The importance of wiggle room

Giving yourself some wiggle room, cutting yourself some slack, or being gentle to yourself, is likely to help you make better decisions in times of great uncertainty.

Here is a sample of questions I’ve recently received from readers, clients, and friends:

  • Should I fly to visit my elderly parent?
  • Should I have my son travel across the country to attend a school that is giving him a scholarship or have him stay closer to home to attend a more reputable school?
  • Given the current job market, should I stay at my job even though I hate it even more than ever?

These are variations of “How do I decide when there is so much uncertainty?

wiggle room
Are you leaving some wiggle room in your mind?

Of course, the answer is an unsatisfying “it depends.” The “right answer” will depend on the person’s preferences, resources, values and circumstances.

And, note, I did not say “best answer.” We can’t possibly know what that could be. And, it doesn’t make sense to try to find what’s “best” since it doesn’t exist. We rarely have the opportunity, let alone the ability, to identify, simulate and compare outcomes of complex life choices side by side, as we can printers.

Instead I suggest…

Two things to avoid

First, beware of the scarcity mindset. In their book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives (Amazon / Bookshop)*, MacArthur genius grant winner Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir describe how believing that a resource (e.g. time, money, food, etc.) is scarce hijacks our minds so that we get tunnel vision. It also reduces our bandwidth, prompting us to make poorer decisions.

For example, when parents believe that there are not enough spots on sports teams or at certain schools, they are more likely to become preoccupied with the scarcity and even inadvertently neglect other important aspects of their child’s life.

During the pandemic, when we heard that there were toilet paper shortages, we suddenly feared running out of something we rarely paid attention to. And as a result, if you were like me, you forgot to add other items you needed to your shopping cart.

Second, don’t add to your decision fatigue.

As we first learned of COVID-19, there were so many disruptions to our routines but also so many new questions we did not need to give a second thought to: How should I get groceries? When can I go to the laundry room in my apartment building? Where can I find a quiet place to work? Should I call my doctor? Can I order pizza?

A world health crisis isn’t the only thing that can tax us. There are times when we are overloaded by work or family obligations and decisions. Too many choices, big or small, can deplete us of our energy. When that happens, we get cranky and sometimes do or say things we regret, causing more strife.

How to create wiggle room

To avoid shrinking bandwidth or tunnel vision, here are some suggestions for creating some wiggle room in your decision making.

  • Try to think of a diversity of options. Dan Pink suggests that we not ask ourselves, “What should I do?” but “What could I do?” Also, don’t limit yourself to yes vs. no, this vs. that, or dichotomous solutions. Try coming up with a hybrid solution or additional options you had not thought of before.
  • Make a temporary choice. Or, try to stagger the options.
  • Similarly, don’t try to take on the burden of the decision making on your own. It helps to talk to other people. But, rather than get their opinions on your choice, have them help you brainstorm options or reasoning you haven’t thought of before.
  • Give yourself a break from making a lot of decisions right now. Consider making decisions earlier in the day when you are not fatigued.

Think of wiggle room as extra breaths you can take or buffer zones that keep you safe. These will allow you to feel more expansive and a bit more in control during times of uncertainty.

And, of course, if you would like some assistance with any of this, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

*Some of the links on this page are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a small commission, but at no cost to you.

This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in June 2020.