Making Difficult Decisions

After I spend twenty minutes comparing the nutrition, cost, and calories of my options in the breakfast aisle of the grocery store, I was happy to get a text from a friend who wanted to chat. He’d gotten laid off and was looking for a new job. I expected he just needed a pep talk about patience. Instead, he had gotten a few offers and was now stressed about making the right decision.

I’ve gotten a little better about decision making. I still dither but I’m starting to see that the more difficult the decision is, the less it matters. If you have two job offers and one is better than the other, that is an easy decision: you take the better offer. No stress, no wondering, easy-peasy.

Decisions become hard when the choices are all about the same level of goodness. Every job has its pluses and minuses. As you compare the offers, you have to balance between disparate things like a short commute versus a neat technology. Even with an organized list of pros and cons, it can become mindbogglingly difficult to choose well.

“Wait a minute,” I said to my friend, “you have three offers (four, if you count that one you don’t want but are happy to have as a backup). And this makes you stressed? So many people would be thrilled to be where you are! Ok, now you are feeling stressed and guilty. But the guilt doesn’t do you any good so put it in a bubble and blow it away.”

The stress comes about because you feel you must choose the best job. Realistically, if you have three offers, you have only a ⅓ chance of choosing the right one randomly. The best way to make the decision is to work at each for six months and then choose (but even if anyone would agree to that, it is a terrible decision itself). Essentially, you have to accept that you don’t have enough information to choose the best job. You might as well roll dice.

Seriously, you might as well roll the dice or otherwise decide arbitrarily. If you had only one of these three options, you would be happy with it. You would be happy because each one is good option. The angst comes from having to find the best when there is no objective way to do that.

Think about how the similarity between options is what makes choosing difficult. Given the similarity, can you accept that the decision between these choices doesn’t matter? I mean, it may matter to your whole life but, having done your due diligence and found them each to be good (which is what makes them difficult to choose between), you can choose now based on something arbitrary. May I suggest you choose based on which one you are most excited to go to on Monday?

In the end, it doesn’t matter what you choose: you will have picked a good option. Oh, you may regret it later because circumstances change. That could have happened to any of the choices, it goes back to having imperfect information. That’s ok, you can’t use that information now, because you don’t have it.

So, choose! Flip those coins. Dig out that Magic-8 ball. Embrace the randomness. Allow arbitrary decisions given an equally weighted pool. Put down the burden of choosing the absolute best and accept the joy of pretty darn good.

By the way, this method works for making difficult bad decisions as well, though there is less joy to it, of course.

And this is how I stopped dithering in the cereal aisle at the grocery store.