Choices, or decision-making, part 2

I wrote earlier about decision-making and think I might need to qualify my suggestions a little. I do believe that, under the right circumstances, autistic people are well adapted to evaluating choices and making decisions within a constrained environment and with a clear idea of what to optimize for. The flip side of that is, what happens when my environment is loosely constrained or totally unconstrained? Or if you have no idea what the ideal outcome looks like? Here are some examples.

Some scenarios where we will thrive at making decisions:

The boss asks you to evaluate the possible paths forward on a team project. One would get the job done faster, one would get it done with a higher quality metric in the short term. The third may be the optimal for long term stability, but is more labor intensive. If you understand what the boss is looking for, you are likely to come up with the right answer or better yet, a fourth option not presented, combining elements of the other options that nobody has thought of.

You and your partner decide you want to go out for dinner (pre-COVID scenario, obviously). You ask them what they feel like and they say someplace where they can get a beer and a burger. Regardless of what you are looking for, you may already have a place in mind that can suit the both of you.

Scenarios where we will have a hard time making decisions:

Same scenario in the workplace, but the problem you need to work around is poorly defined and the paths forward are less so. The team is still relying on your expertise, but with nobody able to answer even the simplest questions about what we are trying to accomplish or how to prioritize the constraints, you may get overwhelmed and frustrated.

Lastly, my favorite, you and your partner want to go out to dinner but this time, when your partner responds to your question about what they want, all they say is “I don’t know, you pick.” You may have your one favorite place you always go to in this scenario and that is one way around the decision-making issue. Otherwise, without ANY feedback from others about their wants/needs, it is very difficult to pare down the universe of choices to a manageable group to select from.

Similar issue now in the typical American grocery store… take nut butter as an example. First, will you choose peanut butter or other? If other, then what? Almond? Cashew? Hazelnut? If peanut, crunchy or creamy? Or EXTRA crunchy/EXTRA creamy? No stir? With or without added salt? Added sugar? Now there’s peanut butter with jelly IN THE SAME JAR?!? WTH!!! Then there’s brand, price point, etc. All these decisions to make just to get some nut butter. It is entirely possible, depending on how badly you actually want it, how your mood is that day/time and whether the lights in the store are too bright, that you will just forget about it and walk on. I do this ALL THE TIME.

So, what to do? If you have to make a decision in a potentially unconstrained or minimally constrained scenario, set artificial limits for yourself. They don’t even have to be meaningful. You could decide before you go to the grocery store that you are going to buy peanut butter from one of the bottom 3 shelves in a 16oz container, regardless of all the other potential choices. It is kind of like seting up a game for yourself, except the game exists only in your head and allows you to get what you need without the overwhelm.

For restaurants, I will rarely go to a place without first doing some research. Online menus are a godsend. I usually select 3 items I would be interested in trying (if at a new place or one with a rotating seasonal menu) and rank them into first, second and third choices. When I get to the place, maybe they have a daily special and I might let that into my list, if it sounds good. Then with a quick perusal of the menu in the place, I confirm my choices and place my order. (Second and third options are backups just in case the waiter/waitress says they’re out of something. It’s always good to have a backup.)

These are very simple strategies I use daily to help me make decisions without unnecessary stress. They allow me to branch out and try new things without showing all my neuroses and hangups to others all the time.

Last bit of decision-making advice… stop second guessing. You don’t need to replay the scenario in your head over and over, making different choices, testing them out. What if this, what if that. If you made the choice, it was the right choice at the time, with the information you had available. Moving on to the next choice is the best thing you can do.

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