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The one sentence you need to know to decide anything

By Leigh Newman, Oprah.com
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Wed June 27, 2012
Making decisions doesn't need to be stressful
Making decisions doesn't need to be stressful
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Most people fall between two decision-making extremes: deciding too quickly, or not at all
  • We can't know if our decisions are good or bad until we commit to them
  • Any decision-making style can work as long as we don't make decisions fearfully

(Oprah.com) -- Out there in the vast, discombobulating world, I've noticed, there tend to be two types of decision makers. I bet you can tell me which of the two you are in about 3.48 seconds.

Me? I'm a gunslinger. I make decisions so fast you can blink and you won't see my choice. Which is exactly what I want to happen. I want the choosing to go down immediately -- bang! -- because I am terrified of not knowing what will happen and of not doing, in general. In fact, the wrong choice is preferable to doing nothing at all and simply considering all the options, because if I've ended up executing that wrong choice, at least I get to feel regret instead of panic.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is my husband -- let's call him Lawrence, which is his name. He is a Rip Van Winkle. He will sit under a tree with a decision for years. He doesn't want to make the wrong one, no sir. He will just leave the store without any milk if he is not sure if we need the blue or red carton. He will take five years (oops, make that six) to build a deck because he could not or would not choose between a wooden or metal support structure.

When he does decide, he is usually happy with his decision. But unfortunately, time may have lurched on. The kids have already eaten peanut butter off spoons for breakfast because there was no milk for cereal. The permit for building the deck expired after 90 days.

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In the great gamut of decision making, most people fall somewhere between these two extremes. Regardless of your exact type, however, knowing how to game yourself is key -- as I found out last month when confronted by three concurrent situations that not only required me to make up my mind but also led me to the one sentence I need to repeat to myself before making any decision for the rest of my life.

(The sentence is not here, but it's coming, promise.)

Here is what happened: A few months ago, I was nominated by my family to find a money person. Our old money person was our accountant. He is cheap and loving, and he knows our whole fiscal history, as well as the names of our kids. Unfortunately, he is also slow and a little lazy. He doesn't follow through. This is not fun when you're middle class and trying to save money for two future college tuitions and a retirement in the town where you live -- not the cheaper, very far away town where you know nobody and don't speak the language.

A coworker suggested I talk to her money guy. This new guy was quick, efficient, professional. He did not sit at his desk with a jar of mini-Snickers, methodically popping them into his mouth as I tried to remember how much I spent on a laser printer last year. My instinct was to say: "Great! Let's go! New guy does our money! And insurance! Problem solved." And yet knew I was going too fast.

As I sat in the waiting room, I thought of a game (note to reader: We will never, ever tell Lawrence that we play this game). I asked myself the question "What would Lawrence do?"

Instead of dumping the old guy and signing up the new one, Lawrence would put all kind of annoying obstacles in the new guy's path. Like calling him three days later and asking for his references. Like going in and asking him a lot of questions about tax codes. Like grilling his receptionist, quietly, about her boss ("Does he pay his own bills? Did he treat you with respect? Does he bring his own self-sufficient, thrifty lunch?").

I did these things -- simply to slow down the process and not be myself. Interestingly enough, I learned that friends raved about the new money guy, that he had earned his receptionist better-than-average returns on her portfolio and that he ate Traders Joe's bean burritos for lunch ($2 a pop). Which is when I realized I was ready to decide on the new guy.

Yes, my way of slowing down was to gather information. But you could do anything to impede the process: sleep on it for three nights, talk to a money-savvy friend, interview another candidate, read a book on investing. You'd get the same benefit—time to discover and understand issues that you wouldn't have otherwise considered.

If what keeps you going so fast is the fear of doing nothing, then slowing down is perfect. You're still doing something, just something called "not deciding...yet!" And, by the way, you will not actually be going slowly (just as a slow person playing -- for some unfathomable reason -- What Would Leigh Do? would not actually be going fast). You will just be going a bit slower. In other words, less fast—and that much closer to just right.

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As I sat at home, glittering with my newfound semi-wisdom, bragging to myself about my slowness, a brick fell on my head. Perhaps you already know this brick. Perhaps it's just something that people the world over know, like "Parents are people too" or "Elementary school musicals are excruciatingly bad." But I'm just going to blurt it out: There's only one thing that defines a bad decision: fear.

(This is still not the sentence, but it's coming; we are very, very close...)

