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Choosing Not To Choose
Ever feel lost in a maze of too many options? Here's how one man let indecision be his friend.

By T.M. Shine
Sunday, December 14, 2008

This social experiment had to begin with doughnuts. They have always been my downfall. Not because of the fat, floury contents or the mortality-threatening sugar count, but because I can never decide which dozen to order in the intense pressure of a crowded Dunkin' Donuts. I start to drown in a torrent of rushed decisions and false moves, with nothing to look forward to but inevitable dissatisfaction with the choices I've made; the act has always been a metaphor for my life.

At some point, it occurred to me that my problem wasn't really doughnuts.

It was making decisions.

These days, there are so many choices to labor through, from the most basic, such as paper or plastic at the grocery checkout counter, to the nearly suicide-inducing, such as the friends-and-family plan or unlimited texting. And don't even get me started on undercoating or extended warranties.

In these tough times, the abundance of life-changing decisions -- finances, health care, career moves -- can be overwhelming. But don't take it from me. Ask the guy who wrote the book "The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making." That would be Scott Plous, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University. "There's no question that we have more choices than ever before," Plous agreed. "And decisions are generally harder and more time-consuming when there are lots of alternatives."

Even Steve Jobs, whose technology allows us the misery of 18,000 music selections in our pockets, has to counteract so many choices by wearing the same outfit -- blue jeans, black turtleneck, New Balance sneakers -- every single day of his life. With every move you make, you're bombarded with predicaments from the banal to the extraordinary, and you obviously can't trust yourself to make the right decisions anymore -- look where that's gotten you.

I know I'm not alone in this. We're all feeling a little needy now that The Decider is about to caravan back down to Texas. Whom can we turn to? The new resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. might have some more important things on his mind than our individual indecisiveness. Friends and family always have their own agendas; therapists are useless; and, since the economic meltdown, there is a three-month wait to get in to see a psychic in this town. So, who's left?

Strangers, of course. They're everywhere.

"Excuse me," I said to the woman behind me one morning in the queue at Dunkin' Donuts. "I'm currently asking strangers to make all my decisions. Would you mind picking out a dozen doughnuts for me?"

"I'll order two, but then you're on your own," she said.

"Never mind."

Everyone knows the first two doughnuts are the easy ones.

"I'll do it, but you'll have to tell me what you like," a gangly woman who had overheard the previous exchange said.

"Thanks, but that kind of defeats my purpose," I responded.

"As long as you're paying," a thick-armed guy shrugged at me just as it was his turn to order.

He attacked the chore with glee. His choices were a blur of glaze and frosting. He stopped only once, looked back at me and said, "Sprinkles, two sprinkles," and they fell into the box with the majesty of a fireworks grand finale.

It was a win-win, a successful random act of indecision (RAI). And I was striking a blow for science. "Your experiment will reveal how much pleasure in a dessert comes from it simply being a dessert, rather than a dessert that you would have chosen," Plous had observed. "In many cases, the difference in benefit between two choices is smaller than we'd guess."

And that's not even counting the pleasure of not having to be the one to make the tough decisions. I couldn't wait to get home and have someone in my family make a face about the two apple crumbs -- Why'd you pick the-e-e-se? -- so I could reply quite proudly, "I didn't."

Just Add Water

This may be the best idea I've ever had. For two weeks, I relinquished control over my decisions. I turned the reins over to perfect (well, I don't know about perfect) strangers.

Imagine the possibilities. You go shopping for sneakers and ask the person in the next aisle to pick out a pair for you, or you hop in a taxi and ask the driver to take you where he thinks you should go. Start small. At a restaurant, approach the couple eating at the next table -- "I hate to bother you, but I need to know what I want for dessert" -- and work your way up to bigger decisions: "Burial or cremation?"

You can't start smaller than Starbucks. I was bellying up to the barista, perspiring heavily from a bike ride, when I started to ask the woman beside me what I wanted to drink. She cut me off midway through my spiel about how I was asking strangers to make my decisions and social experiment and whatnot ... She didn't need any of that nonsense.

"Just have a water," she said, snatching a bottle from the front case and thrusting it at me.

She herself ordered something that took the barista 11 moves to make, but I was suddenly a model of simplicity: a sweaty man drinking cold water.

Already, my life was beginning to emerge from the fog. Left to stew in my own brew of insecurities, I'd still be tortured over caf, decaf or half-caf. And the encounter didn't seem odd. Thanks to television shows such as "The Office" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," awkwardness is now fashionable. Awkward is the new suave.

