to take infinite choice into account can lead to a decrease in happiness and life satisfaction, and increase depression and regret.
I get tens of unsolicited emails each day and I don’t benefit from answering them, not answering them, or agonising over whether to answer them. I start a new process, trying to reply immediately, snooze until the next morning (when I earmark half an hour for emails), or delete. A few weeks pass, and the one clear positive is the hours I’ve saved not deliberating over endless decisions. I’ve also noticed that the people who feel they need a response will chase me.
Maybe technology can take the smaller, work-based choices out of my hands. I currently use an online calendar and have an ongoing to-do list open in a Google Doc, which I spend a few minutes updating each morning, and far longer staring at as the day progresses with very little is crossed off the list.
I am intrigued by big promises from a number of apps, that claim they can manage decision paralysis, organise and prioritise work, and wave goodbye to forgotten tasks and missed deadlines. Motion app has been hounding me on Instagram for a while, offering me 13 months of work time fitted in a single calendar year (yes, of 12 months), thanks to its genius AI that will create my “optimised daily schedule“.
When I search for it, similar apps such as Notion and Inflow advertise themselves to me. Motion claims that “to-do lists are dead” because they waste time and discourage us, as our schedules evolve and tasks take longer than expected. This certainly reflects my experience. But as I investigate how the app will work, I lose faith very quickly.
First of all, it wants to take over all of my calendars and contacts before I have tested it out, and requests the power to delete calendars and send emails on my behalf. No thanks! Secondly, it makes the assumption that a human is a machine of productivity who can complete a task in the allotted time; when your tasks are consistently rescheduled by AI, the result is identical to feeling like you’ve failed to complete a to-do list. It also assumes a workday unfettered by the doorbell with next door’s delivery or the school Whatsapp group wittering about PE kit.
And what about the bigger decisions? When I think back to some of the larger choices I have faced – which university to go to, whether to move house – I remember resorting to a classic pros and cons approach, listing each in detail, even if that led me to understand my gut feeling rather than take what seemed like the sensible choice.
With hindsight, these are great examples of what Langer calls our “illusion of control”. She means that when we think we are making informed predictions, we can never obtain enough information about what might happen, and certainly not from every perspective. Even buying a pair of jeans has infinite possibilities.
She describes the belief that more information will lead to a better outcome as the typical mistake in 20th century decision-making practice. “Rather than worry about whether the decision was right, we should try to make it work. Look at any advantages that accrue from whatever happens, and then play it as the ‘right decision’.”
I can’t be the only one who feels queasy when eternal optimists strive to rewrite crappy outcomes as brilliant plans on their part. Why not just own it? “I propose we adopt an attitude of mindful optimism,” Langer suggests. “This doesn’t mean we should bury our heads in the sand with a certainty that all will be fine. Rather, it involves recognising that uncertainty is not new. Everything has always been uncertain, we were just oblivious to it.” Hmmm.
What if you’re not of such a cheery disposition? I have been bothered with regret over moving out of London, trying to convince myself I enjoy small-town life while I ache to be caught up in the swell of a busy station, or a pub where nobody knows my name.
“If we know why we did what we did, we won’t have regrets for not doing otherwise,” counsels Langer. “Regrets presuppose the alternative would have been better. We can never know what the ‘road not taken’ would have been like.”
But I do know something about that road not taken, and all the reasons I left the capital still stand. My job, now, is to think mindfully about those drawbacks instead of blaming my new home. Hopefully, when I don’t respond to your messages, you’ll understand that such decisions are out of my control.
How to make decisions
- Making a list of pros and cons isn’t helpful – there’s always one more article you could read, or one more friend you could poll. “There’s no data that I know that shows more information is better,” says Langer.
- Prediction is an illusion, any pro could be seen as a con, depending on your viewpoint
- There’s no quick fix to make better decisions. But instead of agonising over the decision itself, turn your efforts to making it turn out well.
- “We can play any choice as the right decision by looking at any advantages that accrue,” Langer insists. “Don’t try and make the right decision, make the decision right.”