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Why Having Too Many Options is Actually a Bad Thing

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You’re out for dinner with your friends and you know it’s coming, because you’re sitting on the end closest to the waitress.

“What can I get you?”

Hmmmmm, if other people are getting salads I’ll get the chicken cobb, if not I’ll get the salmon. “What are you guys getting?”

And how about getting dressed in the morning? That’s a real production.

I should wear the blazer today because I have that big meeting, oh but then I can’t wear it tomorrow when I have that networking happy hour. What if I’m underdressed? Maybe I should wear a dress. But, tights? I don’t want to be overdressed.

Deliberating over decisions can be stressful, and a huge waste of time. Because it’s not making decisions that wastes time – making decisions is a regular, necessary part of daily life. It’s the deliberation over the decisions that kills us. Spending hours weighing pros, cons, outcomes, worst case scenarios, potential risks, rewards, and consequences drains both time and energy.

We’re constantly told to “keep our options open,” and to “thoroughly evaluate all our decisions”. We make pro/con lists and ask for everyone’s input. Go to grad school, you’ll have more opportunities. Download the dating apps, there’s plenty of people out there. Buy now, decide later (money back guarantee! Free shipping & returns!).

But what if this logic around making decisions is doing us more harm than good? What if having more options is not actually better?

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that having infinite choice has not made us any happier at all. In fact, it’s left us more dissatisfied than ever. We find ourselves not free to choose, but paralyzed.

Here’s why:

  • The more options there are to consider, the more buyer’s regret we’ll have.
  • The more options we encounter, the less fulfilling the ultimate outcome will be.

Yowza. When I start to really think about it, zillions of examples pop into my head. Have you ever tried to decide what type of Band-Aids to buy at CVS? Hours. I’ve spent hours in that goddamn Band-Aid isle. Apparently Band-Aids have been waging war against me for quite some time:

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It’s sorta like when you go to college and have access to a dining hall for the first time. You mean I can eat ANYTHING? You end up with a sandwich, rice, meatloaf, cheesecake, a pile of curly fries and like seven beverages, just because you can. After awhile though, you start getting sick of cafeteria food, because really, there’s nothing appealing about any of it – it just seems cool in the beginning since there’s so much of it to choose from.

Don’t even get me started on cruise ships and their never-ending floors of 24/7, all-you-can-eat buffets. Or the fact that all-you-can-eat buffets even exist?

And it’s not just food and consumer goods we’re talking about here. It’s lifestyle choices, too. From the people we date (and the possibility that maybe someone better is right around the corner) to the jobs we take (this one has better benefits but that one has stock options). As Barry says, we start to set unreasonably high expectations. We question our choices before we even make them. And then we blame our failures entirely on ourselves. It’s exhausting!

So how do we simplify decision making?

  1. For starters, we just have to decide. Yup it’s scary, but it could really be that simple. We could stop wishing, praying, contemplating and saying “I should”, and just make the change.
  2. Eliminate having too many options right from the start. For example: something that has helped me a lot is narrowing down where I shop for clothes to two stores, which gives me peace of mind. If I don’t walk into a bunch of stores, I never know what I’m missing. Wardrobe that I love: check.
  3. Create routines. Food is a good place to start: less variety in meals during the week, especially breakfast, has helped me. I don’t spend lots of time trying to find a recipe, collect the ingredients and cook, and I save fun new experiments for the weekend. Contrary to how it sounds, routine enables creativity. Less time spent making decisions = more time for (creative) production.
  4. Know what you like and do what you want. Who cares what other people think? I know, easier said than done. But it’s your life: your wardrobe, your schedule, your meal so you might as well do what you want.
  5. Stop dwelling on decisions of the past. This is important, because this is the biggest time waster of all and doesn’t solve anything. What if we put the time and energy spent on regret toward doing things that make us happy instead? If something doesn’t work out the way you thought or planned, that’s okay. Forgive yourself, reconfigure, and move on.

Think about the decisions you’re faced with every day, and how you can eliminate some of the overwhelm. Start small:

  • Flats or heels? (Oh and quick tip: if you’re always choosing flats, get rid of the heels.)
  • Salad or sandwich? (Last tip, I promise: if you always have trouble deciding what to order at a restaurant, choose the first thing you see that looks good and close the menu.)
  • Subway or taxi?
  • Red or white?
  • TV or book?

The choice-minimal lifestyle can be really tough at first, but once you get comfortable with making decisions quickly and moving on, I think you’ll find yourself a lot more satisfied, with a lot more quality time on your hands.

Bridget

Author Bridget

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