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On Making a Choice

written by Kathryn Britton 7 February 2007

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits, and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Her Sit Write Share website has resources for writers. Kathryn's articles are here.



Traffic Circle

Traffic Circle

Do you spend a long time at a fork in the road deciding what to do? Or with the huge number of options we have today, are you on a roundabout in the road not sure which branch to take? When you do choose a branch, do you follow it with confidence or do you look back with regret?

What I’ve learned through observation, common sense, and experience about making choices lines up with research that Barry Schwartz describes so lucidly (and with such great cartoons) in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. See also Google tech talk about the book. If you find the following heuristics helpful, there are more in the final chapter titled What to do about choice.

  1. Learn how to make good enough choices, rather than aim for best choices. Herbert Simon introduced the word Satisficers for people who set standards for a choice and stop seeking as soon as the standards are met. The word maximizers is used for people who are driven to make the best choice. Maximizers spend more time and energy seeking. They experience regret for the good qualities of more rejected alternatives. Even when the choice is made, they wonder whether looking just a little harder might have uncovered a better alternative. Maximizers often do find better alternatives, but they experience less satisfaction with the results.
    Good enough can mean very high quality, depending on the satisficer’s standards. When a child has a major illness, one wants a very, very good doctor. But searching past the good enough for the best means that one is tied up in the selection process when it would be better to shift attention to working with the doctor without being plagued with doubts about whether another doctor might have been better.
  2. Make a choice and then focus on its benefits instead of peering down the road not taken. Sometimes I get a major decision down to two alternatives and then get stuck. To get unstuck, I do the following:
    • I picture the alternatives being evenly balanced on a teeter totter.
    • I verify that they are evenly balanced. If not, the decision is made.
    • If so, I know it doesn’t matter which side of the teeter totter goes down. I could make the decision by flipping a coin. Sometimes I do.
    • I pick one and then intentionally believe that the selected alternative was the best one all along by remembering only its benefits and only the drawbacks of the rejected alternative.

    I have done this with major decisions: choice of college, choice of first job. I couldn’t make a wrong choice since they were evenly balanced. It is much more satisfying to put mental energy into intentionally enjoying one’s choice rather than wondering whether it was the right one.

  3. Remember that the identifiable attributes of a decision may be negligible compared to the accidentals that one cannot predict. What made my college experience outstanding were the people I met, particularly the three that are still friends after 30 years. These people were not listed in the college catalog.
  4. Create personal heuristics for choices that do not warrant great effort, such as selecting items on a menu. I used to find myself completely stalled looking at a long menu. Now I always look for polenta or ravioli having lunch in an Italian restaurant.
  5. Group large numbers of options into categories so that you can rule out several at a time, rather than having to study the pros and cons of each individually. For example, No colleges west of the Mississippi. No colleges with more than 10,000 students. No colleges without strong engineering departments. No colleges in big cities.
  6. After collecting the pros and cons of the remaining alternatives, give your intuitive mind a chance to work on decisions that involve integrating a large number of complex options. Sleep on it, or engage your mind in something else. Dijksterhuis has interesting research suggesting that unconscious decision-making leads to better decisions in cases where there are many qualities that need to be balanced.

Once you have made a choice, look forward not back. One turns a potential right choice into the right choice with thought, energy, and time. There were other possible right men in my life, but they aren’t the ones I’ve spent 26 years learning to appreciate. It’s the years of shared experience and mutual care that have made us THE right choices for each other.


Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). Think Different: The Merits of Unconscious Thought in Preference Development and Decision Making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87 (5): 586–598. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.87.5.586.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.

Crossroads courtesy of Dominic’s Pics
View Of Kolam Road Roundabout courtesy of thienzieyung
Teeter Totter courtesy of Sean Benham

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Kathryn Britton 7 February 2007 - 1:22 pm

If anyone can figure out how to get blank lines between items in an ordered list, please let me know. I seem to like to number things.

Senia.com - Positive Psychology Blog 8 February 2007 - 3:19 pm

Hi Kathryn, my favorite part of the Schwartz book was the last chapter – I highlighted a lot of parts of that chapter – “What to do about choice.” Also, I like your point 3 especially – this ties in with Dan Gilbert’s research about people not being able to predict their futures well. Best, S.

Editor S.M. 20 February 2007 - 12:24 pm

Master-Reality.ru website has reprinted this article in Russian.
Here it is:

Recruiting Animal 27 May 2007 - 7:57 pm

Kathryn, I have an online friend named Laurence Haughton (www.laurencehaughton.com). He wrote a business book called “It’s not what you say it’s what you do”.

In it, he says that business success is determined more by the level of follow through on strategic decisions than on the decisions themselves. This sounds remarkably similar to your closing lines.

He wrote another book about speed in business called “It’s not the big that eat the small, it’s the fast that eat the slow”. In it, he claims that speed is the ultimate customer turn on. And the biggest lesson in speed is “Don’t obssess about perfection. Good enough is good enough.” Sounds like your intro doesn’t it?

Kathryn Britton 28 May 2007 - 9:59 am


Yes, I recognize the points — Persistence / Follow-through & “good enough” are good maxims for a lot of life. I’m just leary of making them the only ways to succeed — in business or anything else. They are heuristics, not laws. I guess this comes out of my gut reaction to “the fast eat the slow.” I immediately started trying to think of examples of slow and steady winning the race.

Thanks for commenting & making the connections. I’ll keep thinking about your point.


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