Does this sound familiar?
I’m starving—like eat my shirt starving. I see a local Mexican joint and casually sprint towards it. After waiting in line for 3 agonizing minutes as the annoying person in front of me tries to decide to get steak or chicken in their burrito, it is finally my turn!
Guy: Bowl or burrito?
Guy: Pinto or black beans?
Guy: Chicken, beef or veggie?
Guy: Mild or spicy salsa?
Guy: Do you want to add guacamole?
Me at this moment
At most Mexican places the guacamole costs extra – like 50 cents or a dollar. Not much, but extra nonetheless. As a bootstrapped entrepreneur, I used to always be thrown into a tizzy of guilt and apprehension about stupid guacamole. In restaurants I became that annoying person who didn’t know what they wanted. My mind raced with this kind of back and forth:
Two minutes later I would make a decision based on how much cash was in my wallet and how hungry I was. Here is the worst part: I always set myself up to lose.
- If I got the guacamole I had buyer’s remorse and worried it was an indulgence.
- If I didn’t get the guacamole I had loss aversion and felt like I missed out on that creamy green goodness.
Basically, I was setting myself up for failure. Failure ordering. Failure eating. Failure of enjoyment.
After one of these experiences I realized how much energy I was wasting on this decision and many others just like it. There are three forces at play here:
#1: Decision Paralysis
I once read that President Obama wears the same suit every day because he doesn’t want to have to make even one more decision during the day. He already makes thousands of decisions so he eliminated one small one. Your ability to make decisions is a muscle. Every time you make a decision, no matter how small it exercises the muscle. I noticed that the guacamole decision was even harder on a day that was particularly busy. Why? My decision muscle was tired. I decided to start to think about the questions:
What decisions can I eliminate?
- What decisions am I making over and over and over again?
- Which of these decisions can I make ahead of time?
- Can I make any blanket decisions?
A Blanket Decision: A decision that carries forward as the answer for all circumstances.
So I sat down and made a decision day. I listed out tons of decisions I make on a daily basis and then spent time weighing the pros and cons of each. If you do this once well, you do not need to do it again. Then I ended with a few blanket decisions. Let’s see how this works with guacamole:
Conclusion: The amount of extra enjoyment it gives me in a meal is far more than the incremental extra cost.
Bonus: If I’m not making enough money to afford guacamole, the guacamole isn’t the problem.
And this is when I decided that from now on: I will always order the guacamole. I made a bunch of other blanket decisions on that day as well and continue to have decisions days for myself once a year. I have these in my business as well. Like:
- I do not say yes to ‘Pick Your Brain’ calls and coffees.
- I do not answer unknown numbers.
- I always order wifi on flights.
- Do you round up or down on tips? Decide now to save yourself the agony.
- Do you stop for street canvassers? Decide now to prevent an impulse decision.
- Do you say yes when a McDonalds employee asks you if you want to supersize it?
Do a decision day. Think about the decisions you make every day. Make some blanket ones and save yourself the time and energy.
#2: Guilt Forgiveness
This experience also made me realize that guilt is a waste of energy. The worst part was that I was guilty if I said yes and I was guilty if I said no. I never let myself win! Guilt is an emotion that we usually cannot control—but sometimes we can. Think about the last few times you have felt guilty. Were they legitimate? Did the guilt help? After my decision day I realized I had to slowly start letting go of guilt too. I did this with guacamole, but I have also applied it to other areas of my life as well.
- When I was 14 years old I forgot my Mom’s birthday. I felt sooooooo bad! She was a gem and didn’t make a big deal about it (which actually made me feel worse). I swear to you, I have been carrying around guilt about that ever since. Every single year on her birthday I feel guilty. Enough! This doesn’t help me. It doesn’t help her. It’s a waste.
- Its hard to eat healthy when I travel. And I travel a lot. Sometimes airports I am in are so small there is no food options but vending machines (Santa Fe!). I used to feel guilty about the junk food. But then I realized—why? I literally had no other choices. Me feeling guilty only makes it worse. I might as well enjoy the junk food since I have no other option and move on with my life. New rule: Junk food is allowed and enjoyed—when there are no other options.
Think about when and why you feel guilty. Now re-evaluate the guilt. Is it still worth it? Make some new rules. Let things go. Move on.
#3: Energy Is Not Infinite
I frequently worry that I worry too much. Yes, I do understand the irony in that statement. If you are a fellow worrier, you know how exhausting it can be to circle around an issue over and over again in your head. But do you know it also takes up valuable time and energy?
It is very clear that time is finite. You have 24 hours in a day. 60 minutes in an hour. 60 seconds in a minute. So I am ruthless with my time efficiency. I like to maximize every second. However I never used to apply this to energy. Specifically, mental energy. Time I spend worrying. Time I spend ruminating. Time I spend in anxiety. Time spent in guilt. Then I realized: The time I spent waiting in line worrying about guacamole, could have been spent in much better ways. It’s like this:
- Time spent worrying about guacamole = Useless
- Time spent going through my to do list = Efficient
- Time spent thinking about what I am grateful for = Happy-Making
- Time spent observing people in line = Interesting
- Time spent catching up on the news = Helpful
I realized mental time is in fact finite. There is a limited amount of mental energy you have—why waste it on stupid thinking?
Where does most of your mental energy go? What is a waste? What would be more useful? Decide to reclaim some of your mental space for something that serves you.
Bottom Line: Stop worrying about the same things over and over again. Reclaim your mental space. And really, the guacamole is always worth it.
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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