Let's go through the greatest hits of regrettable choices: The time you chopped off all your long, beautiful brown hair before the prom because you were afraid of looking dated and churchy. The time you stayed with the guy you didn't love because you were afraid of upsetting your parents and hurting the guy's feelings. The time you picked the apartment that was way, way, way outside of town near a hospital for the criminally insane because you were afraid that—even with a great, well-paying full-time job—you couldn't swing the place near the café and the public garden.

Thankfully, fear is easy to identify. We all know what fear feels like. It doesn't feel like doubt or uncertainty ("Hmm, I'm not sure which is the best option for me"). It feels like a ghost is hurtling itself through your brain, knocking books off shelves and breaking vases and destroying all human logic in its path. ("OhmygodIdon'tknowwhattodoOhmygodIdon'tknowwhattodo!"). It also will make you go too fast ("I'm afraid of not doing!") or too slow ("I'm afraid of doing anything!").

So I decided, let's make a rule -- for us all, everywhere, no matter what our decision-making type. Whenever we feel a shudder or tremble of fear, we're no longer allowed to decide. We can sit and whistle. We can pray or pet a dog. We can eat a fried fish taco (but only one). We can struggle, wail, deny the issue, whine, curse and bore everyone we know with the ins and outs of the dilemma. But only when we can re-approach the choice without that particular feeling, then -- and only then -- can we make the decision.

This may mean we'll miss some opportunities. But we'll also miss all the inevitable and predictable disasters that occur only when we're choosing because we're terrified of what might happen (or what hasn't happened yet...or what could actually happen if we just went ahead and did the one thing we actually want to do).

Which....drumroll...leads to me the million-dollar sentence. When I read the newspaper or, more accurately, a grocery-store tabloid with Beyoncé on the cover, I do believe I am the last person on earth who still considers a million dollars is big-time money. But I was born in the 1970s, back before the invention of the top 1 percent.

So indulge me, if you will—because this little sentence can change your life; this little sentence can cut your fear in half (and thus the time you'll spend being afraid and not allowed to decide anything); this sentence you must write in very tiny letters on a piece of paper and shove in your pocket, just in case.

Now, this sentence is not for use in life-and-death situations. If you're hanging off the edge of a hot-air balloon and you're not sure whether you should try to swing your leg up and plop yourself back into the basket (that is, if you don't plummet to the ground) or keep on hanging on by your fingertips in hopes that your napping buddy might hear your cries and pull you back in—do not use this sentence. This sentence applies only to non-fatal situations, because this sentence is:

Most decisions can be undone.

The power of these five words should not be underestimated. First off, if you're making the decision, say, between two elementary schools for your child (the challenging hardcore neighborhood one versus the loving but totally disorganized charter) and you realize as you are choosing "Hey if we pick the wrong school, we can always go back to the other school," then you're not going to be as tense and hysterical about the process.

But this is not enough, because you will then say, "What if we can't go back to other school? What if all the slots fill up?" And right then, you will be at fear, and you already have a rule about that. So, how else can you undo this decision if you can't go back to your previous alternative choice? Is there another school? Can you move to a better district? Can you get your child a scholarship to someplace private that you might not have considered?

There is a way to undo it. There is always a way, and once you understand that, you're not going harass parents whom you don't know by the entrance of both schools, begging them to tell you what to do. You're not going to shake your husband awake in the middle of night -- asking him to read the brochures one more time.

The truth is, you will never know if a decision is a good or bad one until you actually commit to a choice. In so many ways, the idea of making a decision is an illusion. It makes you feel as if you've done something, when in fact, the real action -- and answer -- is in the deciding.

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At times, absolutely, undoing the choice maybe painful. After two short weeks of living in Florida, you may move back home and have to buy your old house back at a horrible loss or rent a creepy, moldy temporary apartment. It may be hard, really hard, and it may cost you.

Or it may just be slightly embarrassing. For example, should you go into the principal's office and politely decline his offer of a seat for your son, only to exit the office, stand in the hall and experience prickles up and down and all over your body as a small dark voice says "No!" -- then charge into the office once again and take it all back and say, "Please, please let my son go to your wonderful challenging nearby hardcore school! I will run the book fair with you! I will be the class parent!" (Okay, I admit it, this "you" is me).

Or it may be that after your cut off your hair, choose your new money man or move to Florida, you may just feel at peace for the first time in your life. You won't know until you commit all the way, and that's what decisions are for, to usher us into the possibilities of life -- and allow us to move into the disorientation of the change at a slightly different pace, with slightly less fear and a bit more perspective. The choice to of approach each one as it comes up, thankfully, is yours.

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