What to do if you don’t know what to do.

So where are we going to have lunch today?’

A seemingly easy question, that yet likely led to more cumulated hours of agonising than the decision who we’re going to marry and spent the rest of our life with.

‘What am I going to wear today?’

Many people spent way too much time every morning dwelling over this, most likely, not life changing question, rather than investing the time in a morning routine for example, which most likely, will affect their future life in a more explicit way.

‘Is he/she the right one?’

I think I don’t have to elaborate on this one. Read Shakespeare if you want to get into details.

This is a guide for a very common problem that too much people encounter on a daily basis: Indecisiveness.

You will find this phenomenon in all kind of areas of life and it even occurs most of the time in projectable repetitive daily routines. But why do most people not react? — which is also a decision, by the way. To analyse this phenomenon we should take a closer look at the very basics of what a decision problem is and the methods genius thinkers came up with to solve it:

In Economics this problem is categorised under decision theory, the analysis of the behaviour of an individual facing nonstrategic uncertainty. Decision theory depends on probability theory, which was developed by, most notably, Daniel Bernoulli back in the 18th century. His equation of expected value is quite simple: Allocate a measurable value to an option, then multiply it by the probability of its’ occurrence. Compare options and choose the product with the highest expected value. Sounds rational? It is! Well, maybe not for human beings but for computers having access to relevant information at any time and determining measurable values to different options. However this isn’t really applicable to common day problems, because humans are very bad in determining values to qualitative subjective values.

Let’s focus more on the question: What actually makes a decision hard?

Additional to uncertainty (the lack of information) there is variation, which can lead to highly biased decisions. People tend to seek more satisfaction in the certainty of available options rather than in internal conformity. This contributes to indecisiveness. Thus one common approach for a lot of people is to increase their amount of options in the current situation. However the subjective value of an option changes significantly if opposed to others. Retail stores use this effect by presenting different priced products placed side by side, ready to compare. Since the highest and lowest priced items affect the price behaviour, thus the buying decision of the consumer, he tends to choose the centric priced alternative, which is exactly the product the retailer wants you to buy.

The perceived luxury to choose from a variety of options can also lead to the opposite phenomenon:

Decision fatigue. The deteriorating quality of making beneficial decisions. People have limited self-control. Decision making is energy consuming and requires mental focus. This focus can be drained if opposed to a steady comparison to other options.

So what have we learned so far? People have one simple technique to deal with indecisiveness: Comparing options.

But how can you do that most effectively?

The solution here is structure. A structured decision making process leads to making better decisions. However it is hard for us to correctly determine values for different options, because we get biased by the very existence of other options. But there is a reason why we should stick to it anyways: Our brain is a learning machine and it learns the best, if it can rely upon a structured frame of decision making.

You now might think you make educated decisions because you spent a great amount of time comparing options, determining their values and structuring them. But be careful, your brain is very good at tricking you to believe you make rational decisions for the sake of actually coming to a decision. For more information about emotionally biased decisions, take a look at the sunk cost fallacy as a popular example. With all the emphasis put on making logical decisions, don’t get tricked by your brain and always take a step back — or take Richard Feynman’s advice:

The first principle is that you must not to fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Did we come to a conclusion yet? I don’t think so. Actually we have accumulated a big mess of decision theories, psychological biases, false estimations and structuring techniques, which don’t really give us a precise answer to how to make better decisions. We’ve mainly been surfacing on theories from fields of Economics and Psychology. In search of a solution, I thought replacing the main error constant, the human itself, with a less complex entity, an animal for example, would facilitate the problem. If you think about it, animals are making decisions very quickly because they mostly depend on it to survive. Most of them don’t have the ability to create future scenarios, because they simply lack the neocortex, which enables us humans to dwell into future planning and frequently loose sense for the present.

There certainly are exceptions, for example the time a female Chimpanzee takes to decide for the most promising mating partner or the decision of a Zebra to drink from one of the scarce water pools in the desert, exposing itself to the risk of getting eaten by a lurking crocodile. The time they take to make a decision often affects their future situation significantly, when not determines over life or death. In some cases spending time on decision making is necessary because the correlation of a false decision to fatality is so high.

We see that animals normally have to make very fast decisions. Applied to our decision dilemma we can conclude, that animals don’t have much time to spent on decision making because more options simply are not necessary to achieve their outcome of a decision. They’re focusing only on those options, which are necessary to solve their problem. Imagine you observe a car accident and you see an injured and unconscious person. The first thing you do is to check the person for living signals and immediately call the ambulance without hesitation. You don’t have other options at this time given the restriction of the high chance of fatality of the injured person.

So what can we learn from that?

The answer to every decision problem, as trivial as it may seem, is to decrease the amount of options in the given situation. And with that I mean particularly low value options, that affect the subjective value of an outcome insignificantly and will rather distract you from it.

Low value options are a huge time consumption and you want to avoid them at any cost. How to do that?

  1. Define the optimal outcome of your decision and your motivation as precise as possible. What do I want to achieve with this decision and why?
  2. Ask yourself every time whether a new option contributes to making your decision easier. If the answer is no, eliminate it.
  3. Scrutinise existing options, whether they are adding significant value to your decision goal. If the answer is no, eliminate them.

Like I mentioned before, there is one thing our brain is very good at: Learning. To become a better decision maker, simply start making more decisions. It not only makes it easier for you to handle future decisions. Your brain will compare new decision problems with past ones and automatically start making better ones.