Long Reads

We find it harder than ever to make decisions in 2018 - but why?

Should ‘Pret or Leon’ really be this hard? 

These days, I am a waiter’s nightmare. Your classic “ask me last I’m still thinking!” person. I am the “umm…. the lamb… no the pasta! Or the fish?” person, demanding someone else chooses for me and then ignoring them when they do. I’m the person who will run across the restaurant a minute later to say “I’ve changed my mind, on second thoughts I want the pasta”. Or do I?

It’s not just food, although it often is. I struggle with every decision, from the biggest (do I want babies yet? Should I move out of London?) to the bafflingly inconsequential (would that other Instagram filter have been more… vibesy?). Hours of my life are wasted on umming, ahhing and mental reruns. I identify deeply with Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place, a man so cripplingly indecisive he was condemned to hell for making other people’s lives more difficult. Every time I hold up a queue of people in Leon while debating wrap vs rice box, I feel like I deserve the same fate.

“I identify deeply with Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place”

You might have heard of ‘decision fatigue’, or perhaps watched Barry Schwartz’s legendary lecture on the Paradox of Choice, in which he explains that our modern galaxy of choice is a privilege, but also a curse. With more superfluous options comes more potential for stress and dissatisfaction. It’s not hard to see that the reason my Grandmother never had a meltdown over her lunch is because her lunch options were: ham or cheese sandwich.

And deep down, I think we know that part of the reason we struggle to feel confident in our choices, from the small to the genuinely life-altering, is because we are increasingly hung up on perfection. The idea of living our very best life. It’s definitely the reason I have a small crisis if we choose a mediocre restaurant on holiday, and obsess for days over wearing the wrong bra to a wedding. In a culture fixated on self-improvement, self-worth and making the most of every moment, ‘good enough’ doesn’t feel, well, good enough. Life is short, we are told at length, and ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ is the enemy. 

“It’s not hard to see that the reason my Grandmother never had a meltdown over her lunch is because her lunch options were: ham or cheese sandwich”

And as we progress through life, it appears to be get worse. Since turning 30, my daily dithering has intensified, and grappling with bigger questions of life and career priorities doesn’t seem to make the small ones feel any easier by comparison.

But at least I’m not alone. Ask other women my age if they’re too indecisive, and it’s about the only thing they’re 100% sure of.

“I struggle with what to wear, how I travel, what bank account to get, what to eat, what to watch, everything,” says Alicia, 33, an office manager. “I worry that every choice I make now will affect my future marriage, my future kids, my mortgage. The pressure is suffocating.”

Journalist Sarah, 27, feels the same way. “I’m generally sort of ok about big decisions – job-related stuff, where to move to, where to go on holiday – but I get so overwhelmed about things that don’t matter to other people,” she says. “I panic choosing what to eat, what to cook, what clothes to wear… every week I devote considerable time to taking things back to shops after regretting decisions. It’s absurd.”

“I got so anxious buying a suitcase last month I ended up making a spreadsheet with a points system to decide for me,” one Twitter pal tells me. “I’ve changed my wedding date twice already and I’m considering doing it again,” admits another. And the most relatable: “I spent hours and hours choosing the right shower squeegee. Hours. I barely use it.”

So what’s causing this erring epidemic? Dr Jessamy Hibberd, clinical psychologist and host of TED Talk Adventure of a Lifetime, explains that our decision-making ability can be affected by many factors – tiredness, stress and good and bad moods, as well as deeper-rooted problems like (quelle surprise) anxiety. “Doubt breeds doubt,” she says. “The more you think about something, the more unsure you can become.”

“The more you think about something, the more unsure you can become”

In 2014, researchers from the University of Connecticut found that gradual wear and tear to white matter in the brain means that decision-making becomes harder as we get older – and that decline starts as soon as our mid-twenties (bleak, I know). Which might explain why I’ve spent more time in the past year scrolling Netflix than I did lingering in Blockbuster video in the whole of the 90s put together. 

And while we’re still fighting the sexist trope of ‘emotional’ women and cool-headed men, science points to nearly the opposite – researchers Mather and van den Bos found in 2012 that women tend to become more risk-aware and thoughtful in stressful situations, while men are more likely to gamble. In decision-making, as in so many things, we feel we have more to lose.

Even our most positive habits – mindfulness, gratitude, conscious consumption – have the potential to make us hyper-aware of every decision we make. What’s the healthiest choice? And the most responsible? Am I being too hard on myself, or not hard enough? A lunch isn’t just a lunch anymore; it’s a lifestyle statement. Sarah tells me that getting older for her has meant more focus on “the true value of things”. She says: “I think a lot more about what I consume, and that pressure of not wanting to waste money or time or resources is definitely a huge driving force wanting to make sure I get things right.”

‘Right’ is the word that crops up again and again; that feeling that each decision isn’t so much a choice, as a test. 

“‘Perfect’ gives the illusion that there’s a right choice, but actually there are many ways of doing things”

But the truth is that ‘right’ doesn’t really exist. As Dr Hibberd reminds me, “‘Perfect’ gives the illusion that there’s a right choice, but actually there are many ways of doing things. If there’s a right choice, it also means there is a wrong choice and this can be paralysing. 

You can feel like it’s your responsibility to get it right and that you’re at fault if you get it wrong. You can’t be completely in control of life!” And – adventures in quantum mechanics notwithstanding – you will never know how the other timeline would have turned out. All that exists is the choice you made, and the way you respond to it afterwards.

Meanwhile, learning to settle for imperfection could be the answer to all our indecisive woes. Back in 1956, economist Herbert A. Simon suggested the happiest people in life are “satisficers” – those who look for an option that’s ‘good enough’, rather than “maximisers” (hiya) who strive for the very best in everything and inevitably crack under the pressure. It makes sense, let’s be honest. Yet more than half a century later, we’re still struggling to learn how to settle.

So how does a maximiser become a satisficer? “Remember, mistakes, failures and ‘wrong’ choices are not the end of the world. They are part of the process of learning and finding the right way. They also build resilience,” says Dr Hibberd. She recommends allocating the time you spend on a decision in proportion to its actual importance. “Ask yourself: ‘will this matter in a day, a week, a year, five years?’ and give your time accordingly.” 

This means giving yourself time to think through the big decisions properly, while your lunch order, fittingly, is left up to your gut. “Don’t spend too long on it,” she says. “Go with your instincts rather than weighing everything up. It’s good to get into the habit of just choosing.”

Perhaps the best way is to start small – treat that lunch order like a word association game, and say the first thing that comes into your head. Chicken! Crisps! Boom. It might feel scary but, as always, practise makes perfect. Or maybe just perfectly fine. 

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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