Having trouble deciding? Flip a coin

A referee tossing a coin in front of two American football players.

You’ve been mulling over the decision for hours. You’ve gone over all the pros and cons. You imagine yourself choosing option A, but it doesn’t feel right. Problem is, option B doesn’t either. So you think some more.

Maybe there’s some reason you haven’t considered yet that will tip the balance in favor of one of the options?

But after all that thinking, you still can’t decide whether to attend that party. Whether to buy a new Android phone or an iPhone. Whether to cook Mexican or Thai food when your in-laws visit. Sometimes, you think you’ve made up your mind—but then you hesitate.

When there isn’t an obvious best choice, how do you choose?

You assign option A to heads, and option B to tails, and you flip a coin.

It won’t be Earth-shattering news to you that you can make decisions by flipping a coin. Why would I write about something as obvious as this?

Flipping a coin is a great decision technique both in the moment and in the long run.

See, deciding is often easy. For example, we take the bus to work today, even though we could also go by bike, because we always take the bus. Or we choose to wear our red sweater today because it goes with our pants, while none of our other sweaters do.

But sometimes, deciding can feel extremely difficult. Perhaps you’ve already had to make dozens of substantial decisions today, and now it’s late at night and you face decision fatigue. In that case, you simply don’t have the energy to continue to evaluate the options. Go to sleep, and you’ll find the decision easy tomorrow morning.

(There’s really interesting neuroscience that explains why “sleeping on a decision” works. Two books that discuss how this works are Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker and The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin.)

It could also be that you have trouble deciding because you want to make the best possible decision. You worry that choosing wrongly will have some negative impact on your life. I suffered from this particular reason for indecisiveness when I was in the midst of burnout, and it made many daily tasks needlessly difficult.

If you suffer from decision stress, the coin flip might help you out tremendously. In fact, the coin flip is my favorite stress-relief technique.

If you are indecisive, you might waste tons of time and energy trying to decide. Going round in circles trying to make a decision one way or the other can make you miserable.

By flipping a coin, you take the decision out of your hands. You make the decision now and can move on with your life, saving yourself more wasted energy analyzing the pros and cons of the options.

Obviously, you wouldn’t want to make all your life decisions based on coin flips. If you have a job interview, but you’re nervous and scared to go, you don’t want to flip a coin to decide whether you’ll show up.

But flipping a coin is an excellent technique for when you realize that you’ve spent a lot more time on a particular decision than most people would. Why?

When you’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide, that means both options are roughly equally good.

When you spend hours trying to decide whether you’ll be happier playing tennis with a friend tomorrow, or going shopping with your mom, more thinking won’t help you answer the question. You can try to guess which you’ll end up liking better, but after some time thinking, you won’t reduce the uncertainty of your guess any further.

As far as you can tell right now, both options are roughly equally good, so you have nothing to lose by flipping a coin.

Maybe you’ll realize later that you would have preferred the other activity. That’s fine. Use that information next time you have to decide, and you might not need the coin.

But right now, the coin flip breaks your mental impasse.

Flipping the coin prevents you from wasting more time, so it helps you immediately. But if you face indecision frequently, flipping a coin more often also helps you make future decisions.

Once you frequently use the coin-flip technique, you’ll realize that you’re just as happy with the results of the coin flips as you’d be if you had thrown more time and energy at the decision until you were exhausted. When you have trouble deciding, it’s because all options are roughly equally good, so it doesn’t matter which decision rule you use. Randomly choosing—as in a coin flip—works as well as any other rule.

The key skill you have to cultivate for this technique is knowing when further thinking won’t help you decide. In other words: when is it time to reach for the coin?

If you suffer from indecisiveness, I urge you to flip the coin sooner than you think you should. In fact, for small decisions like what to cook, if you can’t decide in two minutes, then flip a coin. For a decision on the order of whether to go on vacation to Thailand or Costa Rica, give yourself one night to sleep on it. If you still can’t decide in the morning, flip the coin.

Finally, a word of caution. When you start flipping coins to make decisions, you must always respect the coin’s decision.

