Get Unstuck by Making Contentless Decisions

Stuck? Dead in the water? The problem isn’t you. The problem is value, or lack thereof. Read on. Or not.

Has this happened to you? You’re cruising along on a project — let’s say for argument’s sake it’s a painting, and you come to a point where you have to make what seems to be a decision vital to the piece.

Maybe it’s a choice of color, or something to do with composition — the arrangement of human bodies in the painting, who knows. But it’s something that has to be decided… and you can’t decide. Nothing about this particular decision seems clear. All the options have the same virtues, or the same vices.

You ponder things. You weigh one direction against another. You feel something in you shrink, your enthusiasm and energy leaks out of you. Your brain, fine tuned for suggestions that you suck, starts scanning the painting for supporting evidence. You spot small mistakes all over the place. You question your ability to do anything other than make bad paintings.

Half an hour later you’re scraping your palette. The canvas is off the easel and placed against a wall with the backside of the canvas facing out. You feel tired and done for the day. Pity. Things began in the studio so well. Funny, earlier you made decision after decision without a pause. You were cruising along! What in the hell happened?? (Steve McQueen yells this in The Sandpebbles at the end of the movie…)

An unmade decision can be like a knife to your tires. It stops your momentum and runs the project off the road.

Let’s look at decisions, briefly.

You’re a vegan, and you’re at a restaurant, and you’ve got to choose an entree. You look at the menu and decide some things immediately: no meat; the pasta is made with eggs so no pasta… tempura vegetables sounds good, but you don’t want fried food because it makes you fart. Hmmm…

Ah! There’s a bunch of vegetarian entrees… and the decisions get harder and a little slower… zucchini noodles with a marinara sauce sounds pretty good. Maybe that. Then you realize you’re wearing white and don’t want to risk a tomato stain. Sigh.

Finally, you narrow it down to cauliflower crust pizza or seitan stuffed cabbage leaves. Both sound good. You haven’t had pizza in a while and you’re trying to go keto, but seitan stuffed cabbage! You’ve never had that before! Which do you choose???

You ask the waiter’s opinion. She says the seitan is amazing. You order the seitan. Decision finally made.

Decisions between things that have huge differences in apparent value are very easy to make. Meat! Yuck! No meat for me! But as the differential between values decreases, decisions become harder to make. Six vegetarian options… what am I in the mood for? Eventually, the values equal out, and the decision becomes almost impossible to make. Hence, you ask the waiter.

Chokepoints in decision making almost always occur when no particular choice has more “weight” than another. The scale of comparison doesn’t have much of a discernible tip to it.

You can get through these chokepoints by making what I call a Contentless Decision. It’s a decision that has to be made to continue work — to maintain momentum — but the actual content of the decision doesn’t really matter.

As an example: you’re decorating a room in your house and you’re down to three colors: a light green, a light plumb, and a light powder blue. The furniture in the room works with all the colors. No one particular shade darkens the room more than the others. You’ve no visceral reaction to any color because of some bizarre childhood incident. You’re standing in front of of the Benjamin Moore display, holding three color swatches and watching the sun go down as your life trickles away… tick tick tick.

You need to ask the waiter. Or you can throw the three swatches up in the air and whichever one lands on the ground face-up is the color. Or if two are face up then the one that’s face down is the choice.

Because the content — the actual color you choose — doesn’t matter. All that matters is a decision is made and the room gets painted.

And no one is going walk into your light plumb room and declare, “These walls should be green!” And if someone does, then you can repaint the damn room if you want. It’s not the same as knocking out a wall, is it?

I buy decks of blank playing cards off Amazon and customize them with a Sharpie. I have a set for web design. On the back of the cards is a word, like “header” or “footer,” or some other common element of a website. On the other side is a rough sketch of a different layout of a header, or a different layout of a footer. I have perhaps eight header cards, six footer cards, etc. If I visit a site that has an element that has a cool design, an interesting footer I’ve never seen before, I pull out a blank playing card and scribble a sketch and write “footer” across the back.

Sometimes there are really specific criteria for a site’s design — there are clear values — and laying out a page, or a box or a slide element is an easy decision. It’s like no meat for the vegan. But, often with design it simply doesn’t matter. Very few people are going to ever scroll down to the footer. As long as it has the address and the Terms of Service, or whatever else crap needs to be there, it doesn’t matter what it looks like provided it doesn’t look bad. So I pull out my cards, shuffle the footers and pick one, and that is what I make.

My sketches are really fast and awful, so there is creative interpretation necessary. And often while building an idea strikes me and I toss out the design on the card and go with the new idea. And that’s fine. The point is to keep going and finish the site, not to have the best footer ever. Because no one is going to scroll to the bottom of the website and say, “Good lord! This footer is horrific! I refuse to leave my contact information with these people. And repaint this room!”

I have all sorts of cards for contentless decision making. I have a bunch labeled “15 Minutes.” Because often I have so many things to do on disparate projects that I get stuck trying to make up my mind and end up watching videos about WW2 aircraft on YouTube. So now I peel off a card and simply do what it says. Clean the office for 15 minutes. Update SEO content for 15 minutes. Yada yada yada. And then I hit YouTube later. And I don’t feel guilty.

Of course, you can also throw dice, do eenie meenie minee moe, toss things up in the air and see what lands face up, or ask the waiter.

It’s the making of the decision that’s important.

(I’m not a vegan. I have contentless decision cards to help me select which sausage.)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *