Stop Wasting Time on The Small Potatoes Decisions

PUBLISHED ON DEC 6, 2020: 1237 words, 6 minute read

There’s no impact on your life if you pick the perfect burger at McDonald’s. You’re gonna eat it, then it’s gone.

Our days are filled with little decisions, problems where it’s just not worth searching for the optimal solution. In spite of this, we waste time digging into the details for inconsequential issues.

The internet has compounded this wasted effort by giving you access to an entire world of possible choices, alongside nearly infinite resources to research and over-analyze any decision. You can spend days choosing which version of a product you’ll buy or the best way to accomplish X.

In case you were still stuck on it, here are the burgers from McDonald’s ranked from best to worst.

Stop wasting time on the small potatoes

Where should I go eat? Who cares, pick the first one you see. I was burning so much time on the little decisions in life, the small potatoes, and realized I had to stop. Even if it was possible to find a perfect choice, the time I burned won’t have mattered for a couple reasons.

  • With many inconsequential decisions, there is no perfect answer for you to find. Many of the options available will have the same outcome. Pick one which fits the minimum criteria, and you’re golden.
  • Little decisions are reversible. You can’t go back in time, but you can return those headphones and get new ones. Can’t un-eat that burger, but you can vow to never get it again.

Wasting your finite energy on small potatoes is frightening because it fatigues you. When it comes to the important questions, you don’t have enough gas in the tank to give them the effort they should command. I saw this reflected in my own life. When I was graduating high school, I was caught up every day on decisions I can’t remember now, yet it led me to put very little effort into understanding the direction I wanted for my life. I applied to a single college I could see myself going to, and only because it seemed like a solid default option. I had no idea what I wanted to do and picked a major almost on a whim. I got incredibly lucky and stumbled into a field I enjoy, but the approach I took was skating along a cliff edge, and I can’t recommend people follow suit.

Save your energy for those decisions of consequence which are not easily reversible. One man’s important is another man’s inconsequential, so you’ll have to decide for yourself what makes the cut, but here’s a few to get you started. Who you spend your time with - ideally quality people. The debt you are going to get in: financially, spiritually, time, or otherwise. The direction you want your career to go. The person (or multiple, I ain’t judgin’) you want to marry. Time in our lives is limited, so anything wasted fretting over saving 2 dollars is burning directly from what’s available for your long-term goals. You’re filling your jar with the little things instead of the important, like Stephen Covey’s Big Rocks.

How to stop

You need to lay groundwork for yourself before you can stop wasting time on small potato decisions. These are some of the changes I’ve tried to adopt in my own life to ease the cognitive burden, but there are plenty of others worth experimenting with.

Begin with baby steps. Reduce the obvious parts of your life causing decision fatigue. Like the article mentions, you can start the process by simplifying the choices you make throughout a day. Clothes always your problem? Plan out a set number of outfits and switch between them. No picking the day of.

Getting to the next level requires some introspection. Spend time thinking about what your morals are and what you hope to achieve. Without knowing where you are trying to go or the principles you have, you won’t be able to differentiate little decisions from the important ones.

You’re training a new muscle here, so don’t expect to be perfect on day one. Catch yourself when you notice a lot of time getting poured into analyzing options for a decision. If you find yourself searching ‘best way to…’ or ‘best ', good chance you’re researching the inconsequential. Try to flip it and instead analyze the decision itself. Ask yourself,

“Why do I feel compelled to put so much energy into this solution? If I was forced to take a random choice, would I be just as happy with the outcome?"

You will still waste time on silly decisions. That’s ok. Catch yourself when you can, and forgive yourself when you can’t.

Handling the Big Potatoes, aka decisions that matter

Eliminating inconsequential decisions is great progress, but at some point you have to confront the big questions. Having a strategy in place will make it easier to collect your thoughts and find the best choice, given your current circumstances. I can’t pretend I have all the answers, I definitely don’t make the best choices every time (looking at you, past-me-with-Bieber-hair). I can share some of the tools I’ve found to be effective, though.

The first thing you can do is change how you approach problems. All throughout the process, you need to keep an eye up looking towards the end of the tunnel. The nitty gritty details and research of a problem seem so important while you’re in the thick of it, but you will often find shortcuts or alternative information if you can keep focused on the outcome.

Unfortunately, there are hairy problems in life which are not reversible and don’t allow detailed comparisons between options. Think finding a parking spot or your perfect spouse. Very few partners would be ok with you dating multiple other people waiting to see who is best, though the popularity of the Bachelor/ette does appear to prove me wrong.

We are in luck, because the smart guys & gals over in mathematics & computer sciences ran into this concept, a host of problems under the umbrella ‘Optimal Stopping’, and found the best solutions. This excerpt from the book ‘Algorithms to Live By’ says it better than I ever could. The gist is you need to review a number of options to understand what’s available, then the next one that beats all you’ve previously seen you should jump on. Like the clich√©, you need to look before you leap, but there are diminishing returns after long enough searching. It’s not always easy to apply the concept to your own life, but even awareness of the rule should help temper your inclination to search too long.

Edit: Found this great thread with 15 razors (like Occam’s Razor) for making better decisions, very worth a read if you’re interested in more strategies Twitter: Rules of Thumb to Simplify decisions

Going forward, you’re still gonna make a lot of bad decisions. You’ll have regrets when you look back with hindsight bias and see the right path clear as day. But if you begin filtering out the inconsequential, at least those decisions will have mattered. Put time into your goals & dreams. Don’t look back at life and realize you optimized a bunch of little decisions. Great, you always chose the best burger. Put it on your tombstone.

What are you more afraid of: regret & failure, or never doing anything of consequence?

Preview Image by Hai Nguyen on Unsplash

powered by TinyLetter