investing time in small decisions

Published on April 13, 2020

There are only so many blocks of time we get in each day.

I recently read a post on “Wait But Why” where Tim Urban said that we get “100 blocks” each day. Those blocks each last ten minutes, and are moments which we can delegate to a specific task. Watching an episode of Billions takes up five blocks, because it lasts fifty minutes. Working for six hours takes up thirty-six blocks.

At the weekend, I started to think more about how I spent my blocks, and I realized that I spend too many of these blocks in a state of decision paralysis. Decision paralysis is where I am overthinking situations. Maybe I am doing too much research on alternative options. Or maybe I am procrastinating before making a final decision. Anything that is not making a decision, or doing legitimate research toward making a decision, is time spent in paralysis.

In many cases, decision paralysis is warranted, especially those where there is a lot on the line. I don’t know about you, but I would not make the decision to move to another city without first considering my options in depth. It could take me a week to arrive at a decision, or a month, but I know that I would not make that type of decision in a day.

There are other decisions where this level of analysis about your decisions is not appropriate. On Saturday, I was spending time thinking about what podcast to listen to on Sunday morning. I like to listen to a podcast on my weekend mornings because it helps me start my day on a good note, and so I like to make sure I choose the right decision.

On this particular Saturday, it took me hours to arrive at a decision about what podcast to listen to, and in the end I did not even end up listening to a podcast. When it came time to actually listen to a podcast, I realized that I wanted to read an article instead, and so I did that rather than listen to a podcast.

Making this decision did not take away hours from my day, but it did sit in the back of my mind for a while. I kept thinking, “well, maybe there is a better option out there.” I allowed myself to do more research than was necessary, and to make a bigger deal out of this decision than it otherwise would have deserved.

Now I realize I was experiencing the fear of a better option, a term coined by the venture capitalist Patrick J. McGinnis. I was so obsessed with making the right choice that I forgot about the importance of only delegating a certain amount of time to making a decision. Spending two minutes to choose a podcast is fine, but not a few hours.

I have now come up with a rule to help prevent me from entering this situation again. When I am making a decision, the amount of time I spend making it should not exceed a reasonable period of time relative to the measured impact of the decision. So, if I have 20 minutes to listen to a podcast, I should never be thinking about what podcast I’ll listen to for more than ten minutes. That’s still a long time, but it’s better than a few hours.

This is a simple rule. Don’t spend too much time making decisions. But I prefer it that way, because it is easy to remember. If I enter a situation where I know I am spending more time making a decision than I should, then I will either flip a coin or just wait and see how I feel about the decision in the moment (like I did with the podcast on Saturday).

The key is to notice when I am spending too much time making a decision, then try to break out of the loop as soon as possible.

In addition, I am going to double down on my habits and build more solid routines where I see opportunities to do so. I have written in the past about how routines keep me grounded, and this is a point I want to emphasize. Routines reduce the amount of time I have to spend making decisions, thus freeing up time to spend on more fruitful activities.

Next weekend, I am going to listen to an episode of either Planet Money or Business Wars, if I want to listen to a podcast at all. Instead of allowing myself to search through Pocket Casts for a new show, I am going to limit my options to those two. When I practice this enough, it will become a routine. If there’s a good episode of Planet Money out, I’ll listen to it, and otherwise, I’ll tune in to Business Wars.

Small decisions like what podcast I listen to on a weekend morning or what snack I have before bed are inconsequential in the grand scheme of my life. As a result, they should only be given a reasonable amount of thought relative to their impact. I have already automated what snack I eat before bed -- cheese and crackers -- but there are still opportunities to go further and eliminate more of these small decisions.

If all else fails, I’ll flip a coin.

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