The coin-flip technique will not work if you second-guess the coin, even just occasionally. Heads is heads and tails is tails, without further analysis or debate.

What decision have you been having trouble with recently? I challenge you to decide it with a coin flip. What have you got to lose?

3 ways to relieve stress for those who don’t have time

Leather shoes on leaves

Did you know that sustained stress can cause forgetfulness, dizziness, and pain in your neck and shoulders? Or that high stress might cause you to be indecisive and prone to making mistakes?

I could go on, because sustained stress can cause dozens of symptoms. But while you might not be aware of each symptom, you probably intuitively understand that being stressed often can’t be good for your body or for your mind.

If you feel stressed frequently, you may long for some stress relief. And you only have to grab a magazine off the shelves in your local grocery store to find suggestions for what you can do to relieve stress. For example, you could:

  • Meditate for 15 minutes a day
  • Sleep more
  • Start journaling about your worries and fears
  • Go for a walk in the woods
  • Get a dog, so you can pet him when you need a break

Almost all such suggestions work. They do relieve stress. But they also take time.

Let’s take meditating daily as an example. If you meditate for 15 minutes a day, you’ll probably lower your stress level in a matter of months. I speak from experience, but you can also look up the science, if you prefer. Meditating relieves stress.

So does sleeping, by the way. In fact, it’s very likely that your life would be better if you slept more.

But I’m writing this article for those of you who feel stressed, yet are not convinced that it’s worth spending time walking in the woods or journaling.

If that’s you—I feel you. I’ve been there. For years, I knew sleeping more would be good for me, but I still stayed up later than I should. I disregarded the advice my family and friends offered. So why should I expect to convince you to take more time for yourself, when others could not convince me?

When you find yourself stressed day after day because there are dozens of things you “have to” do, the last thing you need is me telling you to add a daily item to your to-do list.

So while, in the long term, it pays to schedule that daily walk or that daily journaling session, or to sleep an extra half hour a day, let’s talk about what you can do now to relieve some stress in ways that don’t take extra time.

1. Look at everything you want to do today, and decide which one task is least important. Then decide to leave that task for another day. One of the key contributors to stress is trying to do more than you comfortably have time to do. When you find yourself wanting to do more than you think you have time for, you probably would not complete the least important task anyway. You want to avoid reaching the end of the day and feeling guilty or “not good enough” for not doing everything you wanted to. By giving yourself permission ahead of time not to complete the least important task, you free up mental bandwidth to focus on what you’re doing right now.

2. When you find yourself planning the rest of your day, or worrying about whether you’ll get everything done, instead focus on the sensations in your feet. For example, when you’re in a meeting and the conversation turns to an agenda item that does not concern you, rather than thinking about what you’ll do right after the meeting, instead think about what word you’d use to describe how your feet feel. Are they warm or cold? Are they stiff? Sweaty? Are your shoes too tight? Maybe you can feel your feet stabilizing your body on the ground.

Why does paying attention to the sensations in your feet work? Good question. But does it work? Yes! There is even scientific research into the stress-relieving effect of focusing your attention on your bodily sensations.

(Side note: When you’re in a meeting and you can get away with zoning out, you’d probably be better off not attending that meeting to begin with. But that’s a topic for another day.)

3. Acknowledge that you feel stressed. Simply tell yourself (out loud or in your head), “I’m feeling stress right now”. Or tell the person sitting next to you, or text your mom. You don’t need to start a deep conversation about the causes of your stress, about what will happen if you continue to experience stress, or how you might get rid of your stress entirely. Just acknowledge that you feel stress. Naming your emotions will usually lower their intensity a bit, and I’ve found this to be true of acknowledging stress as well.

And here’s a tip. Pick whichever of these three techniques appeals most to you. Next time you feel stressed, try it out. See how it feels. Does it lower your stress a little? Great! Apply the technique more often.

If the technique doesn’t do anything for you, try one of the other two. Don’t try all three techniques at once. That might only stress you out more.

