Why we need to reclaim the art of making conscious decisions

The increasing number of choices that are decided for you.

There was a time when most of the travel I did was for business. Up to a dozen trips a year, sometimes more. Everywhere I went, there were people to meet in companies or catch up with at conferences or at airports.

I made plenty of selections about where to lodge, which flights to book, and what to drink and eat during those trips. But none of them were actual decisions. They were choices I had within decisions that had already been made for me.

In those days, I would try and meet someone extra who lived and worked where I was going. Maybe I had met them online and we clicked. But our exchanges felt incomplete without the ‘in person’ conversation. Hence the extra effort to meet.

It took some doing to arrange. I was not always successful, nor were the meetings. Yet those were the situations that felt the most satisfying. Because they were the result of a conscious decision on my part.

We’re so keen on creating frictionless experiences (esp. in digital) and efficient systems that we’re often left with small choices. In fact, we’re drowning in a sea of tiny choices. Yet, the utility—and value to us—is in the ability to make conscious decisions.

Because they (institutions, companies, systems) are getting us used to just choosing, we’re losing the ability to decide. You may use the words interchangeably, but there’s a not-so-subtle difference between a ‘decision’ and ‘choice.’

With a decision, you’re in charge. Choice leaves apparent room for you, but it’s only cosmetic—the decisions have all been made by others. There’s little room for improvisation, imagination, or innovation in established systems.

The Japanese town of Tokamachi was donated to the Italian town of Como as a symbol of the fraternity between the two cities—it’s a sculpture of two hands.

When you go to a restaurant, for example, you can select from items on a menu. Your selection is a choice. The menu is the decision—and it was made by someone other than you. You don’t like the menu, you change the restaurant. Though you may discover that many have similar offerings—best practices!

The business trip is a context where you get to select among a small range of choices. Someone else has decided what needs to happen—the boss, your client, the management consultants, the airline, the hotel chain, the chef, etc.

Forget business travel. The worst of the pandemic may be over, that is an expense that is not coming back as quickly. Instead, we have a lot of ‘revenge’ travel that is not giving any signs of abating. It seems we want to be anywhere, but home.

Could it be because ‘home’ involves more decisions? Or are we trying to escape the commodification of our lives by returning to the physical world? The internet marketing game has pushed us to performative digital communications.

Is the ‘revenge’ part of travel just another way of choosing without deciding, though? We’re moving so fast in our lives, that we take that attitude to the time off. I’ve witnessed the tours coming through small towns in Italy—to space to savor or wander.

I get it. I’m not immune to little time and a long list of things to accomplish. I used to book top restaurants in advance of vacations. Then I started looking for less obvious choices in non-touristy parts. Now I don’t book, I just go with the vibes.

Trusting in what may come is a strategy that comes with risks. On a recent trip, I begged a little. We were walking around town in search of a place for dinner and came across a nice restaurant. It was Saturday night. When I inquired, it was booked solid.

So I promised we’d come back at opening time, which is early by Italian standards, and eat quickly. It worked. The meal was superb! I would not have had that experience if I had put my trust on search (Google is severely limited on local choices), or ‘best of.’

Another lucky break was in a tiny restaurant filled with locals. I ordered food I had not seen on tourist menus and let the waiter recommend local wines. It was so delicious that we went back two nights later, a Friday, as soon as they opened.

The owners had taken all tables outside for an improvised tasting with libations for friends and family. It was lovely to partake of the experience. Because we had already been there a few nights earlier, they made an exception for us.

I make myself walk around food markets to know what’s in season. This was daily in Chiavari (Liguria).

A trick I use on vacation is to go to use local services, like the hairdresser. It guarantees that conversation about local stuff will ensue. In fact, if you talk to people in line (pretty much anywhere), it will make any wait enjoyable.

Prepackaged experiences are here to stay. Flights and hotel. Flights and car. All-inclusive booking. All-you-can-eat cruise. Even the choice of location is a decision an influencer may have made on Instagram. It’s such a compelling narrative, no dirt or crowds (except when you get there.)

We’re increasingly pushed to make choices over things someone else decided.

Many of our options are pre-filled. Whether being able to choose is useful for those who cannot decide, or the inability to decide is a product of not being used to it—we need to reclaim the art of making conscious decisions.

Or we run the risk of forgetting how to do it. Decisions involve risk. But that’s how we innovate—we decide to pursue something that doesn’t exist among current choices. For that, we need awareness, comprehension, and the ability to make projections.

Decisions are cognitive processes, they’re demanding and require we do the work. Emotional choices may be less demanding and automatic. But that’s how we end up with a closet full of choices that are not useful to us.

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