Don’t Fall Into “Decision Quicksand.”

I’m always gratified when I learn that one of my Secrets of Adulthood reflects not merely my idiosyncratic experience, but also has some science behind it.

For instance, one of my Secrets of Adulthood is: Most decisions don’t require extensive research.

I came up with this Secret of Adulthood to remind myself not to squander my time and energy on decisions that don’t matter very much.

Over the weekend, I read a short piece about a study that showed that “Decisions that are complicated but trivial…cause an inordinate amount of wasted time and unhappiness.” The researchers call this “decision quicksand” because we can get sucked in, and drown, in these trivial choices.

Surprisingly often, I need to remind myself not to spend too much time on relatively unimportant decisions. Even though I don’t want to spend my time and energy this way, it takes a considerable amount of self-awareness and self-control to resist the temptation.

The satisficer/maximizer split seems relevant here. As Barry Schwartz explains in his fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, there are two types of decision makers. Satisficers (yes, “satisficers” is a word) make a decision once their criteria are met; when they find the hotel or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Maximizers want to make the best possible decision; even if they see a bicycle that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until they’ve examined every option.

Studies suggest that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers expend more time and energy reaching decisions, and they’re often anxious about their choices. They find the research process exhausting, yet can’t let themselves settle for anything but the best.

I’m a satisficer, and I often felt guilty about not doing more research before making decisions. In law school, one friend interviewed with fifty law firms before she decided where she wanted to go as a summer associate; I think I interviewed with six. We ended up at the same firm. Once I learned to call myself a “satisficer,” I felt more satisfied with my approach to decision-making; instead of feeling lazy and unconscientious, I could call myself prudent. Now I can also remind myself not to get sucked into “decision quicksand” for decisions that don’t deserve that much attention.

Do you find yourself spending too much time and energy on unimportant decisions? The internet can make this problem worse, because information seems so limitless.

* There’s a very thought-provoking post about introverts and happiness over on Susan Cain’s The Power of Introverts blog.

* Get a happiness quotation in your email inbox every morning — sign up for the Moment of Happiness. I love quotes! Subscribe here or email me at gretchenrubin1@gretchenrubin.com.

  • Steve Strother

    Thank you for publishing this great article and for tweeting about it today. I had a rough draft in my mind for a blog post I was planning to write about my own experiences with making decisions and this article fits right in and even helps explain some of the issues with decision making I have found myself to have. I am also a satisficer for most decisions but I agonize over some bigger decisions (especially when it comes to new ideas or my writing) and I have realized very recently that I would be better off approaching things more from the satisficer perspective. I plan to include some of this info you provide within my blog post (along with links to this article). Love it!

    Steve

  • Aisha

    I believe I am now a satisficer, but I used to be a maximiser. While at university, I had a lot of time during the days to do whatever I wished and it allowed me to browse a lot before deciding anything. Now, I keep my finger on the pulse more so I have a better feel as to what is out there, but I make decisions quickly. I wonder if this still makes me a maximiser though?

  • Non

    definately doesn’t reside in the Y, I’m female and don’t know anyone who agonises over and over-researches decisions more than me whether it be deciding what toilet paper to buy or deciding where to move to. It’s horribly arresting.

  • Marie

    I know this is an old post, but I’m hoping you still look at the comments from time to time. 🙂

    I know you’ve written a lot about recognizing and accepting your natural preferences and setting up your environment to permit those preferences as much as possible.

    I’m wondering if you might examine (sometime! in some medium!) how mental disorders (kind of as an aspect of a dysfunctional environment) can make it difficult to identify one’s preferences.

    I have ADHD, and it has taken stimulants, a deep commitment to daily yoga, and several bouts of cognitive behavioral therapy to even figure out what makes me happy — ADHD fights against what would otherwise be my tendencies. For example, I am a lawyer, and I like to work in that stereotypically introverted style: writing, with deep concentration, in solitude and complete quiet, for hours at a time. It’s not just that I admire people who work this way; I feel deep satisfaction when I manage it. But in most circumstances, I find this impossible.

    There are many more ways that I observe my mental limitations and my happiness-maximizing preferences interact; I’m sure others with mental disorders (and probably those with physical limitations) have their own tales to tell.