Next steps

It’s time for a confession. I spent six months working with a psychologist to lower my stress—so far. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The difference in my level of stress in daily life between now and before I started seeing my psychologist is night and day.

Sadly, I should have started seeing a psychologist 1.5 years sooner. And back then, there were people telling me to see someone, too.

I didn’t listen.

Nevertheless, I’ll pass the advice on to you.

Think of yourself as a carpenter, and of the techniques above as tools in your toolbox. They’ll help you in some situations, but they won’t build a whole house. If you regularly employ some of the above techniques, or similar ones, and you continue to experience stress often, see a psychologist. They’ll help you relieve stress symptoms and address the causes of your stress.

Maybe you have objections to seeing a psychologist, such as:

  • Seeing a psychologist is too expensive
  • There’s nothing wrong with me
  • I don’t need help
  • I don’t have time to see a psychologist
  • I can fix my own problems
  • High stress is a normal part of life
  • Many people around me are stressed; sustained stress is normal
  • The wait list to see a psychologist is too long
  • A therapist can’t help me, because they can’t take away the causes of my stress

If you identify with one of these reasons not to see a psychologist, see one anyway.

Treat a visit as an experiment. Your hypothesis is that seeing a psychologist is not worth your time. Try to disprove it. Commit yourself to making one appointment and evaluating afterwards whether you think the visit was worth your time.

Now, answer this question: how much stress do you experience, and what’s an appropriate response?

Let me know.

How to make failure impossible

A stiff robot standing between yogis who are bending forward.

We normally feel fear when we think we might fail, but what if we could reframe our intention to make it impossible to fail?

Fear can stop us from growing and from having fun. We might fear being rejected, and keep ourselves out of situations where there is a risk of rejection. We might fear failure and prevent ourselves from trying things that are not guaranteed to work. But if we continue to do this, we will never increase our comfort zone, and the same fears will always stay with us.

You and I both know that taking action despite fear often turns out well in the long term. But how do you take action in the face of fear?

One approach is to tell yourself to simply “conquer that fear” or “bust through it”. But using different words won’t make a difference.

Instead, reframe your intention. Rather than seeing success as whatever outcome you ultimately desire—a successful business, a great relationship, a fit body—make it your goal to experiment.

In other words, adopt a scientist’s mindset: your goal is to run a successful experiment so you can learn what works.

Make it your immediate goal to learn, not to achieve what you want in the end. If your goal is to learn, it’s almost impossible to fail. And when you can’t fail, you will find it easier to act despite your fear.

Just so it’s 100% clear what I’m talking about, let me give you an example.

Imagine that I suggest that you try out a yoga class. You’re sort of interested, but you say Peter, I’m not flexible at all, I don’t come anywhere close to touching my toes when I bend forward. I’ll look like an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s doing. The other people will look at me funny. And I’ll fall over during half the yoga poses. I can’t do yoga.

What’s going on? When you think this way, you set your goal for your first yoga class as “being an experienced yoga practitioner”. If that’s your goal, of course you’ll fail! You can’t be experienced at something on your first try.

In this case, you need to set a learning-based goal.

First, put on your scientist’s hat. Pose questions that you’d like to answer in your first yoga class, such as:

  • Do I like the people there? (Were they friendly? Was the instructor patient? Did you have a nice chat after class?)
  • How did I feel physically after the class? (Relaxed? Tired? Sore?)
  • How did I feel mentally after the class? (Proud? Excited? Awkward?)

Second, consider your “experiment” successful if you learned the answers to some of your questions. You don’t have to get all the answers on your first go, but if you can answer a few questions, you ran a successful experiment!

The beauty of setting learning-based goals is that you’ll almost always succeed in learning. So you can almost always feel proud of yourself for having taken action, regardless of the outcome.

You may feel even prouder if you “performed” better than expected (for example if it turned out that many yoga poses were not actually that difficult for you)—but the pride is there even if you very much turn out to be a beginner.

And pride leads to forward momentum, to more action despite fear.

