That’s a fear of better options, because is it just us or is it harder than ever to make a decision?
Words by Clare Thorp
A few weeks ago, a friend asked what I wanted to do for dinner. We could go to a bistro around the corner, he suggested, or the new craft beer and pizza place that had opened nearby, or the Scottish-Italian fusion (yes, really) restaurant down the road, or we could get a takeaway, or Thai maybe. Oh and not forgetting the really good fish & chip shop. As he carried on listing options – moving on to all the things he could cook if I didn’t fancy eating out – I felt a rising sense of panic at having to choose. They all sounded great. But which one was the best?
If this dread sounds familiar then you might, like me, suffer from FOBO. That’s a Fear of Better Options – the anxiety that, out of all the choices available, you might not pick the best possible one. The best restaurant. The ideal holiday. The perfect outfit. It makes something that should be pleasurable feel like an emotional minefield where one wrong choice might ruin it all. Recent research has also found that over half of us have experienced Decidophobia – the fear of making a decision.
This dread and anxiety – call it FOBO or Decidophobia – has coincided at a time when we’ve never had more choice in our lives. Picking something to watch now involves scrolling through endless options on multiple streaming services. Even dating offers endless romantic options to swipe through. Choice should be a good thing – but it can also feel overwhelming.
While some of us (me) have always been indecisive – this influx of possibility isn’t making things any easier. In fact, research by The University of Buffalo found that the more choices on offer, the tougher we find it to make a decision. It’s a ‘paralyzing paradox’ says Thomas Saltsman, co-author of the study, who explains the fear of making the wrong choice from all the available options can lead us to avoid the task altogether. Other research backs this up, finding that while we like a handful of options to choose between, give us too many and we will zone out of the process.
Michelle Florendo works as a decision coach, guiding people through big career choices – and believes we’re struggling to adapt with so many options available. ‘The combination of this explosion of choice, coupled with a lack of concrete skills to be able to deal with it, has led to a lot of emotion around decision-making,’ she says. ‘Be it as a form of paralysis or stress or anxiety or fear.’ But the good news is, we can improve our decision making skills.
The first step is to work out which decisions are worth fretting over. ‘Choosing the wrong menu item for dinner or what to binge-watch is not going to define you as a person,’ says Saltsman. He also suggests working out a few guidelines of what you want from your decision before diving into the options and eliminating choices that don’t meet your criteria.
Scott McArthur, a business consultant and TEDx speaker helps people make better decisions and advises developing a ‘good enough’ mindset for smaller decisions. You also could cut back on everyday decisions by streamlining your wardrobe and planning your weekly meals, too – saving your brain power for bigger dilemmas.
For more consequential decisions, such as deciding on where to live, whether to accept a job offer or what road to take in a relationship, McArthur says we spring clean our brains by scribbling down everything that’s on our mind as soon as we wake up – a practice known as Morning Pages. ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s nonsense,” he says. ‘Once your brain is decluttered you can look more clearly at the decisions you have to make.’
And if you still feel anxious about making a decision, think back to the last time you made the wrong choice. Did everything come crashing down? Probably not. Because there’s usually a chance to change direction or make another decision. So next time I’m fretting over ordering the pizza or the pasta, it’s something I’ll keep in mind.
The science of decision making
A recent study by the University of Dundee says we should avoid making important decisions on an empty stomach, because our choices will be tainted by immediate gratification rather than long term benefits.
Take a nap
Sleeping on a decision is sound advice after all. Research by the University of Bristol found that a daytime nap can help our brains weigh up the pros and cons of tricky decisions.
Doing thirty minutes of aerobic exercise in the morning was found to help improve decision making throughout the day. Plus, you can feel smug that it’s out the way.