For extreme “maximizers” like myself – as psychologists refer to those who strive to maximize the return on every choice they make – life isn’t so much a series of choices as it is a string of never-ending rejections. What decisions come do so grudgingly. And they tend to be backloaded with regrets and second-guesses.
It can be challenging to make the right decision, especially when it comes to life’s bigger challenges. Is there a way we can make the decision process easier? To answer that, I turned to Scott Huettel, director of Duke University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Sciences and chair of the school’s psychology department. Good news is: “People can make better decisions,” Huettel said.
1. Abandon “maximizing” tendencies.
“In many cases people make mistakes because they try to do something that is optimal,” Huettel said. “If you are a satisfier you are less likely to ruminate over bad outcomes. I think it’s generally a healthier way to make many, many decisions.”
This, it seems, is something that can be learned with practice and is not a fundamental trait like introversion that changes over the span of a person’s life, if at all.
In the quest for positive outcomes, the first rule is to cut yourself some slack. Understand we have it rough. “We didn’t evolve for those sorts of decisions,” Huettel said of career shifts and big moves. While our hunting-gathering ancestors spent the majority of their time facing choices that were tangible and which they had lots of experience with, our big questions enter another league entirely.
Major life events by definition happen infrequently, so they’re hard to learn from. They are full of complicated, abstract considerations, and their ultimate consequences may not become clear for months or years.
Given our limited experience, we tackle such challenges by running mental simulations and projecting what our future feelings will likely be. But get stuck too long ruminating, we’re likely to lose out. “In many cases people are too risk averse in these sorts of situations,” Huettel said. “As a result you can get yourself in trouble by being too conservative.”
2. Limit your options.
This is one of the best techniques to avoid pitfalls. “Precommitment” is a strategy in which we recognize we will likely make bad decisions in the future, so we make better choices early—in a binding way.
A team of researchers reported in a 2013 paper that precommitment trumps willpower when it comes to achieving our long-term goals—especially among the impulsive. “Our research suggests that the most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place,” researcher Molly Crockett summarized the study to redOrbit.com.
Headed out shopping? Take a set amount of cash along and leave your credit cards at home.
Ordering a healthy lunch a day ahead, when you’re not being tempted by a coworker or your own growling stomach, is another strategy. You can also set up savings accounts that have sizable withdrawal fees as a penalty. Employers use precommitment by automatically enrolling their staff in retirement savings accounts, a measure that tends to dramatically increase long-term enrollment, Huettel said.
3. Avoid stress.
Stress generally leads to poor decision-making. It can be of benefit in some cases, but “only if the stress is not perceived as a threat but as a challenge,” according to a pair of German researchers surveying more than two decades of the published literature on the topic.
For example, people who suffer from depression can benefit from the right kind of stress. While depressed persons are hindered in many ways, we can actually make better decisions than most—if we can get motivated to do so.
“In some cases people who have negative moods or depression may make decisions more realistically than someone who is normal mood.” Huettel said. “Many people have an optimism bias and that can get you in trouble because you don’t plan well enough or you overestimate your own abilities.”
I had to give up on the entire process, retreat to thorny scrubland, and help build a sweat lodge to achieve my moment of insight. While Huettel insists that intuition, per se, is “next to useless” when navigating complicated decisions (say, buying a house of playing the stock market), shifting how we think about problems can be of real benefit.
Watching the sacred fire, I began observing a trickle of two-toned carpenter ants fleeing from a burning log. The tickle became a stream. Instead of continuing their escape, however, they turned back to reenter their smoldering log. They chose the familiar, the habitual, over survival. And I saw myself there, having only recently fled one high-stress job, comically considering a return to the fire of another. The answer, though it meant continued uncertainty in many areas of my life, was clear.
In finding our way through the complex modern world, the biggest challenge is not making decisions, it’s knowing how to think about things. It’s “knowing how much information you should actually be gathering and how you are going to use it,” Huettel says. “It’s not the decision itself.”
Turning over my fireside insight weeks later, I recalled what a friend had told me about his decision to swear off alcohol. “I learned the fire is hot,” he said simply. “So I don’t touch it.”
The trick is not only recognizing the fires in our lives but being willing to walk away from them.
The path may be messy. You may have to reject status, or money, or the comfort of a familiar relationship. But it will be your path. And there is peace in that – at least there has been for a reforming maximizer like myself.