“Chicken or Fish”


So, this happened …

I was on the phone with my friend, Ashley, who really needed my help with an expensive dilemma that she was facing. Ashley was trying to decide which one of two rings to buy, but couldn’t find a strong enough reason to select one over the other. I was trying to be useful, asking clever questions about the rings to help her make a final decision, but she’d already thought through all that, and I wasn’t helping her any further.

So I took a slightly different approach, I ignored the rings and started talking to her about my recent restaurant visit, where I had been similarly stuck choosing between the chicken or the fish options.

I remember that the menu descriptions made both look really appealing, but of course I could only choose one main meal, so I was trying to find some factor which would allow me to finally and confidently decide which one was definitely going to be better than the other.

In a moment of clarity (which was not helped by everyone shouting at me to make up my mind) I realised that only way of knowing for sure which would be better, would be to order both, but of course that wasn’t going to happen. And even if one were slightly better than the other, the second best would probably still taste really good. I also realised that if the worst happened, if the chicken turned out to be off, who’s to say that the fish wouldn’t have been off too!

There was no way of knowing. There was no correct answer. And so I just randomly chose one. Chicken or fish. Pick one now. Any one. It really doesn’t matter.

So I did.

Ashley sat silently on the phone after I finished my story, allowing my ‘punchline’ to sink in. After a bit, she spoke up. “Chicken or fish,” she repeated. “OK, you’re right. I may as well choose the cluster ring.”

And she did.

Simple definition

Chicken or Fish: We sometimes face a decision where we get stuck: although the choices are different, they feel ‘similar’ enough that we can’t decide which one will be better. Of course the outcomes may be different, but at this moment there is no way of truly knowing which outcome will be best.  The way to deal with these sticking points is to accept the futility of trying to ‘know’ what you should do. So pick one – any one – because further thinking will not add value.

Discussing what this means

There is something odd that behavioural scientists have noticed about decision-making.

  • Consider someone who has to choose between two items, where one is much better than the other. In this case, the person makes the decision quickly since the difference is obvious.
  • Afterwards the person has to choose between another two items – and although the difference is clear, it’s not as blatant as before. So the person still makes the right decision, but it takes a little longer.
  • And again, yet another two items are presented and they are still different, but much more similar than before. Again, the person would still choose the better item correctly, but it takes even longer.
  • As the two items become more and more similar, and it becomes harder to differentiate between the two, the person spends ever-increasing amount of time on making the right decision.

This makes no sense because, as the two choices become increasingly similar, we end up spending more and more time trying to determine which is better. Which is so odd because the difference between the two has become negligible, they have become almost the same. Our brain is desperately trying to find ways of determining which is better, when indeed our brain should have worked out that it really doesn’t matter anymore.

Analysis Paralysis

Like me in the restaurant, struggling to decide on the chicken dish or the fish dish. Seriously, what was my brain thinking? Did I think that by reading the menu description a seventh time I would suddenly realise which one was going to be better? Did I think I would notice some hidden message from the chef that I’d missed before?

And that’s what the #hashtag “Chicken or Fish” is trying to do – it is reminding us that we’re dealing with a situation where the difference between the two choices is immaterial (and even if there is a difference, it isn’t knowable until after the decision is taken), so pick one – any one – because further thinking will not add value.

And not to be too repetitive here, but it’s an important point, I am not saying that if you can somehow choose both items, that they will end up being identical. They almost certainly will not. The point is – unless you order them both – you cannot know which one is going to be better.

By noticing when you’re caught in such a pointless dilemma, by having a convenient #hashtag for your brain to shout out in the moment, you will effectively remind yourself it’s time to just pick one – any one – and move on. You will waste less time, avoid the stress of analysis-paralysis, and you’ll stop the circular thinking of believing that more contemplation will somehow produce a better outcome, which it almost certainly will not.


And since communication is such an important part of #HashtagYourLife, remember that if your partner – for example – is always getting caught like this, then a gentle ‘nudge’ by pointing out the “Chicken or Fish” nature of their situation can be a polite yet powerful way of triggering a quick decision from them.

  • (A quick aside, which was written after the #HashtagYourLife system went online: While I was designing the website, I engaged with a designer to help bring my vision for a logo to life, and ended up with two options, both of which I really liked, but I couldn’t decide which was better. I asked some friends, and they were equally split between the two. And in spite of the fact that I had written this “Chicken or Fish” chapter, I remember that night, unable to sleep, my mind was stuck deciding between the two logos. In my half drowsy state, while picturing the two options in my mind, suddenly I was looking in my mind’s eye at one logo being a chicken, and one logo being a fish. Yes, my subconscious had recognised that I was in a “Chicken or Fish” situation before my conscious had, and it was trying to tell me. I instantly realised that, frankly, it doesn’t make a difference which I choose, because they are so close that neither I nor my friends can decide. So I picked one, the one you see on the site now, and soon thereafter fell asleep in a state of peace.)

It’s important to remember that when you face a “Chicken or Fish” moment, it is no longer about making the right decision, it’s about taking any decision. It’s actually just a gamble now, where you cannot know in advance what the outcome will be.

So pick one – any one – and move on.

PS. I hear the beef in this place is really good too!

Making it personal

Are you someone who gets analysis-paralysis? Do you take ages to make choices in restaurants? Are you the person who annoys others in the Starbucks queue because you take 5 minutes to decide between the hazelnut or the ginger Frappuccino?

How long did you spend on Amazon, down to the last three telescopes in your basket, trying to decide which one you should buy – when the difference between models was so slight that was nigh impossible to decide (when in fact, that should have made deciding really easy)?

Have you ever spent 10 minutes in a shoe shop, alternating between two sizes over and over again, hoping for one to suddenly miraculously feel better? Or have you spent minutes trying to decide which shirt goes better with your suit? If so, let’s be honest – it doesn’t make a difference which you choose, because if one were better, you’d have worked that out by now.

It’s so easy to skip this step – this moment of reflection about what role “Chicken or Fish” plays in your life – and convince yourself that if you took the time you’d be able to think of something that would highlight which is the better decision. But don’t skip this step – take the time to gain perspective, and to become more effective.

Related stories

#[If Snake-X then Antidote-Y]

#[Cheese or Chocolate]

#[My Neanderthal is better]

#[Air without Water]