Paperwork: Sure, go ahead, let others tell you what to do

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions.

We’ve all been paralyzed by the choice dilemma.

How many times have you done the list – the pros and cons?

I have had friends ask me, “What should I do? What would you do?”

Turns out that those are two hugely different questions. (More on that later.)

When asked such questions, I tend to nudge – no, I shove – them in the most dramatic and/or radical direction.

“Yes! Quit your job,” I say. “Do it now. Do it.”

This usually brings immediate reaction, which is kind of predictable.

When someone pushes you toward the pool, suddenly you are not as eager to jump in. Unless, of course, that’s what you wanted all along. And all you needed was a push.

Pondering a job offer, they wonder, “Should I take it?”

“Do it. Go for it,” I say.

Their first reaction is to think about the “But, what ifs.” Questions they need to face.

If they lean the other way, so do I.

“Don’t do it. That job sounds terrible. Why would you leave the job you’ve got?”

I force them to face the consequences and play the devil’s advocate. It’s quicker than making that pro and con list. And gets to the heart of any decision pretty quick.

It also helps to say what you’re thinking out loud. Talking to yourself is a good thing and saying something out loud makes it real.

Now let me share some science on the stress of decision-making – and asking for advice.

A research study has shown it’s easier to make decisions for others than for yourself. Evan Polman, one of the researchers, explained this in an article for the Harvard Business Review (2018).

Polman is an assistant professor of marketing and the Cynthia and Jay Ihlenfeld Professor for Inspired Learning in Business at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“People have a different mindset when choosing for others: an adventurous mindset that stands in contrast to the more cautious mindset that rears when people make their own choices,” Polman said.

With researchers in China, he did eight studies with more than 1,000 participants who were given a list of restaurants, job options or dating profiles with detailed information. They made choices for themselves or for someone else based on the info.

“Not only did participants choose differently when it was for themselves, rather than for someone else, but the way they chose was different,” Polman said.

“When choosing for themselves, participants focused more on a granular level, zeroing in on the minutiae, something we described in our research as a cautious mindset.”

The cautious consider a few options at a time on a deeper level, examining a cross-section of the larger whole, he said.

“But when it came to deciding for others, study participants looked more at the array of options and focused on their overall impression,” he said. “They were bolder, operating from what we called an adventurous mindset.

“When people recommend what others should do, they come up with ideas and choices and solutions that are more optimistic and action-oriented, focus on more positive information and imagine more favorable consequences.

“Meanwhile, when making their own choices, people tend to envision everything that could go wrong, leading to doubt and second-guesses.”

Polman says we can learn from this study. For starters, everyone needs a mentor.

“Or a blunt friend who can help people see and act on better evidence,” he said. “We should also work to distance ourselves from our own problems by adopting a fly-on-the-wall perspective. In this mindset, we can act as our own advisers – indeed, it may even be effective to refer to yourself in the third-person when considering an important decision as though you’re addressing someone else.”

Or pretend your decision is for someone else and see it from their perspective. Or ask yourself what would someone you respect do?

“Perhaps the easiest solution is to let others make our decisions for us,” he said, noting we are surrounded by many apps and firms ready to make choices for us.

Now that seems a bit reckless. But hey, if you’re unsure what to do, call me, your blunt friend.

I’d be happy to shove you into the pool.

• Lonny Cain is the retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa and was a reporter for the Herald-News in the 1970s. Email him at or mail to The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.