Release Valve Principles

One thing that is far too easy to do is get into mental loops of indecision, where you're weighing up options against options, never quite knowing what to do, but also not-knowing how to get out the loop.

There's definitely a kind of dollar auction dynamic that starts to happen, where you simultaneously feel guilty about having spent X minutes already without having made a choice, but given that you're here already you'll spend one more minute thinking and see if that gets you closer....

There's a partial solution to this which I call "release valve principles": basically, a pre-committed default decision rule you'll use if you haven't decided something within a given time frame.

I watched a friend do this when we were hanging out in a big city, vaguely looking for a bookshop we could visit but helplessly scrolling through googlemaps to try to find a good one; after five minutes he said "right" and just started walking in a random direction. He said he has a principle where if he hasn't decided after five minutes where to go he just goes somewhere, instead of spending more time deliberating.

As well as situations like the above where you have infinite choices, release valve principles can be useful in situations where you're on the fence between two specific choices.

For example: instead of hemming and hawing about whether to go to a certain party or stay home for the evening, you can pre-commit to the release valve principle that whenever you're on the fence about going to a party you'll just go ahead and do it. (You could equally pre-commit that whenever you're on the fence about going to a party you'll stay home – I'm not trying to encourage any party-going, specifically, just to encourage deadlock-breaking).

This actually adds another element to the choice: in my friend's city-activity case, the only aim was to stop wasting time, but for something like party-going the release valve is useful because your long-term self has different preferences from your short-term self. The release valve principle is an attempt to prod yourself into doing what your long-term self prefers, without forcing you into always doing X or never doing Y – it just kicks in when you're on the fence.

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