It takes practice to wear your scientist’s hat when you feel fear. But start putting on that hat today, and eventually wearing it will become second nature.

How to practice paying attention

A meerkat sitting upright

Ever find yourself wishing you were better at paying attention?

You don’t need to have an attention deficit disorder to want to concentrate better or to be less distracted.

Fortunately, it’s really simple to practice paying attention. Here, try this:

  1. Make sure you’re sitting in a safe place.
  2. Start a two-minute timer on your smartphone.
  3. Close your eyes and spend a bit of time noticing each of your senses. What do you hear? What are you touching?
  4. If you find yourself thinking, pay attention to your thoughts.
  5. When the timer’s up, open your eyes, take a deep breath, and read on.

Go on, try it now.

Done? How was it?

Doing this simple exercise every day will improve your ability to pay attention. A muscle becomes stronger the more you use it; your ability to pay attention will improve the more you try.

Why did I ask you to pay attention to your senses and your thoughts? Because the only things you can pay attention to are the things that are happening here, now. And you experience what’s happening here and now through your senses and your thoughts.

You can’t pay attention to events in the future or to events in the past. You can pay attention to thoughts about events in the past or in the future, but not to the actual (or imaginary) events.

You also can’t pay attention to events that aren’t happening near you. You can read about them in the newspaper or watch footage of them on TV, but you can’t directly pay attention to them.

But don’t worry about the technique. The point is to get better at paying attention.

What happens as you improve your ability to pay attention? You start to see things as they really are.

That might sound a little woo-woo, so let me give you some concrete examples of what might happen:

  • When you pay attention to your worries, you might realize that most of them are unfounded and that none of them are productive. With this realization, you might worry less and so you might feel less stress.
  • When you focus on what’s happening here now, you have fewer things to keep track of in your head, so you might feel calmer.
  • When you focus on what’s here now, you might remember that today you have many of the things you wanted so badly in the past. So you might feel more grateful.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Now, there’s something I haven’t mentioned yet, but that you might have figured out already:

When you sat down for two minutes and paid attention, you were meditating.

(More specifically, you were practicing mindfulness meditation, but don’t worry about what that means.)

You see, that’s what meditation is: paying attention to what’s happening here, now.

I didn’t tell you in advance that I was asking you to meditate, because paying attention is difficult enough by itself.

Many people associate the word meditation with beliefs that make it more difficult to pay attention, such as that meditation is about getting rid of thoughts, or about becoming calm. And those beliefs make paying attention harder.

But now you know that meditation is simply paying attention. There’s nothing mystical about it.

If you want to try it some more, just repeat the instructions above every day, and set your timer for a longer period when you feel like it. Or try 10% Happier, an app that will offer you instructions and support.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help. And have fun!

Is affiliate marketing ethical?

A screenshot of TransferWise's transfer page

Sometimes you run into an amazing business, and you want to shout it from the rooftops.

Or at least, I do. Don’t you?

Recently I’ve been encouraging people to check out TransferWise, a London-based company that makes it much cheaper to send money from one country to another.

If you’ve ever moved abroad, you’ve probably had to send money from your bank account in the one country to your bank account in the other country. And if you did, I hope you didn’t send the money directly between your bank accounts, because doing so is often outrageously expensive.

Once upon a time, I sent a few thousand dollars directly from my American bank account to my Dutch account. Between the awful exchange rate that Bank of America offered me and the service fee, I paid hundreds of dollars. Ouch!

I’m fine with banks charging a fee for transferring your money abroad. But hundreds of dollars on a few thousand dollars is excessive.

TransferWise’s genius is that their service matches people who want to send money from country A to country B with people who want to transfer money in the opposite direction. Rather than sending everyone’s money across borders—which is expensive—they complete as many transactions as they can for free within each country, matching customers who want to send money in opposite ways. Then, they transfer the remainder internationally.

Smart, right?

The video below explains the process as well.

Of course, as a customer you don’t see what’s going on technically. You just get to send your money abroad cheaply.

