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?