The Law of the Letter: The best way to inspire fresh thoughts is to seal the letter.
“It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off.”
Has this ever happened to you?
You’re at a nice restaurant that you’ve never been to. Everything on the menu looks fantastic. You read the menu. You reread it. You pore over every option, trying to make a decision for exactly what you want, which is hard, because you want it all.
The waitress comes over to take your order. You’re indecisive, but you finally pick something. She takes your order and walks away.
You look back down at the menu.
Maybe you didn’t want what you just ordered.
You finally change your mind and call the waitress over, hoping that they haven’t already started cooking whatever it was that you ordered.
When the meal comes, you are left wondering.
Should I have stuck with what I ordered originally?
The question haunts you during the entire main course, and while you enjoy what you ate, you’re not completely satisfied with the meal.
What did you do wrong?
As research from London Business School’s Yangjie Gu and others shows, you should have closed the menu right after you decided what you were going to order.
The problem is that Monkey Brain, what I call the limbic system, doesn’t deal well with too many decisions. Back in caveman days, his decisions were fairly basic:
- A) RUN FROM WOOLLY MAMMOTH
B) CHASE WOOLLY MAMMOTH
Therefore, Monkey Brain is built to make simple decisions very rapidly. You don’t want to sit around contemplating the justices of the world when the woolly mammoth is coming towards you.
“Will I hurt its feelings if I eat it for dinner?”
By the time you run through the pros and cons of the possible courses of action, you’re already a smudge on the bottom of the mammoth’s foot.
That’s why most of our snap decisions are made on emotions. Monkey Brain is much faster than your prefrontal cortex – the thinking you that is rational and contemplates abstract thoughts like the future – and will send you “gut feelings” to let you know what he wants.
Most of the time, he wants man caves and Jimmy Choo shoes.
Monkey Brain gets stumped, though, once there are a lot of options to choose from. Stand in front of the wine aisle at the grocery store to determine a bottle of wine to drink tonight, and Monkey Brain is stumped. He simply cannot come up with a simple enough system to choose one out of the hundreds of options.
So, Thinking You jumps in to help.
“We like reds.”
“We like Merlots.”
“We’ve heard of these wineries.”
“This label has a cool picture.”
So, you can narrow the choice field down to a few competitors, but even then, Monkey Brain will dither.
You have to short circuit the dithering, or you’ll be in the store all night with nary a bottle of wine chosen.
What do you do?
Flip a coin, perhaps. Or just tell yourself that you’re going to make a decision and that’s that.
As the experiments from Gu and others show, you’ve engaged in choice closure, and you’re going to make yourself happier over the long run.
If you don’t, what will happen is that once you’ve made a choice, Monkey Brain will start to play backseat driver.
“WHAT IF MERLOT NOT GOOD? WHAT IF CABERNET BETTER? WHAT ABOUT BEER?”
Whenever you question a decision, you wind up focusing only on the negatives of the decision that you made and the positives of the alternatives that you didn’t choose. Question yourself enough, and the horse that you chose starts to look like a nag while the others look like thoroughbreds, even if you picked a thoroughbred originally.
To trigger choice closure, you need to do something to make a decision. It can be mental – “Final Answer” – or it can be physical – closing the menu or pushing yourself away from the table before dessert arrives. Once you foreclose the possibility that you can change your mind, then you start to focus not on what might have been, but what you have in front of you, and you end up being happier with your decision as a result of creating that sense of finality.
Where else can we use choice closure to our benefit besides the restaurant?
Making financial decisions and sticking to them
In our financial lives, we face tons of decisions:
- Which investments to make?
- How much insurance to buy?
- Where can I find trusted information to help me get my life straight?
- How much should I save each month?
- Can I afford that car/house/island in the Pacific?
Several of those questions have many different choices that you could make. Which investments to make? At the end of 2012, there were 7,596 mutual funds in existence. You could choose a handful and still have no idea if you picked the right ones, and Monkey Brain would be telling you every night:
“YOU NOT JIM CRAMER.”
You’d toss and turn at night, wondering if you’re doing the right things with your money, and, finally, tired of Monkey Brain questioning your decisions, you’d change.
Or you’d try to time the market, which as we’ve seen previously, is lethal to your chances of having enough money at retirement.
However, if you could just trigger choice closure, you could make a decision and sleep soundly at night.
According to Gu’s team, there are four conditions that must be met for choice closure to be successful:
- You must perform the act of closure
- The act has to be related to the choice
- The act has to happen after the choice is made (but not too long afterwards), and
- You have to choose the outcome you want
However, the act doesn’t have to be a physical act completely related to the choice, such as sealing up the M&Ms bag once you’ve poured out a handful to symbolize that you’re not going to eat any more M&Ms than what you already have in your hand. It can also be metaphorical.
Let’s say that you’re going through the financial planning process. You could have an open book next to you as you go through the lesson, and once you’re finished and have results and decide what your savings strategy is going to be, close the book. Now you’ve “closed the book” on that decision and can move on with your life.
You could also do the same thing with an open door. Once you’ve learned how to budget and have decided on your budget, close the door. Stick with the decisions you made.
As an old company commander of mine once said, “mediocre plans violently executed are better than the best plans never executed at all.” Put into non-Army speak, it’s better to have a plan and aggressively execute against it than no plan at all.
Without choice closure, you’ll always question yourself, and you’re much less likely to actually do anything. Doing nothing is the worst financial plan you could ever have.
How do you finalize decisions? Is there anything symbolic you do? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!
- John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.
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