At first glance, one choice is relatively simple, the other more fraught with complex decision-making. Look more closely, and you’ll see that sometimes even the “easy” choices are difficult. If you’ve ever struggled with what seems an obvious choice — say, “fruit cup or chocolate pie?” — you can probably relate.
In a purely logical world, decision-making would be a snap. As kids we were taught the “pros and cons” method: make a list, note the benefits and drawbacks, give the list a once-over and identify which column has the better tally. Voila! Decision made. Time to move on.
Except that in the real world, decisions don’t always play out in such a tidy way. Many decision-making models are based on an “economic utopia” in which the messiness of human nature plays no role. Logic rules supreme; if the spreadsheet shows that we should sell, then dang it, we’re selling! Never mind that what we’re selling is something wit intrinsic value, such as connection to a cherished memory.
This is not to say that we must discount logic — rational thought should figure heavily in the world of decision-making. It’s what helps us stay anchored to reality when excessive emotion threatens a wise choice. And who better to school us in the ways of fact-based decision-making than a person whose profession is based on the cut-and-dried world of procurement?
Meet Jack Quarles, who has spent the last two decades in the field of procurement and expense management, working with many Fortune 500 companies and government clients such as Harley-Davidson and Fannie Mae. As a procurement professional, Quarles helps business colleagues determine the best course of action for spending large sums of money — sometimes in the millions of dollars. Over the years, Quarles noticed thought patterns that seemed counter to making good choices. So he started to pay attention to the reasons that people did — or did not choose a course of action. Quarles discovered that when people were resistant to an idea, their concerns centered around one of three possible states of being: “I’m stuck in this situation,” “It’s too special to change,” or “This item is scarce — and we need it.”
Quarles has packaged his observations into a book: Expensive Sentences: Debunking the Common Myths that Derail Decisions and Sabotage Success. And although his ideas about scarcity, being stuck and special-ness were forged in the business world, he sees application to our personal lives as well. In an interview to discuss his book, Quarles told me, “Almost all of our decisions are buying decisions, one way or another.” Whether you’re talking about buying a software program for your company, or planning a family vacation, “we have assets at our disposal — time, money, attention, energy— all of which are finite. So we have to think about our goals and the best way to achieve them with the resources we have at hand,” says Quarles.
That’s often easier said than done, because our human nature sometimes gets in the way. Studies show that the stress of our immediate situation clouds our ability to focus on long-term goals. Competing demands of stakeholders slows down the process. If you’ve ever experienced management by committee, (or have tried to please all family members when you make dinner) you know what I’m talking about.
Here are three suggestions that Quarles offers to help you make better life decisions:
Determine what your decision is costing you. This isn’t just about money. The “cost” of your choice might include wasted time, stress, or communication breakdown. The title of Quarles book is derived from the cost that incorrect (or well intentioned, but misguided) thoughts and words levy. For example, if your spouse says, “Well, we’ve always gone on vacation at that campground,” and doesn’t seem inclined to explore other options, then you might have an “expensive” sentence on your hands. If your spouse is the only family member sold on that particular campground, the mindset of “we’ve always done it that way” is costing your family in potential disagreement and dissatisfaction.
Be willing to push through the pain of exploring multiple options. This advice is especially helpful for when you feel your options are limited (or nonexistent.) If your mental outlook is, “I have no options,” it’s easy to feel stuck. In this instance, says Quarles, you need a more thorough exploration, starting with options that aren’t really palatable. “The process of putting bad ideas on the board first, is an important step to go through,” he says. “When we do that, we go from feeling like we have no options, to identifying some bad options, then some feasible options, and then finding finally a few good options.” Most people, Quarles observes, don’t push their comfort past the “bad options” stage so they stay stuck where they are, feeling hopeless.
Learn to rewrite the narrative. Our beliefs shape our thoughts and our thoughts inform our actions. If we believe that something is scarce, then we’ll tend to make statements to support that belief. For example if we say, “We can’t afford to do X,” we shut down the potential to have a conversation about possibilities. Quarles advises us to open up dialog (with ourselves or our family) about this sentence. He suggests asking yourself three questions: Why is this sentence true? When is it true? What if it were not true? Answers to these questions helps explore the truth in the statement (because there is a valid reason why you have this belief) while also allowing for new ideas to surface. Exploring your sentence carefully allows you to rewrite the narrative into something that offers hope and options.
Better life decisions require you to make cost-effective choices. But before you can choose, you’ll need clarity on the ways in which your thoughts — and the words you use to express them — might be costing you time, money and stress. Use these three tips from a procurement professional to help you see the possibilities in your statements so you can feel more confident in your decisions.
A version of this post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.