Sometimes we over-complicate our decisions by keeping them too simple. We view choices in terms of two polarized options, and often find ourselves dissatisfied with both. Then we spend hours, or longer, trying to determine which list of evils we might somehow be able to tolerate.
But decisions don’t necessarily have to be that way. More often than not, we really do have more than two options. If we expand our decisions by adding choices “c” and “d” to our original “a” and “b,” we may find an option that’s far better than tolerable.
The tricky part is identifying those alternate choices. Most of the time, the best options will not be the most obvious. Finding them requires creativity, and an understanding of where to look.
Don’t Look for “c” where you found “a” and “b.”
Usually, when we are faced with a seemingly black-and-white decision, our two choices aren’t options we have invented independently. We often only see two options because someone else has presented the decision to us in those terms. For instance, if we are discussing budgeting with our partner, they might say, “We can afford either a new dishwasher or a new couch.” If this happens, we are likely to focus entirely on picking between those two options. In the process, we completely miss other ideas, such as cutting down on entertainment costs, getting a loan, or selling our old possessions so we could purchase both items.
The appearance of limited options may not always result from an explicit choice someone presents to us, however. Sometimes we also find ourselves trapped by our assumptions about “normal” or “common” ways to go about life. For example, we may feel we have to pick between starting a family and building a career because we frequently hear stories about people sacrificing one for the other. In reality, the “lonely, career-driven woman,” and the “family man whose kids cost him a job” are just stereotypes. There are many middle grounds between those two extremes.
Finding the route that will make us happiest requires deviating from our preconceived ideas about the options open to us. It also requires facing the challenge of developing new alternatives.
New options can be created from the best elements of our original choices.
Sometimes the simplest way to find an ideal option is to combine the things we like about our other choices. For example, consider the decision of whether to go out for dinner or cook a meal at home. We might want the freedom to stay in our current un-showered, pajama-wearing state (a point in favor of cooking at home), but also want the convenience of not having to prepare our own food. If we combine those options, we might come up with the additional ideas of ordering delivery, begging a friend to bring us food, or scrounging in our freezer for something quick and microwaveable.
New options can also be found by completely abandoning our original ideas.
When we find ourselves stuck with two options that seem to have no redeeming features, sometimes it is best to look for new options in a totally different direction. Take the decision of whether to spend date night at the movies or a sporting event, for example. If none of the movies appeal to us, but we know our significant other gets bored watching sports (and we dragged them to a game last weekend), it may seem like we are destined for an unsatisfying date. But wait, maybe we could change “date night” to “date day” and visit the beach, or Disneyland, or the zoo, or the park.
Once we learn not to limit ourselves to the obvious options sitting right in front of us, we open ourselves up to a whole world of possibilities. And out of all those possibilities, we stand a pretty good chance of finding at least one to get excited about.