Decision-making in Real Time

The other day, I was driving north on the 110 toward a hair appointment in Studio City. All roads were clear for the first ten minutes and I was cruising along. But by the time I got past the 405, the roads began to clog up. This has happened before, of course, (I live in Los Angeles, after all) and most of the time, it happens when I’m in a rush.

Luckily, since moving to San Pedro, a lesser-known part of the city nestled in next to the Los Angeles harbor, my husband and I have enjoyed the perks of having a “fast pass”—which, for east coasters, is akin to the EZ Pass, debiting money off of your account when you drive by electronic sensors. In Los Angeles, the fast pass allows drivers access to pre-designated express lanes for a small or large toll, depending on how high the volume of traffic is at a given time. For example, during rush hour, a given toll might be five dollars (tolls are ultimately calculated based on where you enter and exit the expressway), while in the middle of the night, when traffic is more likely to be light, estimated toll for the same route might equal seventy-five cents. The idea is that at times of greater traffic, only a few will pay to use the expressway, keeping it open and moving.

On this particular Thursday, just after 9 am, the roads were fairly congested. The digital information board hanging above the entrance to the express lanes recorded a toll of nine dollars for the distance from where the expressway started (close to where the 110 and 405 join) to downtown LA. There was also a handy calculation recorded regarding how much time I would save, in this case, a guess of fifteen minutes. Already preoccupied with the task of driving through stop and go traffic, I began to perform the cost/benefit analysis in my mind: how much was I willing to pay to guarantee I would arrive at the salon on time?

Definitely not nine dollars, I decided, but the decision came up again and again as I passed additional entrances to the express lanes further up the freeway. Each point recorded a lower cost (since there was less distance for which I would enjoy the express lanes), but it was still more than I wanted to pay. I begin thinking of other costs in my mind and how I reacted to them. If this was a parking fee, would I pay or drive around the block a few times? Recalling the many arguments my husband and I had had early in our relationships about downtown LA parking garages versus street parking, I knew the answer was drive around.

At one point, I called my husband, because the whole thing was taking over my brain and I needed it back to, you know, focus on not crashing in to the car in front of me. I did not have enough room or time to make this decision, which had become increasingly complicated. Every time I decided not to join the express lanes, thereby passing another entry point, I worried I would regret it. His advice: “See how it goes. You can join later if you need to, but if you have the extra time, just stay on the 110. But don’t make yourself miserable if it’s bad just to save a few bucks.”

As you can imagine, this response only added to my confusion. I rode along in the left lane, tempted at each opening to join the other cars flying right by. A couple times, I resisted, but in the end, I decided I should use the express lanes while they were at my disposal, which they wouldn’t be later, when I merged on to the 101 freeway. My logic: make up the time now that you might not be able to make up later.

Ultimately, I was about fifteen minutes early to my appointment and four dollars poorer. The fact that I’d succumbed to paying for time I didn’t need bothered me, and of course, I proceeded to regret my thought process, realizing that if I had had an opportunity to pull over to the side of the road and consider my options, I would’ve decided I could take a gamble in the free lanes and ride it out.

This is just one example of how decision-making has gotten more complicated in the technology age. As if it wasn’t enough that as adults, we have to decide on all sorts of complicated things like which apartment to rent, which house to buy, what type of health insurance to contract, and if and when to have kids, now we are burdened by a new type of multi-tasking/fast-paced decision-making process. Essentially this: Run the pros and cons of a five or ten dollar purchase based on limited information while also driving your car on a six-lane freeway and trying not to crash. (It’s a wonder no one did, isn’t it?)

Decision-making, no matter which form it is presented in, is proven to be taxing. In fact, so is the regret many of us often have afterwards, when we’ve recovered from the decision fatigue (or just life fatigue) and have a clear mind with which to evaluate it. After the hair appointment, I also bought a seven-dollar chocolate peanut butter milkshake, which I regretted even more than the four or five dollars I spent on tolls. Why did I buy it? I had been sitting in a salon chair for three hours and it was hot outside. Why did I regret it? It was a seven-dollar, billion-calorie dessert that left me feeling sick to my stomach and did a terrible job of replacing the lunch I’d skipped.


With the advent of more and better and faster, decision-making has become that much more frequent and exhausting. At every turn, we need to make a choice, and every choice, for some reason, feels significant. Part of this, I think, is because we have access to more research with which to evaluate our choices. But does more information always lead us to better decision-making? I can’t say I’m convinced.

A lot of the time, by the time we are faced with a decision, we are at the end of our ropes and the choices we make are quite different from what a more energetic, thoughtful version of ourselves would’ve committed to.

The easiest solution, it seems, is to slow down. Why do we have to decide so quickly? This might apply to some decisions, of course, but much in the world has become competitive. You cannot sit on a house offer for too long before another buyer swoops in and takes your dream home away. The same applies to a good deal, which often is advertised for a limited time or offered in a limited number. I learned this the hard way when delaying the purchase of my Amtrak tickets by two days resulted in my discount fare being sold out at the 8:30 am time I preferred. The end result: I have to wake up at 5:30 am to catch a 6:30 train at the same discounted price. As far as consequences go, this one is not terrible, of course, but there is some regret that I didn’t act faster and get my top choice.

Ultimately, however, I realized we cannot be a slave to these decisions (or the regret that comes with being too hasty), because there are too many choices we are daily faced with and it simply takes more energy than we have to dwell on what could’ve been. I’ve pledged to try to remember, in the heat of manically shopping a Target designer collaboration in the wee hours of the night or determining whether or not I should act on a Living Social deal, that all decisions are not made alike and every one will not have the same level of impact on my life.

This allows me to give less power to each choice, and to sometimes simply choose what is quickest or easiest, knowing that the effects will be short-term if noticeable at all. Meanwhile, forgiving yourself a few thoughtless (instinctual) moments means you will have more energy and brainpower available to ponder the bigger, more potentially calamitous questions.