Can You Make Impossible Decisions Possible?

Our ability to get in our own way is outrageous.

How easily can we be block our own actions! Rarely does it ever take large-scale emotional turmoil to end up with incapacitating mental paralysis.

The recipe to turn a harmless decision into a monster is quite simple: face several decisions at once.

When dealing with neatly separable choices, there’s a limit to how difficult the process can become. Only thing needs to to be attended to. The crucial factors can be assessed quickly; the problem can be defined.

Mayhem ensues when we’re faced with several decisions at once, especially if they’re interconnected.

The Curse Of Interconnected Decisions

If all other variables in your life are fixed, choosing a major at university is a difficult yet doable task.

You simply have to do some research on each potential subject, evaluate different pros and cons, and see how it all fits in the grand scheme of your life. Here, figuring the “grand scheme of your life” will your biggest challenge.

But what happens if choosing a major brings other significant life changes with it (in other word, if there will be second-order consequences to your decision)?

You start with three possible choices.

  1. Study a major at your home university
  2. Study a major at a university across the country
  3. Study a major that requires you move to London 

Consider the following

  • While studies in the United Kingdom clearly offer the brightest future for your career, they’re also the most expensive.
  • Your dad is kind of rich, but you had a fall-out several years ago. Therefore, choosing the most expensive university will also bring with it the necessity to ask him for money. 
  • Furthermore, you have a girlfriend or boyfriend. If you stay at your home university, everything is fine. If you move across the country, things might work out. But if you set out to live in another country it will be the end of you.
  • You could simply chose your home university. But you used to hang out out with people in your city that have a bad influence on you. Let’s name it: drugs! (*The purpose of this constraint is mostly to render the option unfeasible for the thought experiment.)

As we can see, the complexity of decisions often increases exponentially.

Complexity of decisions often increases exponentially

We often start with a simple decision, for example whether we should get a divorce or not.

But once we take all the second-order consequences into account, some of which are merely probabilities at this point, things can get complicated really fast. (What about the children? You like the house! Can you live without your spouses pancakes?)

When we add variables to our decision-making, a network effect tends to increase the challenge posed to our cognitive abilities.

Computing one scenario isn’t quite that difficult. But what if we face an intricate network of interrelated decision? 

How To Make Decisions Difficult

In most cases, the decision-making dilemma start with a single choice. Only then do the second-order (and perhaps even third-order) consequences become apparent.

Slowly, you discover more and more problems which result from each possible decision, making the meta-decision infinitely more complex.

Because of the overwhelming complexity, you might even end up  considering choices that weren’t even on the table to begin with.

But even when you’re at the brink of overwhelm, you still remember the choice that started it all. That was your primary decision. 

Taking our example from above it was the choice between three majors (which turned into universities and then three different lives). 

Let’s go back to that primary decision and have another look at it. (It often helps to pretend that none of the second-order consequences of that decision exist.)

Chances are that we had more clarity before we considered all the trickle-down effects of each choice.

Let’s say the expensive London university was the initial favorite. It was the clear winner when you first examined your possibilities. It just felt right.

Only then was your sense of clarity destroyed by additional variables.

For example, your partner told you that your relationship wouldn’t survive your moved. And then you realized that you would have to ask your dad for financial support. 

If you teleported yourself back to that first moment of clarity, you would know what to do. That second you imagined yourself studying in London (without your partner), you had your decision. 

Let’s say you already knew that your partner wouldn’t move abroad. If your relationship had absolute priority, you’d never imagined yourself living London in the first place. If it wasn’t for the money (or your dad’s money, in this case), you would have jumped at the opportunity without hesitation. 

So for an instance, you’ve already had your decision by the throat.

This doesn’t mean that a weighted analysis of the utility of the different options isn’t a great idea. But once a decision has become infinitely complex, it’s can be impossible to conduct a proper analysis of all the relevant factors. In this case, it helps to go back to the starting point.

Once a decision has become infinitely complex, it’s an be impossible to conduct a proper analysis of all the relevant factors. 

Especially if you’re higher in trait openness, you can easily imagine yourself being satisfied with all kinds of scenarios. That applies even if these scenarios contradict each other (hence openness). There may never be an ideal decision for you, but let’s try regardless.