And it works. When I recently transferred money from my American account to my Dutch account using TransferWise, at the mid-market exchange rate, I paid TransferWise a fee of only 0.8%. That’s an order of magnitude cheaper than what Bank of America has charged me in the past. An order of magnitude!

Here’s the thing: I love TransferWise because the company saves me money and because it seems to be run by good people. I like recommending TransferWise to people, because it can save them money too.

But when I recommend TransferWise to someone, I send them my affiliate link. In fact, the link to TransferWise at the top of this article is an affiliate link. That means that if you open an account with them through that link, and you make a transfer, I may receive a small reward.

To be precise, I earn $75 for each three people who open an account and make a transfer after reaching TransferWise’s website through my affiliate link. Fortunately, there’s something in it for the person new to TransferWise too: if you get to TransferWise using an affiliate link, you get a discount on your first transfer.

It’s not like TransferWise’s affiliate program will make me rich, but receiving $25 per person who signs up isn’t peanuts either. Not that I’ve made any money by recommending TransferWise so far—apparently people haven’t taken me up on my recommendation. But I could, eventually.

Think back to the start of this article. Did it sound like an ad? I hope it didn’t, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

You see, I think TransferWise is a great company. It could save many of my international friends money. And I recommend companies that I love even when they don’t have an affiliate program. One example is Vanguard, my favorite business. I can’t speak highly enough of them. If you live in the U.S. and you want to invest your money, open an account with Vanguard. (If you live in The Netherlands, try Meesman instead.)

But back to my TransferWise affiliate link. Is affiliate marketing an ethical thing to do?

The Internet is rife with websites that use affiliate marketing in sleazy ways. Many a website that seemingly offers information for free earns money by tracking you and by selling your personal information. Others cram as many affiliate links into their pages as they can, without telling you. They’re clearly not interested in helping you; they just want you to click their affiliate links.

Taking advantage of people like that wouldn’t make me feel good. By contrast, it does make me feel good to recommend services that I enjoy using. But I don’t feel entirely at ease using affiliate links, even though I’d recommend the business in question—TransferWise, in this case—even if the business did not have an affiliate program.

In short, I’m asking you: is it ethical to make a buck from recommending a business you love? Do you do it? Do you wish more people would?

And if you do share affiliate links, how does sharing them make you feel?

Make new friends for new interests

A climbing shoe on a rock

Have you ever experienced the following?

You get really into a new hobby or activity. You tried it for the first time recently and you can’t help but spend time doing it or reading or thinking about it. This activity or interest fascinates you and you want to learn more about it. Most of all, you want to share it with friends.

Except that you don’t have friends who share your new interest.

Think about the friends you have today. Why are you friends with them? Did you meet them at school or work? Did you meet them playing a sport? Do you share a certain interest with them?

I bet you can divide your friends into themes. There’s your high school friends, your sports friends, your work friends, and so on.

But what happens when you develop a new interest and none of your (close) friends share this interest? You then face the social challenge of finding people you can connect with over this activity.

For example, when I moved back to The Netherlands a year and a half ago, none of my existing Dutch friends were into bouldering. I had been bouldering regularly when I lived in San Francisco and I wanted to develop my skills and climb outdoors frequently.

I invited some of my existing friends to try out bouldering. They sort of enjoyed it, but not enough to do it often.

It took me a while to realize that that’s fine. I shouldn’t try to get my existing friends into bouldering. If they liked it enough to do it frequently, they wouldn’t need me to encourage them. And we share plenty of other interests over which I love to connect with them.

If this happens to you, realize that you can develop a new group of friends who do like the thing you’re newly into. Developing a new group of friends can be challenging, but it’s worth it to do things together with people who are excited, rather than people who are only indulging you temporarily.

For me, it took more than a year of chatting up people in the climbing gym to develop some friendships. You might have more luck, or it might take you even longer.

Either way, if you’ve developed a new interest and your family and existing friends aren’t into it, please do continue to explore it. And please don’t fight the lack of interest that your current social circle is showing. New friends who are excited about your newfound interest will come if you keep trying.