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This is the third in a series of posts about the psychology of making good decisions in the contexts of life in our twenties and thirties. In the first post we talked about the good and bad things of having much more freedom after college. In the second post we talked about the cost associated with an abundance of opportunities. In this post we will discuss how with every opportunity there is a cost and the more choices we explore, the worse we can feel about our decisions.
While many times it seems like the overwhelming number of choices today makes it impossible to know if you’re making a good decision, Barry Schwartz has come up with a number of psychological techniques that you can use to help narrow down your options and increase the satisfaction of the decisions you do make.
Set Limits on Your Choices
One way you can manage an excessive number of choices is by learning to set limits on the options you look at. It’s almost automatic to think, “The more choices I have, the better off I will be.” However, you have seen how the more options you look at, the more likely you will be unhappy about the choices you make due to opportunity costs and regret. Therefore, it can be healthy for you to set limits on the number of options you look at when trying to make a decision.
After discussing this idea with Deborah, a twenty-eight-year-old from Washington, DC, she told me that even though she didn’t consciously think about it at the time, limiting her options made her feel more satisfied about some of the major decisions she has made since leaving college. “When I was looking for teaching jobs, I applied to one in DC and one in Virginia, then chose the one I liked better.
"When I was searching for an apartment, I looked at two places then decided on the one I liked the best. I think because I spent time only looking at a few choices, I’ve been happier with my decisions because I didn’t wonder about other jobs or apartments. Instead, I’ve spent my time enjoying my current job and apartment and focusing more on the good things about the decisions I made. This is not to say that I won’t look for other jobs or a new apartment in the future. It just means I didn’t waste time worrying about all the other options out there.”
This may sound counterintuitive, but when you learn to restrict your options, you will limit the amount of extra energy you spend on looking at too many choices. By figuring out which choices really matter to you and which are less important, you can focus more time and energy on those decisions whose outcome can bring you happiness and fulfillment.
This is not to say that when you are making a decision you shouldn’t think about the alternatives. Ignoring opportunity costs can sometimes lead you to overestimate how good the best option is, so it’s still good to look at some options—just maybe not all of them. Keep in mind that the more you think about other choices, the more opportunity costs there will be and the less satisfaction you will derive from whatever you finally decide upon.
Make Your Decisions Nonreversible
Whenever you leave yourself the option to easily change your mind about a decision, you are giving yourself an incentive to constantly think about all the other options out there, which will cause you to become less satisfied with your initial decision. However, when you say to yourself that a decision is final, you engage in a variety of psychological processes that enhance your feelings about the choice you made relative to the alternatives. Knowing that you’re going to stick to that one choice allows you to pour more energy into improving the decision that you’ve made rather than worrying about changing it and constantly second-guessing yourself.
Now, what if the job you choose to work at is horrible or you got into a bad relationship? Should you make these decisions nonreversible? Of course not. At one point a close friend of mine hated his first job out of college (along with a huge number of twentysomethings), and he told me that looking for other jobs made him feel better about his current one because it gave him hope that something better was out there. So the advice above does not mean that you should stick to a decision even if it’s making you miserable. Rather, if the decision you made satisfies you, then stick with your choice and make the best of it.
Eliminate “If Only” From Your Vocabulary
Another good technique you can use is eliminating the psychological trap of saying, “If only …” about your decisions. When things are not going great, it’s easy to start saying things like, “If only I had gotten into a better school, I would be a better job candidate,” or “If only I had worked on my resumé more or practiced my interviewing skills more, I would have gotten a better job.”
Sure, it can be good to think over events that have happened to you, recognize what you did wrong, and learn from the experience. However, if you continue to say to yourself, “If only…,” you are setting yourself up for an emotional roller coaster and major regret.
When you regret something, it’s often appropriate to feel like things would be better if certain aspects of your life were different. This is perfectly natural and in fact provides a great opportunity to learn from the situation. However, if it becomes so prominent in your psyche that it prevents you from making important decisions in your life, you will have to make a conscious effort to minimize this way of thinking.
One way to do this is by limiting the number of options you consider before making a decision. You can also make sure you appreciate the good things about the decision you do make rather than focusing on what is bad about it.
One of the most important ways you can help yourself become more satisfied with your decisions is understanding that any single decision, in and of itself, rarely has the power to completely transform your life the way we sometimes think it will. It’s too easy to think, “Everything would have been so different if I had studied harder and gone to my dream school or gotten more experience in college.” The reality is that life doesn’t work like that. You have to work with what you have now and use the past as fuel to push you forward.
Cultivate the Habit of Gratitude
Schwartz told me that one of best ways you can increase your satisfaction with your decisions is by learning to become grateful about what you have as a result of the choices you’ve made instead of focusing on what you don’t have. When you think about possible alternatives, you can trigger dissatisfaction with the choices you have made. But with practice, you can learn to reflect on the good things in your life, which will make your day-to-day experiences better.
An easy way to do this is by keeping a journal at your bedside and each morning or at night write down the things that happened the day before or during the day that you’re grateful for. You can write down anything, like a good day at work, a job promotion, or meeting an interesting person, or small things such as a crisp blue sky, coffee with a friend, or a good meal. While it may seem a little silly to do, on a conscious and subconscious level your mind will soon make a shift in what it focuses on, allowing you to keep a greater awareness of the positive things in your life while moving the negative things to the background.
A great quote from one of my favorite books, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, sums it up perfectly: “… when each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.”
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