Untangling Decisions

Making an intuitive leap based on the starting point has the potential to transcend decision paralysis. But before you pull the cord and go with an intuitive choice, maybe there is a another way.

As I’ve pointed out earlier, we can usually handle even complex decisions. It’s when different decisions start to interact that things become indefinitely difficult.

But they didn’t always interact. You allowed it to happen. It’s you who strung a bunch of decisions together in your mind. Therefore, you should be able to untangle them.

Let’s return to our example (that paralyzing mess) and break down the complex decision (where to move) into smaller components.

  1. Do you want to study at university A, B or C? 
  2. Do you want to stay together with your partner? Under which conditions and what priority does your partner have in relationship to other ares of your life?
  3. Will you be able to get the money to pay your tuition fees in London by yourself?
  4. Would you be able to get yourself to rekindle the relationship to your dad?
  5. If you stayed at your home university, would you be capable of staying out of trouble?

These are some of the essential questions you might want to ask yourself if you actually had to deal with the university-decision.

Systematic Decision Making

Even after decisions have become complex, they can often be reduced into different components. And when we separate them, navigation becomes much easier.

  • We’ve already established that your first choice was London. Problem: it’s expensive.
  • Let’s say your answer to the question whether you’d be able to get the money for London yourself is a clear no. (For whatever reason, you won’t have time to work during your studies, don’t have any savings, or aren’t eligible for any kind of grant.)
  • If that’s the case, the London-option ceases to exist unless you’re getting the money from your Dad. 
  • So now you’re faced with a crucial decision: are you going to ask him? If no, London is no longer an option. 
  • If yes, you need an action plan. Call your dad and ask for the money (or maybe have some small talk first). 
  • If you do all of that but your Dad says no, once again, London is disqualified. 
  • If he says yes, you can deal with the issue of your relationship. Is it realistic to stay together if you move (Yes/No)? If yes, under what conditions? 

Decision-making can be extremely difficult. But if you manage to turn it into a systematic process, it can even be somewhat satisfying. 

When we decide, we cut ourselves off from a possible future scenario and therefore one possible future self.

In other words, you’re sorting through a number of parallel universes, picking the one that suits you best. That’s what makes the task is so difficult. How could you possible chose between different lives?

But breaking things down into its components can reduce complexity.

Start Simplifying Early

As we move through the decision making process, the complexity of our choices increases as a function of time. More time to think equals more variables that influence the decision; it also means you can imagine more possible future outcomes. 

As we move through the decision making process, the complexity of our choices increases as a function of time.

A rule of thumb is therefore to make decision as fast as possible.

That’s not to say that you should buy a house the minute you see it, but once you have access to the most relevant information (80/20) your decision really won’t become that much better by waiting. 

If you continue to gather additional information, you’re likely to end up in paralysis. The more pieces there are to a puzzle, the more difficult it is to find the ones that should be at the center. 

How can you weight all the seemingly relevant factors if you can barely count them? 

The best moment to make a decision is as fast as possible once you’ve collected the most relevant information, double-checked it with somebody else, and had the time to sleep on it for one night.

The above rules stems from an observation that people often ignore: decisions accumulate over time. 

Decisions Accumulate

If you start with one decision, it usually increases in complexity over time. This is simply due to the nature of the human mind, which will always manage to find additional information that it considers relevant for a given choice. 

Furthermore, different decisions (which had nothing to do with each other to begin with), add up in our minds. They like to cause traffic jams there. 

But not only will we have to deal with the burden of a bigger number of decisions. 

The longer decisions linger together in the same place (your mind), the more likely they will start to develop connections between each other. Over time, two completely unrelated decisions can start to be tangled up, resulting in an increased cognitive load for the decision-maker. 

Over time, two completely unrelated decisions can start to be tangled up, resulting in an increased cognitive load for the decision-maker. 

If you wait too long to make your decision about the university-major, you might face a new problem (that comes with new decisions): you’re running out of money.

When you were an undergraduate, everything was taken care of by a scholarship.

Since you’ve been procrastination about your decision, you’re now forced to look for a job when you could really be in London for your masters already. Having to work, of course, brings with it a new set of choices that need to be dealt with.

Not only do we need to move fast to avoid increasing decision-complexity. We should also trey to keep the the total number of decisions small and make sure they don’t start to interact while they incubate.

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