Lesson 6: Rocks and Other Hard Places

At the beginning of a three-week holiday stay in San Diego, I wanted to buy some groceries at the supermarket around the corner. I made a list of all the things I needed and strolled over, planning to be back at my flat about 15 minutes later. Little did I know!

Photo: Mateo / www.youthphotos.eu
So what is your choice?

From the outside, the supermarket didn’t look that big, alas, on the inside it turned out to be huge. By then, I had only known the stereotypical tendency of the United States to make everything just a little bit bigger than normal (“little bit” probably being the understatement of the century here) from my experiences with my rental car (smallest on offer, yet big for German standards) and the highways (eight lanes and more through Los Angeles). However, the size of this supermarket was beyond anything I had previously experienced. And with the size came variety and choices. I spent about fifteen minutes alone in front of the refrigerated section with – get this – orange juices. There were literally meters and meters of shelf space with all sorts of concoctions, which – at first sight – all looked like, well, orange juice. With pulp or without, with added Calcium or without, made from concentrate, freshly squeezed or completely synthetic, with “2 dollars off “ my next purchase, in about ten different sizes, with or without the option to win free alligator rides in the Everglades. On the one hand I was thrilled with the sheer number of choices I was being offered – but on the other hand I suddenly found myself paralysed by the wish to make “the right choice”.

Does this sound familiar to you? Have you recently been faced with the need to make a decision – and somehow you couldn’t make up your mind?

Well, join the club. In life as in business, we find ourselves often faced with multiple options and have to decide which one to chose. Sometimes we are able to make up our minds quickly, but there are some decisions, which are harder than others. Often, the options involved in those difficult decisions tend to commit us to spending bigger sums of money or dedicating long periods of time to a specific project. Examples for these kinds of tricky decisions are renting a flat, choosing a subject at university or one’s first employer.

Before I share some advice on how to deal with those tricky situations, here are some thoughts on why we sometimes hesitate to decide. One reason might be that we haven’t really made up our minds on what is important to us. In other words, we haven’t properly defined the decision criteria. We start examining options before we have clearly decided on what to look for and how to judge its value to us. When this is the case, the more options we look at, the more confused we get and the more our initial goal gets obfuscated.

Sometimes, the difficulty to choose an alternative arises from the conviction that longer decision processes always yield better decisions. Our brain assigns a certain “value” to the amount of time the decision takes – and thus we are led to believe that we will be happier with the final choice. That may sometimes be the case, however, once the element of a deadline is introduced into the equation, this “choosing” really is “hesitating” and may lead to missed opportunities.

And there we have one of the main causes for our inability to decide: the fear of missed opportunities. More often than not, we want to have the cake and eat it. We don’t like to go for option A if that implies we will never enjoy the delights of options B, C and D. And that “perceived loss of experience” is sometimes held in higher regard that the necessity to choose. Hence, we hesitate, feeling unable to decide.

<table class="profileBox_right" style="width: 276px; height: 216px;" border="0" align="right"> <tbody> <tr> <td> <img src="UserFiles/Image/jor/jan onno reiners_small_square.jpg" alt="jan onno" width="120" height="120" /> <h2>jan onno reiners, PHD</h2> <p>Jan Onno Reiners works as executive coach, trainer and keynote speaker in Berlin. His background includes a PhD in biotechnology, seven years of strategic management consulting and improvisation theatre. Find out more about him and his work on <a href="http://www.jorhd.com">www.jorhd.com</a>.</p> </td> </tr> </tbody> </table>

Are there ways out of this decision dilemma? Yes, there are! Here are some perspectives on choosing.

First of all, it’s great to have choices! There are millions and millions of people on this planet who have no or very limited choices. It might be a good idea to be thankful and aware of the fact that you are in the comfortable position to choose. Yes, the choices to order your cappuccino low, middle, high or no fat (amongst others) might be a bit too much to stomach in the morning, alas, cherish the options you are given. They are the exception, not the rule on our planet.

Second, the finer you have tuned your selection criteria, the faster you will be able to decide – and the happier you are likely to be with your choice. What characteristics are really important to you (“deal breaker”), which ones are optional (“nice to have”) and which ones are totally unimportant. Sometimes, it’s good to revise your list of criteria after the initial draft, however, you should be able to nail down your “deal breaker” list quite quickly.

Third, regarding the point of “missed opportunities”, sometimes options may initially seem mutually exclusive when, actually, they are not. I just recently experienced this phenomenon with a coaching client who – regarding career choices – was convinced he had to chose between options A, B and C. In the coaching session, he quickly discovered that he could actually pick option A and simultaneously could collect more data on options B and C while fine-tuning his decision criteria.

Sometimes, it also helps to discuss the various options with a friend (or a coach). You can argue the benefits of the options you have, while your friend argues against them. It can be interesting to have a friend explore the real downsides of options, since we tend to underplay the negatives of options we initially like.

Finally, if you think you still cannot make up your mind – number your options, then toss a coin, throw a dice, or take the last digit of the number plate of the next car passing you by. I am not kidding. Pick that option – and then closely examine how that makes you feel. If it’s fine with you, go for it. However, if you suddenly discover discomfort with this “randomly picked option”, have another good look at your criteria. You may have overlooked something – or maybe you have already made your choice without realising it?

So what did I do when faced with the decision between a rock and a hard place … or rather “with pulp, alligator included” compared to “strong bones, 2 bucks off”? I remembered that originally, I simply wanted to buy orange juice, freshly squeezed, and that my bones were fine. So I got the “family sized” pack of simple orange juice. And then went on to face the fifteen meters of breakfast cereal choices …

Have a nice day!

PS: I want this column to continue to be relevant to you, my readers, and therefore I would welcome your input: What questions would you like to see addressed in future instalments?

Recommended reading:

“Predictably Irrational” (Dan Ariely’s wonderful book on behavioural economics – fun to read and very surprising insight into our ever so non-rational decisions)

“Smart Choices” (John S. Hammond et al. present a great overview over ways to improve one’s decision making in business)

“You’ve Got Mail” (DVD – watch out for the scene where Tom Hanks’ character expands on the virtues of quick decision making at Starbucks)

Photo on first page: Mateo/ www.youthphotos.eu

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