“Clutter is the result of postponed decisions.” – Barbara Hemphill

“Almost any decision is better than no decision at all.” – Brian Tracy
“I’m terrible at making decisions.” – lots of my clients
Many of you have heard these quotes, or something akin to them. Or maybe you’ve repeated one or two of them. They resonate because they feel true – and I know this both through experience and instinct. I recite the one from Barbara Hemphill to people a lot, and it always hits home – but I also know that for many it’s simultaneously easy to digest and difficult to execute. What all lies behind making what seems like a simple choice? Quite a lot, in my observation, and we miss an opportunity when we stop at the end of the quotes.
Sometimes when I’m working with someone on a space that attempts to provide homes for too many objects, the client will hold up one of those objects with a look of distaste. Or maybe even complete revulsion. I can see it on their face or in the way they handle the object. It could be anything from a picture frame their ex gave them to a wall calendar from 2003. I wait to see what’s going to happen next, and I hear them ask, “Can I get rid of this?”* or “Should I keep this?” or “What should I do?”
Of course, you can get rid of it. Of course, you can keep it. Of course, we can discuss it if we need to. But what in the client needed me to approve one of their options, when it was pretty evident that they already knew what needed to happen? It’s not my stuff, and honestly it’s not even my job to force someone to get rid of things. Sometimes, too, I see clients get totally locked up with decision-making. They aren’t seeking approval, necessarily, but they freeze at the thought of making a choice. For whatever reason, choosing is scary.
It happens just as frequently with schedule clutter, or head clutter. Who gets to see me for lunch on Saturday, who gets my time for a volunteer gig? Which goals do I want to pursue, which do I want to postpone, which do I want to let go of entirely?
 I observe the process getting hung up in three distinct ways:
  1. Decisions mean cutting off other options – (FOMO – choosing this has to mean giving up that).
  2. Decisions need permission (lack of self-trust – see the aforementioned “Can I get rid of this?”)
  3. Decisions require acceptance of what is, as opposed to what we fantasize.
There’s a ton of neuroscience about how making decisions plays out in the brain. Doing a little research for this post, the following passage from the website Applied Attention caught MY attention:
“1. Even simple decisions are complicated. We have a clever brain that leads us to believe that we came up with our reasons first and then we made our decision – it turns out that it often happens in reverse. Neuroscientists have found that, in many situations, we make a decision first and then come up with our reasons to support the decision afterwards (emphasis mine).” That seems to confirm what I notice when clients clearly, with their body language, indicate that they already know what they need to do about something.
I also came across this gem: the average American makes roughly 35,000 decisions a day. Granted, many of those are really small and quick (Which coffee mug am I going to grab? Pasta or sandwich for lunch?). But decision fatigue is a real thing, and the role of intuition and mindfulness in decision-making is all but lost. I think this loss is due in no small part to a) the gargantuan level of information we can consume 24-7-365, all with a few clicks, and b) the gargantuan level of stuff and opportunities we’ve been presented with, also all with a few clicks. Who wouldn’t be fatigued?
My thought is that because there is so much cheap and easy information, people gravitate towards relying solely on head decisions, to the exclusion of heartfelt or embodied decisions. We’re taught to make “informed” choices, ask for opinions, subscribe to Consumer Reports, check how many stars there are.
If we don’t carefully read through all 27 reviews of the bed & breakfast online, we’ll make the wrong choice for our vacation, and then it will absolutely, totally, suck. Someone else will browbeat us or think less of us if we select the wrong coffee maker. There are 10,000+ planners available on Amazon, but if we don’t identify The One, our lives will disintegrate into an unscheduled, goal-less wasteland. We’ve become accustomed to calling for backup of some sort on every move we make – and wow, there’s a lot to parse through in that backup.
What happened to trusting your gut? There’s nothing wrong with collecting some knowledge if you don’t have it, and certainly if the stakes are high (buying a house, getting married, changing careers) we want to utilize our brains as well as our hearts. But really, where do we draw the line on things like keeping old bank statements? Or the jeans that don’t fit now? Do those decisions require brainstorming?
What if you could exercise the intuitive, gut-level decision-making muscle in some small ways, with some choices that aren’t make-or-break? With life slowing down for many of us right now, there’s a fabulous opportunity to play with the process. You might work with it this way:
  • The first step is to notice when you are chewing on something that could be an easy choice. Mindfulness of the rumination (a regular meditation practice, even if just a few minutes a day, can help). Just notice when it’s happening.
  • Let’s say it’s deciding whether or not to let go of a stack of old books you come across in a closet. Give away, or box up and store? When you consider the choice, what do you feel in your body? What does that feeling seem to be telling you?
  • Do you, in fact, already have a pretty strong indication of what should happen?
  • What other options start to pop into your head? Is there a tug to seek out some affirmation? See if you can let those go and check in with your body again.
  • What happens if you let go of fact-collecting, or story creation, just for this decision?
  • Can you make your decision based upon the first inclination you had?
Journaling or keeping a log of how these kinds of decisions work for you over time can give you some great information. How many times does instinct work out for you? You might even try timing yourself on small decisions, limiting the opportunity to fall into a head-based process.
I’ll end with another quote:
“Every decision brings with it some good, some bad, some lessons, and some luck. The only thing that’s for sure is that indecision steals many years from many people who wind up wishing they’d had the courage to leap.” – Doe Zantamata
* We’ll drop the grammar rules in this case for the sake of colloquialism. No one ever says to me, “May I get rid of this?”