Making Decisions

I am a chronic over analyzer. I can’t help but agonize over every permutation in a scenario, the pros and cons, and the potential second and third order impacts. In some ways this is a feature in my mental operating system but in a lot of ways this is a bug. 

When it comes to big decisions I am confident I am not missing options. I am not ignoring downstream implications of a decision. And I am thinking carefully about how things are perceived by everyone. This has been very helpful in strategic decision making. 

The challenge is that I don’t know how to turn that off. I often find myself consumed for hours when making minor decisions like what to eat, what to wear, or how to respond to a short text. This is a major drain on productivity and overall mental state. The opportunity cost of a 2 hour cost-benefit analysis of whether I should make quinoa or rice for dinner is high. I could be focused on much higher leverage things. The sad reality is that this used to happen all the time. 

I knew I needed to make some corrections, otherwise I would be a perpetual state of analysis paralysis. What I didn’t want to do was over rotate in the other direction and start making rushed decisions without careful consideration. Like I said, for a lot of decisions, my analytical brain can be a feature. What I wanted to do was to channel that where it was helpful and mitigate the instances where it is debilitating. 

I do not like to operate with ambiguity. I do not do things in moderation. I am either all in or all out. So when it comes to decisions, I need clear rules to follow. I have installed two principles that have made a big difference in my day-to-day decision making, freeing up a lot of mental capacity to focus on the big things that require careful analysis. 

Remove decisions

A simple but powerful tactic I employed was to simply remove the need to make decisions in certain areas. Three years ago I donated every piece of clothing I owned and replaced them with 3 pairs of identical pants, 5 identical shirts, 1 hoodie, and one jacket. I have been wearing those same clothes every day for the last three years (I have now built up an inventory to replace items that become too worn). I no longer have to think about what to wear. That’s one decision down. 

I have also set a standard menu for myself that I follow fairly religiously. Unlike clothing, this has had some minor variability as I have discovered foods that my body responds better to than others. These changes are very minor, however, and when I make a change I stick to that while I start tinkering with another variable of my diet. If I am out at a restaurant I will choose an item that maps closest to what I typically eat, which makes that decision making process easier. What I do lose here is the adventure of trying new food. I also recognize that I am sacrificing some health benefits of having some irregularity in consumption. I am willing to live with those two sacrifices though to stay in accordance with the rules I have set for myself. 

I apply similar principles to other areas of my life, like time allocation. I set a fairly rigid schedule for myself Monday – Friday. If you know me well enough you can probably track my whereabouts within a 15 minute confidence interval. On the weekends my mornings are also fairly rigid but I leave the afternoons and evenings open for some spontaneity. This is something I probably need to loosen up a bit, but like I said, I don’t like ambiguity. 

Set constraints

Not every decision is as binary as what to wear, what to eat, or where to be, for example, how should I respond to a text or an email. Depending on who the other person is these decisions can start to occupy a lot of time (i.e. a girl I’m interested in vs. my old college roommate). For these I set constraints. There is a meta level decision inherent in this process where I have to make a decision on what the constraint is, but I do have some general rules I follow. For example, for any purchase decision under $100 I force myself to make a decision on whether or not to pull the trigger within ten seconds. If I haven’t made the decision by 10 seconds it is an automatic no. That is enough of a signal to myself that I didn’t really want it. 

For communications, I don’t commit to respond right away, but when I do start dictating something I aim to hit send within 60 seconds of typing my first character. This may seem like an unnecessary rule, but I have found way too often I end up tinkering with a response for many minutes and the end product is almost identical to what I would have sent if I just hit send on my first draft. 

This heuristic is the key to all of these minor decisions. I had to get comfortable with the fact that for small things, the delta in output from making a quick decision and the output from an unbounded decision making process is often small, while the cost of working through that process is high. For many things in life, a decision that results in a 90% optimal outcome in a short amount of time is better than 98% (very rarely is anything 100% optimal) with a large amount of time and energy dedicated to that incremental 8%. 

This does not apply to all things. When it comes to strategic decisions, it is better to take your time and not rush decisions. But do remember, an artist is never completely satisfied with their painting, but at some point they need to put the brush down and hang it on the wall. 

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