Option Overload

Prevention Magazine . August, 2005
Too many choices can leave you paralyzed. Here’s how to make the right decision–and move on it.

My husband, Gordon, and I have been redecorating together. The good news is that we’re still married. The bad news is that if we ever see another paint sample, it’ll be too soon. We chose the color for our bedroom from a palette of about a thousand hues. Totally overwhelmed, we finally settled on Sensual Sunrise, only to find that on the walls it looked more like Lost Lunch. There were so many choices in the Land of Pigment that I forgot to honor my own preference, which was for plain old beige.

In the grand scheme of things, paint is no big deal. You can change it easily. But if you get swamped with choices in important areas—such as finding the right partner or career path—a poor choice or no choice can have serious repercussions.

Smart Women, Bad Choices

One of my friends has turned to Internet dating sites to find the man of her dreams. Not long ago, she had an interesting phone conversation with a would-be cybersuitor. He had a long list of qualities that were important to him in a woman, and their first chat seemed more like a job interview. Then he asked what was on her list and was surprised that she didn’t have one.

I can sympathize with my friend. For most of my life I was not only “list-less” when it came to men, but I was also clueless. Instead of reflecting on what was really important in the person I was planning to spend a lifetime with, I relied on my “infallible intuition,” which all too often turned out to be chemistry or the pull of an old pattern.

The best choices are made when facts and intuition—head and heart—both weigh in on a decision. That may sound easy, but there are lots of pitfalls, the most important of which is failing to reflect on what experience tells you about yourself. When I was in high school and college, I went out with a lot of guys. I’d break up with one, only to choose another who was similar. At this my mother would put her hands on her hips and sputter, “Book smart, Joanie. You’re book smart. But look here, Miss Smarty Pants, if you don’t start learning from your experiences, you’re going to have a very unhappy life.”

Subtlety was not one of her virtues, but my mom was pointing out something important. Without perspective about your experiences and the willingness to ask questions about how you’ve gotten where you are, you stay stuck in the same place. Eventually, I had an important insight: My beloved dad was depressed, and I’d spent my youth trying to comfort him. So depressed and troubled men felt familiar. What seemed like love was just an old groove. This is a crucial lesson. What appears to be intuition may just be a familiar pattern closing around you like a trap.

Walk This Way

There are several steps you can take that will usually land you at the door to the right decision. First, ask yourself if it’s an important choice or a casual choice. Paint is casual; deciding to have a child as a single woman is important. Ask, In 6 months or a year, will this choice matter to me? If it won’t, don’t sweat over it—it’s casual. If it will, recognize that it’s important and treat yourself with respect. Making a critical decision in a snap is disrespectful.

If you don’t care about your life, other people aren’t likely to either, and the possibility of making a bad choice gets magnified. So launch any important decision-making process with self-reflection. If you’re job hunting, for example, think back on your past positions. If you left each one for the same reason, the problem is more likely a pattern of yours, rather than something related to the job. The real choice you face isn’t finding a career—it’s finding yourself.

The next step is to make a list of what you’re really looking for. Whether you’re vetting a career, a mate, a move, or plastic surgery, take time to listen to yourself, to hear your deepest longings and most urgent fears. One way to do this is to envision the future. A career might look attractive now, but where might it lead in 5, 10, or 20 years? Is there room for growth? Is it challenging and fulfilling? What about your dream of moving to a farm and raising horses? Imagining your life in a rural setting, not only now but as you age, is critical to making the right choice for yourself. While none of us knows what the future might bring, you can at least stack the deck in your favor by thinking through your decision from as many angles as possible.

Once you’ve envisioned possible futures, you’ll have a better sense of how you feel about them. That’s where heart wisdom comes in. True heart wisdom is based on perspective. Some decisions, for example, aren’t just about you; they involve and affect others. Maybe you want to take your 12-year-old out of school and move across the country. But as you envision her next critical few years, you think she might be better off where you live now. With an open mind and heart, you discuss things because her happiness is integral to your own. Based on that process, your infatuation with the big intuitive flash that said move may become less appealing. Or perhaps your heart—and hers—may say an authentic yes.

One last bit of advice: When your heart tells you what it really wants, don’t let someone talk you out of it. You still have to go through your own version of due diligence, but trust yourself enough to explore what it is that you really want, not what someone else wants for you.

How to build a better decision

  1. Can’t decide? Flip a coin. If you find yourself hoping for heads or tails, or disappointed with the side that comes up, you have a secret preference. You still need to think things through, but at least you have a starting point.
  2. When you’re trying to make a garden-variety decision, like what kind of refrigerator to buy, don’t waste precious time looking around. Having too many choices is frustrating. Let experts like Consumer Reports do the legwork for you.
  3. If you can’t tell whether your excitement is intuition or an old pattern, ask some friends to help you sort it out. It’s hard to see your own blind spots.

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