Moments later, I asked a gentleman at the newsstand if I should become a night shaver instead of a morning shaver. I always wanted to be a night shaver -- go to bed cleanly shaven and wake up with sexy stubble that would be alluring until at least noon and ...

"Absolutely not," the gentleman said.

I'm sure he's right.

Later in the day, when I asked a sandy-haired woman at Old Navy to pick out a shirt for me, she began to look me up and down as if I were trying to pass through a security checkpoint. I didn't mind the once-over, but the twice-over and the thrice-over were a bit annoying. Her eyes were darting and zooming in on my weaknesses. Zoom: Stain on shirt he's wearing -- sloppy guy. Zoom: Right ear noticeably bigger than left -- bad genes. Zoom: Scar on wrist -- possible suicide attempt.

I had to fight the urge to stop her and shout: The scar's just from punching a lamppost. It's not even going the right direction for a suicide attempt.

Zoom: Chicken legs. They're not really chicken legs. They're more like free-range chicken legs, which are a little more muscular than chicken legs because they're ... you know ... running free. But I stopped myself. I didn't want her decision muddied by all the same junk in my head that muddies my decisions.

Once committed, she was sincere and devoted to the cause. "I want you to have a crisper, cleaner look," she exclaimed.

When an actual employee of the store overheard part of our conversation and asked quizzically, "Sir, can I assist you?" my new helper quickly snapped back, "No, I've got this."

She did. She had this all the way. "And don't tuck it in," she said, as I headed for the checkout counter. "It's designed to be worn out."

I was still feeling crisp and clean when I stopped at the library. The mission: to give a stranger the chore of selecting a book for me.

"You sure? Picking out a book ... that's kind of an intimate decision," the chosen one said. She was sitting at a tiny table with a little boy and looking up at me as if I was one more irritation in an already long day. But once I said I was positive, she popped up as if she'd just adopted me, no questions asked.

"Follow me."

With the little boy in hand, she cut across the library with the supermarket stride of a mom who just realized she'd forgotten the Fruit Roll-Ups two aisles back. We were headed deep into the bowels -- past the large prints and the self-helps, beyond the reference books, even. Then she stopped short, pivoted, dropped a four-pound book in my hands and said, "Here."

I thanked her profusely, but I'm not sure it even registered. She just mentally checked me off her list and was on her way. The whole encounter -- in fact, the entire day -- was astonishing. By dusk, my new life's course had been set by an entire team of people whose names I didn't even know.

I'd accepted all advice without question, with one exception: While at the local cineplex, I asked the third woman in line what I should see, and she said, "Nights in Rodanthe." I just couldn't do it. I went home to watch "Bones" on TV.

At an ATM stop on the way home, I gave the gentleman waiting in the shadows behind me no preface, no social experiment bull, no need for a full body scan. I just asked -- "Should I get up early tomorrow or sleep in?" -- and he just knew.

"Sleep in."

Good decision. I needed the sleep, because I stayed up late reading "The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong." I got to Page 136 before closing my eyes on a brave new world.

Not Sweating the Big Stuff

If any one group of people was ever in need of a diversion it's the group waiting for the 12:15 p.m. to Newark.

At least that's what I thought when I arrived at the airport with an armful of decisions that needed making. In my hands were printouts of several health-care and financial options, as well as a brochure for night courses available at a nearby junior high school. With that kind of workload, I needed people both bored and contained.

I figured it would be awfully hard for a stranger sprawled out on industrial grade carpet, barefoot, using a pink duffel bag as a pillow and reading OK! magazine to tell me, "Sorry, I'm too busy right now."

It wasn't that hard. In fact, she didn't even stretch out the response that way. She just chirped, "Bizzy."

My next stratagem was to approach individuals who appeared friendly, which meant they were wearing sneakers. Well, people who wear sneakers are actually quite ornery.

Oddly, it's the Bluetooth type -- and, more specifically, individuals with two laptops -- who are the most gracious, endearing people on the planet and who are ideal for this type of social experiment.

"I don't do experiments, but let me see those papers," a two-laptop guy said, snatching the documents out of my hands.

I told him he didn't have to do it all, that I was going to spread the work around, but he ignored me. Then, without looking up, he handed the junior high brochure back to me and said, "Get somebody else for this."

I left him looking over the financial papers and found a guy four seats over who took two phone calls just during the 15 seconds it took me to explain my predicament.

"Okay, what have we got here?" he finally said as if he were used to people constantly sticking things under his nose to sign off on. When it came to making big decisions, he was on cruise control.

"Does the class have to be useful?" he asked. "There's stuff like 'How to Start a Home Business,' and then there's just junk like ... like calligraphy."

"Useless is good," I said.

