Think Twice before Making Choices


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Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy.

Except that this is vastly complicated by what’s known as the paradox of choice. The daily bombardment with choice appears to expand our options, only to undermine this idea, by repeatedly confronting us with one ineluctable decision-making dilemma: the good choice vs. the bad choice. The decisions we make have taken on an essentialising life of their own: they are seen to reflect the kind of person that we are. They have become about identity, rather than action. And therefore, our attention has shifted away from the material outcomes of our decisions, and towards a precarious emotional realm. Good vs. bad choices translate into self-congratulation vs. self-blame. The struggle of “What if I’d chosen differently?” is real.

Happiness psychologists are increasingly paying attention to the pros and cons of making choices in a world that claims to have dispelled the ‘tyranny of the other’ by offering us more and more choice. But research is revealing how choice doesn’t necessarily make us happy. “Free choice” (which I will define as a decision emanating from within, free from external pressures and demands) is an illusion: our understanding of how to make it through life is interpolated by unreliable news, subjective advice, failed politics, economically-driven institutions, slanted relationships, and the cultural mantra that it’s down to you, the individual, to get it right.


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Although choice has the potential to enhance our self-esteem, empowerment, and individual potential, many of us never realise these opportunities because our self-advancement is stunted by decision anxiety and decision fatigue. The problem with infinite choice is that it justifies procrastination, encouraging a pain-staking evaluation of all of the options, suspending your decision. Instigating a strategy of now – setting a timescale for making a choice – prevents a decision from taking on epic proportions, containing it to a specific moment in time.

Will power, creativity, and empathy… these attributes are available to us in finite amounts. They hold a certain economic value, which, once spent out, leave us emotionally and intellectually underfinanced. The strategy of economy is about prioritising: diverting our decision-making capital to important choices, and eliminating the unnecessary expenses of avoidable choices. Rules can help in prioritising and thus limit the effort you expend. Rules, once made, take decisions on your behalf and limit room for negotiation. Deciding to only go out on Fridays or Saturdays, to only eat cake when it’s someone’s birthday, to attend all lectures,– these non-negotiable rules, however draconian they may seem at first, can offer respite from the daily bartering of “Should I?” or “Shouldn’t I?”. Boundaries give us clearly demarcated paths to follow, and so the only remaining choice is whether to follow or ignore the rules you set for yourself. Even the rule-making decision in itself is empowering; its ongoing ability to forefront what really matters radically enhances your decision-making experiences.

The strategy of forgiveness is more a state of mind, than a course of action. The emotional repercussions of ‘making the wrong choice’ are often more monumental than the outcomes of a ‘bad decision’. If you do give in to a particularly tempting slice of rocky road, splash out on an unjustified (but secretly thrilling) purchase of a new pair of Timberlands, or fail to make it to your 9am because the hailstorm seemed like pathetic fallacy, the best thing you can do is to forgive yourself. The irony is that by beating yourself up about these choices, your potential to draw on your willpower in future scenarios takes a greater blow than your diet, budget, or seminar participation mark will have from the one-off error. Willpower holds an enormous amount of latent potential, but to realise it, requires a certain amount of confidence. Forgiveness has a restorative power, allowing you to recover from a bad decision, and make better choices going forwards.

There may be no escaping from the daily bombardment of choices, options and decisions to be made, but certainly, we could all do with thinking twice before making up our minds.

Emma Pudge

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