• John Wastnage

Sliding Doors and the importance of Micro-Choices

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Almost every aspect of your future is affected by the decisions you make each day. That may sound surprising, but fortunately the effects aren't usually perceivable and even if they were, we would struggle to know if they were positive or negative.

‘The future depends on what you do today’

(Mahatma Gandhi)

Some choices have more obvious effects than others, but there are also some decisions that we barely notice which end up having surprisingly important impacts on our lives. I recently re-watched the film Sliding Doors, which charts how even the most inconsequential choice, action or event may have the potential totally to alter a person's future life course. Knowing that, you may wonder 'how might I examine these micro-choices more carefully?' and, 'is there a way to be a bit more deliberate about the choices I make?'

A still from the film, 'Sliding Doors': Gwyneth Paltrow just manages to catch the closing doors of a London Underground train before it departs. Through the window we can see John Hannah seated inside the carriage.
Even the slightest event, choice or action can send your life on a different path


In this post I explore how humans discriminate between decisions of different importance and how even choices with no apparent consequences may affect the narrative variables of your life. I also discuss how the brain has evolved to survive the tidal wave of decisions we encounter and ways that each of us can make our lives less stressful, reduce tiredness and improve outcomes.

A million 'inconsequential' decisions each month

The average adult takes tens of thousands of (somewhat) conscious decisions each day. It should be clear immediately that such a large number of choices exceeds our capacity for deep consideration. Fortunately, like most people, you're probably pretty good at sorting decisions according to their likely impact on (what I call) 'the major narrative variables' of your life - the most important and defining aspects of your life.

The Major Narrative Variables of your Life

Some examples of major narrative variables are:

o What studies and training you complete
o Where you live
o Which friends you spend time with
o Whether you have a romantic partner and, if so, whom?
o Whether you have kids, how many and when?
o Which habits and routines you develop
o Which interests you pursue
o Which jobs and roles you take
o How healthy you are and how long you live

'Sliding Doors' Moments: the big decisions we don't realise we take

Of course, some of the decisions that we classify as minimal-impact may actually have an unexpectedly important impact. For example, imagine you've been out for dinner with friends and are travelling home alone. You're tired so you decide to take a taxi.. Do you save money by using UberPool (share your taxi with strangers) or do you splash out on a taxi just for you? I'm guessing you wouldn't give a second thought to how this decision might affect your life beyond saving a little money or getting into bed a little sooner.

A blue infographic shows an UberPool taxi car driving between several different destinations in a city. A bubble shows three passengers in the back seats of the car: a caucasian bearded young man sits in the middle seat with a young caucasian female to his right and a young black female to his left.
Even practical decisions can lead to surprising outcomes

  • In the 'UberPool life' perhaps the stranger in your taxi is someone you find attractive.. you start chatting and exchange numbers.. Years later, you tell the story, at your wedding, of how you met in an Uber.

  • In the other life, the one you actually choose, the stranger in the UberPool drives past; both of you oblivious to the alternative life you might have lived. Instead you're back home in your bed before you know it and you congratulate yourself for investing in a speedier journey home. It sounds a bit sad, this 'missed life', doesn't it? But then a few months later you meet the person of your dreams -someone you wouldn't have met if you had hooked up with the stranger in the Uber.

And there's the rub. Even if you knew the consequences of each individual decision you wouldn't know which path might lead you to the happier life.

No Point Worrying about 'Sliding Doors'

Perhaps you can think of some 'inconsequential' decisions from your past that led to major impacts? Undoubtedly there are millions of different paths your life might have taken that you'll never know about and the ones you recognise in hindsight are only a small fraction of these. In any case, you're not able to spot them in advance and so they remain hidden among the other 'inconsequentials' that you necessarily filter out.

Brainpower and Efficient Filtering of Important Decisions

Making decisions uses a lot of energy and our brains have evolved to ration brain power so that we conserve energy. This makes us less likely to starve and increases the chances that we have brain power available for situations that might affect our survival. Consequently, most people are pretty good at recognising decisions that are likely to affect their life in a noticeable way. We're also good at understanding which decisions require the most brain power and deepest consideration. These two filters (value and effort) enable us to allocate our attention as effectively as possible. In other words, you differentiate between:

  • decisions where more consideration is worthwhile, including important purchases and life choices; and

  • other decisions that you barely give a thought to and simply take in your stride.

In reality it's more like an imperfect continuum from the decisions you take most care over to those that are almost instinctive.

Not Perfect, but Good Enough

Our judgement isn't always perfect and sometimes we devote too little energy to what ought to be a careful decision and other times we lose sleep over a choice between two similar options or ones with little consequence. You may also have experienced 'Choice Paralysis' (also known as 'Analysis Paralysis'). I cover that issue in a separate post here. Overall we accept the risk of a few mistakes and unforeseen 'sliding doors' moments as a price worth paying for our ability to focus more energy on the big decisions and the other aspects of enjoying life.

Thinking is Expensive

a close-up photo shows a jumble of Jelly Belly jelly beans of assorted colours
A high-glucose snack can aid decision-making

As I've already explained, aside from time constraints, an important reason why we have evolved to focus our energy and conscious deliberation on just a small number of decisions is calories. While the brain accounts for approximately 2% of an average person's mass, it uses 20% of their energy. The brain runs exclusively on glucose, and just like a car accelerating up a steep hill, it uses more fuel when engaged in difficult problem solving than when daydreaming or performing a routine task. In fact, the more difficult the task, the more cognitive activity and fuel used.

Decision Fatigue

The problem isn't so much the amount of energy used in a day, but the inability of the body to keep feeding your brain enough glucose in the moment. The truth is we simply can't afford to think carefully about every decision, because our brains need time to rest. 'Decision fatigue' is a recognised effect in psychology, whereby too many decisions can lead to a deterioration in a person's decision-making ability, decision avoidance or selecting the status quo. Likewise, general fatigue reduces the quality of our decision making and consuming dense calories (e.g. sugary drink) can provide a temporary boost to your decision-making abilities. In particular, decisions that include some sort of trade-off have been shown to require a lot of energy.

Cumulative micro-choices and the power of habit

This brings us back to those million or so decisions we face each month, and in particular, decisions we can make without expending much or any cognitive energy. From a coaching perspective, I'm interested in my clients' ability to differentiate between decisions that are worth spending energy on and those where any decision is better than over-analysis. I also work with them to explore situations where habit and routine provide or might provide 'good enough' solutions.

We work together to form new habits and routines that reduce the number of choices they make so that they can focus more brain power on other, more important decisions. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are famous examples of business people who limit the range of clothes they wear to remove a decision from their morning routine. Such as change wouldn't be right for everyone, but most of us can introduce new routines to make life easier. Such changes help my clients to reduce stress and fatigue and achieve better outcomes. The other aspect to this is that these micro choices can add up over time to have a large cumulative effect. Changing unhelpful habits or forming new useful ones can have a big positive effect on your life.

If you're interested in finding out more about how my coaching can help you to improve your decision-making and/or form better habits, then please SEND ME A MESSAGE about your situation. Alternatively go ahead and BOOK THE 'TASTER' SESSION (on the 'Get Started' page).
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