Back in the next row, just as Two-Laptops started thumbing through the health-care and financial documents, a colleague of his showed up, and he was quite gregarious, so I thought for sure my man was going to get sidetracked. But Two-Laptops was homed in on my task, and the next thing I knew, the associate wanted in and had his hands on the health plans.

"I used to be in the insurance business," the associate said. That initially turned me off because I thought he might still have cronies in the business and try to sway me toward his old buddy Kenny who sells overpriced coverage to imbeciles. But then he added, "They're all scum," so I nodded my approval.

My approval. Listen to me. I had become extremely giddy, especially when I spotted Night-Course Guy using the Wall Street Journal as a makeshift desk as he circled items in the junior high brochure.

It was at that moment that I decided that when I do "Random Acts of Indecision" motivational talks -- around the Northeast and selected regions of the Midwest -- this will be the anecdote I wow my disciples with right before the lunch break buffet, which is going to be excellent.

While the boys were diligently working away on major decisions I didn't want any part of and there was a good 20 minutes till boarding, I had planned to leave them alone. Tell them I'd be over by Gate 34, sitting with the people waiting to go to Detroit.

But before I could stray, they started bombarding me with questions. With hands raised, they had me running back and forth between them like a schoolteacher monitoring a class.

"Do you already have coverage?"

"Yes, but I need to switch."

"So, it hasn't lapsed yet?"

"No."

"Are you going to be adding money to your 401(k)?"

"No, I don't plan on ever making any more money."

"Do you like watercolors?"

"No, I mean, yes!"

I kept thinking that all this unusual activity at the airport could attract the attention of Homeland Security agents, and possible Tasing.

"Are you the type that would seek out unconventional treatments and never give up?" Two-Laptops asked.

"No, no, I'm famous for giving up."

But, they didn't give up. Which is the beauty of RAI.

End result:

1. BlueCross BlueShield Limited Benefits Plan 71 -- hospital and surgical only.

2. Straight Vanguard money market account with annual yield of 0.09 percent.

3. One-stroke painting.

Okay, people, let's break for lunch.

Danger Signs

When I told my friend Laura about RAI and how much I was getting accomplished, thanks to leaving all my decisions to strangers, she posed an interesting question.

"What if you can't stop?"

That is a good question. And, in fact, I've decided there is no good reason to shut down this adventure after only two weeks. Random Acts of Indecision is not a social experiment. It's a lifestyle.

I was finishing up this story at a restaurant not far from my house, the first laptop loiterer this pizza place had probably ever seen. It was a glorious day. A day for calling in sick to work, buying 14 pounds of grapes from Whole Foods and stomping them into wine in your basement.

I was so giddy with indecision that I wanted to come up with decisions I didn't even have to make. Should I rotate the crops on my squash farm this year? What color ribbons should I put in my lapdog's hair after today's grooming? Should I start Terrell Owens on my fantasy football team this week?

I'm not usually one to look too far into the future, especially since several people have told me I don't have one, but nothing gives me more pleasure than to envision myself at a roof garden party in 2012 as a woman nudges her date while muttering, "Look, that's the guy who hasn't made a decision of his own since November '08."

I couldn't wait for some moment of great turmoil -- a bind, a dilemma, a predicament of major proportions -- with people coming at me from every side shouting, "What are you going to do? What are you going to do?!" so I could calmly respond, "It's not for me to decide."

Midway through this endeavor, I interrupted Maryland-based professional life coach Christy Helou's lunch to get her expert opinion on Random Acts of Indecision. "It's an interesting and intriguing experiment," she said over the phone. "Except for a little thing called the loss of control over one's life."

"Oh," I said. "I hadn't thought of that."

That sounds a lot like a disaster in the making, doesn't it? But it also sounds a little bit like being free.

As I wrote these words, I was eating a slice of pizza with toppings -- mushroom and sausage -- chosen by the frail man I had held the door open for five minutes before. I was wearing a crisp striped shirt picked out by a meticulous sandy-haired woman and, between sips of iced tea, glancing at Page 351 of a book that was enlightening me to the "Cho-WE Cho-WE" of the Carolina wren -- all the while patiently waiting for the next customer to come through the door to decide whether I wanted to use the eatery's rarely cleaned restroom or wait until I got home.

The burden of responsibility for my life has lifted. Evangelicals and alcoholics have their moments of being born again, and this is mine. The old adage "You have no one to blame but yourself" doesn't apply to me anymore. Next year, when things go wrong, I will have no one to blame but each and every one of you.

T.M. Shine last wrote for the Magazine about Washington's seats of power. He blogs at tmshine.blogspot.com and can be reached at tmshine@msn.com.

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