Are You Drowning in "Decision Quicksand"?

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Every time I go to the grocery store, I am caught off guard when the checker asks me if I want my milk in a bag. I had no problem at all choosing which car to buy; I decided the moment I walked into the front door of this house that this would be our new home and, five years later, I’ve never second-guessed that decision. Yet when it comes to bagged vs. bagless milk, I just about collapse under the weight of the pressure. The same thing happens when I must choose what kind of dressing I want on my salad; when I receive a new email and must decide whether to reply now or save it for later; and when I am faced with the great human existential question: “Do you want fries with that?”

Researchers are now studying this kind of thing, and they’ve come up with a label for it: “Decision quicksand.” Interestingly, they’ve found that it tends to happen more often with small choices than with larger ones. (In other words: I’m not the only one who is overwhelmed by the question of whether I want my milk in a bag.) Bob Sullivan of MSNBC reports:

While struggles to pick a new job or a select a mate might seem to demand the most deliberation, decision quicksand strikes even harder over trivial choices. Little decisions cause a big problem precisely because they are surprisingly hard. Faced with too many options, consumers unconsciously connect difficulty with importance, and their brains are tricked into heavy deliberation mode.

The article goes on to point out that “time spent in decision quicksand before a choice correlates with dissatisfaction after the fact.”

I think there’s a spiritual lesson here, one that is particularly appropriate for Lent. In the classic book Abandonment to Divine Providence, Jean Pierre de Caussade writes:

Our moments are made fruitful by our fulfillment of the will of God. This is presented to us in countless different ways by the present duty which forms, increases, and consummates in us the new man until we attain the plenitude destined for us by the divine wisdom. This mysterious attainment of the age of Jesus Christ in our souls is the end ordained by God and the fruit of His grace and of His divine goodness. This fruit, as we have already said, is produced, nourished and increased by the performance of those duties which become successively present, and which are made fruitful by the same divine will.

In a way, Abandonment is all about freeing ourselves from decision quicksand. De Caussade tells us that by simply fulfilling the duties of the present moment with complete trust in God…

[W]e are always sure of possessing the “better part” because this holy will is itself the better part, it only requires to be allowed to act and that we should abandon ourselves blindly to it with perfect confidence. It is infinitely wise, powerful and amiable to those who trust themselves unreservedly to it, who love and seek it alone, and who believe with an unshaken faith and confidence that what it arranges for each moment is best, without seeking elsewhere for more or less, and without pausing to consider the connexion of these exterior works with the plans of God.

I think the mistake that leaves so many of us wasting time over small decisions is that we forget that we can trust God with these matters too. When we face dramatic, monumental crossroads like how to treat a grave medical diagnosis or whether to move to a new state, the overwhelming nature of the decision makes us naturally aware that we are not fully in control here. It’s not hard to trust God when you don’t really have a choice. But with the small things in life, we perceive that these matters are too trivial to involve the will of God, and that we don’t need God’s help anyway because we have perfect control. As soon as we start feeling like it’s all up to us we belabor our decisions; and when we do that, as the research quoted in the MSNBC article found, we send our brains the signal that these matters are important, and end up spending our days mired in decision quicksand.

The researchers quoted in the article had some good suggestions for how to overcome decision paralysis: Set limits on the amount of time you spend evaluating your options, delegate, take breaks, etc. I think that de Caussade would add another one to the list: Trust God. Remember that the God whom you can trust with your biggest dilemmas is the same one whom you can trust with your smallest ones. You already know that you can turn over to God the choices that have the potential to send your life in an entirely new direction; now you need to remember that you can turn over the decision of whether to get your milk in a bag too.