You know choosing can be hard. I’ve written about it before from a few angles:
- Why are decisions hard?
- Difficult life decision? Here’s how to look at it.
- How to decide among close options
- A belief to choose without getting mired in indecision
Today I’ll give you a tool to simplify decision-making more with a way of visualizing the challenge that shows the hard part. Partly I’m following up on how I visualized emotions in the Passion-Attraction Model, which I recommend looking at if you like this post. I find modeling difficult things with visual representations makes them easier.
I’ll start simple and build complexity, leading to the more helpful insight as I develop the ideas.
A trivial choice
Not all choices are hard. If I asked you if you preferred I give you
- a penny or
- a hundred-dollar bill,
except in rare cases, you’d choose the hundred-dollar bill.
We can represent the choice like this, showing how much you like each choice.
Note that when you choose B, you have to give up A. Not all choices force you to give something up, but many do, as the -cide root of the word decide implies, as I wrote in Why are decisions hard?. Like in pesticide or insecticide, the root means cut or kill. Choosing forces you to cut off an option. Cutting off a penny in favor of a hundred dollars isn’t hard, but let’s see how that difficulty changes.
Giving up a penny in favor of a hundred-dollar bill, isn’t hard, but we’re just seeing how to represent the case.
A slightly harder but still easy choice
What if I offered you a choice between
- a twenty-dollar bill and
- a fifty-dollar bill?
Again, you’d choose the fifty-dollar bill. The choice isn’t much harder, but I’m just showing you have the graphs work. The bar for Choice A rose and the bar for Choice B shrank so the difference, while still large, decreased.
Giving up the twenty-dollar bill is harder than giving up the penny, but still easy compared to getting the fifty-dollar bill.
A hard choice
What if I gave you the choice between
- one thousand dollars today or
- two thousand dollars in a year?
The choice becomes less obvious. We can visualize it as follows
Their values seem harder to distinguish and giving up the other becomes harder. Unlike before, you might start thinking about what’s going on in your life, how things may change in a year, your values, and how each choice affects your life. I showed Choice B as slightly greater, but people with different values might have different-sized bars.
It’s still not so hard because either way you gain something and the stakes aren’t that great for most people.
A harder choice
The closer I make the choices, usually the harder they become. Consider you were buying a house and had to choose between
- one you liked, and
- the opportunity to buy a later one you might like more.
You can’t choose both and they have about equal value.
A harder choice
Raising the stakes makes choosing harder. Consider trying to choose between
- taking a good job now or
- going to graduate school, which might give you access to better jobs later.
Or choosing between
- trying to have a child today or
- waiting a few years.
Or do you decide
- to get married or
The plot below shows two choices with little value difference between them and both high.
Situations like this — high stakes with little difference between them — get you looking less at which option you prefer and more at what you lose by giving up the other. Whichever bar you choose, you give up one equally valuable.
Equal bars make you think as much about the one you don’t choose as much as the one you choose. Big equal bars make you think about both more. If you want to choose and get on with your life, dwelling on things doesn’t help your life.
A different kind of easy choice
Let’s relax again with another easy choice — one with low stakes. What if I offered you
- a dollar today or
- a dollar and ten cents tomorrow.
The choices are pretty even, but the main point is that the values are small.
If you choose the dollar ten tomorrow, you don’t spend most of your time today dwelling on how you much more you could have enjoyed today if only you had that dollar. By contrast with a previous choice, people who choose grad school might find themselves lamenting their choices if friends who kept working got fast promotions and raises. The bar you didn’t choose stays in your mind even after you gave it up.
Since the higher the stakes the more you think about the bar you’re losing, figure out ways to imagine the bars are smaller. Your values determine the size of the bars. Your emotions determine your values. You manage your emotions through your environments, beliefs, and behaviors.
In other words, you can make high-stakes decisions feel low-stakes, thereby improving your life, by changing your environments, beliefs, and behaviors. In my experience, changing beliefs works best, but it depends on the situation.
I’m not saying don’t care about each. After your choice you still have to live with your choices, but the smaller each bar feels when you choose, the easier your life and the more effectively you can choose based on your values instead of feeling stressed. After you choose you can go back to valuing the one you chose as much as you want.
Some people have hard times choosing between menu items at restaurants. If they don’t realize the control they have over how much they value apple tart versus cherry pie they can flip out. Or they can choose beliefs such that the choice doesn’t matter much.
Improving your life: the challenge for lesson 1
The challenge for lesson 1 to improve your life is to see how big of a choice you can make into not that big of a deal by changing your beliefs (or environments or behaviors). The bigger choices you can make simple the less stress you’ll have in your life and the more you’ll live in and enjoy the moment instead of thinking about the bar you gave up.
Can you do the opposite of people who lose their cool choosing dessert at a restaurant?
I remember what prompted me to work on simplifying choosing. In business school the second half of our second year, many classmates with multiple offers from different companies spent months dramatically trying to decide between Goldman and McKinsey or whatever their choices. They could have picked one, run with it by, say, preparing to start, and improved their lives. Few people’s lives improve by adding indecision and angst relative to taking responsibility and acting in their interests.
Another simple choice
In my case I found a process that makes one class of choices easier.
When two choices are close enough that I can’t choose between them, like this:
You might say a coin toss devalues the importance of choosing if the options are important, but I haven’t found that to happen. When two options barely differ and I have to pick one, I already know I have to give one up. I lose nothing by choosing randomly.
I should note that before flipping a coin I do my best to find reasons to favor one choice or the other. I flip the coin when I can’t resolve any further or when the resources (usually time) to get more information cost more than I expect the difference between the values of the choices.
Tomorrow I’ll look at choosing when you have multiple factors.
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