Understanding the difference between acceptable and ideal will help you focus on the things that matter. A framework that will lead to more time, more money, and more happiness.
With my friends at work most of the day, I do a lot of catching up with folks on gchat. Mornings these days start off with a bowl of cereal, logging on to gmail, and opening a few chat box windows with my buddies who are at the office.
“How are you?” one of us will ask. And over the next couple of hours we will engage in the relaxing activity of trading articles, tidbits about our day, and links to funny videos that usually include a cat, dog, or sloth.
I was flipping through my archived conversations last night trying to find a particular article a friend had sent, and it sucked me into a half hour of reliving every conversation from the past two weeks. As I read our discussions over this time period, something jumped out at me: we all spent an inordinate amount of time fussing over little decisions.
Day after day, there’s some new quandary to navigate. Should I go for Indian or Thai for lunch? Black Friday deal is on: how about the iPhone 10 or the Samsung 8? Should I leave work now in order to beat the rush but have to finish a document at home, or finish it here which will take less time with all my tools around me, but may put me in commute rush hour?
These decisions not only take up valuable emotional bandwidth and time, but they also can push us to spend more than we need to. We are inundated by choices, and without a deliberate effort to curtail how many resources we allocated them, they will rob us of our time, money and happiness.
My Own Experience
As you know, Mr. Money Habit and I are expecting our first kiddo very soon. Along with that come a thousand decisions, big and small. This past week, I found myself trapped in a seemingly-important quandary. There was a particular portable playpen that had gone on sale but was a color I didn’t love. My alternative was to keep the one I had already purchased for $20 more. The item storage container was also slightly different – one was plastic and hung off the side, while the other was just a soft-sided sack. From the time stamps of my conversations with friends, I saw that I had spent two hours reflecting on first one, then the other of these playpens. I had gone trawling for other playpens in that time as well, wondering if maybe I should expand my search for additional features.
In the end I stuck with my original purchase. But at that point, no matter what I decided, I had already lost. I was irritable, a little jumpy, and two hours poorer. I was annoyed with myself for frittering my time away in this fashion because it wasn’t even enjoyable. In fact, I noticed this happening in my life a lot. Life would present me with a choice, and like a fool, I would always look. I would expend valuable mental energy and time thinking about the issue. What occurred to me recently, however, is that there is another way.
Just Say No
When life presents you with a choice, you can refuse to devote significant time, energy, or money on the decision. Indian or Thai? If you’re really having trouble deciding, go with the cheaper one. Or flip a coin and write down your choice in your calendar so the next time you can pick the other for variety. For folks like myself, there is a natural desire to optimize and evaluate, but most things are not worth that level of effort.
Your Filter: Acceptable vs Ideal
Is there a way to determine when it’s worth your time to fret? I believe there is. You can ask yourself whether you are currently deciding between items that span the threshold of what’s acceptable vs. unacceptable, or whether all the options your evaluating are in fact acceptable and you are just trying to optimize towards the ideal set-up. In other words, have you passed the threshold of all options on the table being acceptable? And is it important in this situation to pursue ideal over acceptable?
I found this when I was looking at daycare for Money Habit Jr. In our area, you need to put your deposit and reserve a spot 3-6 months before you intend to start. That means we were doing facility tours this month. We’d go from place to place where they outlined the enrichment activities infants participated in. The last facility we toured, the director told us that all students are engaged in immersive Mandarin instruction each day. I asked what age they started this instruction. Probably at a year old, right?
“No,” she said. “They begin in the infant room, as early as two months.”
Two months? My baby will probably still be mastering how to grab his toes, not honing his second language. But that’s not the best part. Not only do the students receive daily Mandarin lessons. They also receive daily instruction in Spanish and American Sign Language. Four languages, every single day.
Up until this tour, I had felt some very real stress about picking the right daycare. But after hearing this, I felt all my tension melt away. As I laughingly said to my husband afterward, it took a director describing ‘Mandarin, Spanish, and ASL immersion!’ to make me realize that all the options on our short list were in the realm of acceptable, and we couldn’t make a bad decision.
Sure, our time and effort was needed to rule out the do-or-die criteria of what we deemed acceptable like cleanliness of the facility and feel for the education/detail-orientation of the caretakers. But additional language instruction? We had surpassed the important criteria at that point and gotten into overblown details that didn’t matter. That meant we could stop spending energy on the decision any time we wanted to. And furthermore, we could go with the cheapest option within the shortlist of those which met our criteria of ‘acceptable.’
In some circumstances, you may want to expend additional effort to go from just acceptable to ideal. That’s totally fine. But at least in taking a moment to label where you are, you will know that that additional effort is optional, and that if you stopped your work on the issue things would be just fine.
Will I Care in 6 Months?
Another shorthand to the question above is to ask yourself whether you will care about the outcome between your remaining options in 6 months. Could I see myself fretting about whether I ate Indian or Thai for lunch 6 months ago? Would I be kicking myself in 6 months for getting stuck in commute traffic that one Tuesday I could have gone home?
If the answer is no, then feel free to make your mantra “solid B+ decision.” Fast, solid B+ decisions save you time, money, and mental energy to focus on the things that really do matter.
What about you? Do you use a shorthand rule to help you make your decisions? Share your technique in the comments below.
Want more articles focused on the money mindset? Check out the below:
- Max-Min Theories of Spending
- Stop Using Busy-ness As A Status Symbol
- Money and Jealousy: Harnessing The Beast
- Staying Motivated At Your Job
- How To Know If You’re Doing Okay