The Paradox of Choice

How often do you feel like there are too many options to choose from? Couldn’t figure out what to watch on Netflix? Got stuck deciding what outfit to wear? Couldn’t pick a restaurant to go out to with your friends? Struggled to pick a meal once you were at that restaurant?

We’re living in an age where we have more choices for pretty much everything than ever before. We tend to think that our freedom lies in having a variety of choices, but there’s a threshold before those choices become taxing.

I’d like to use this post to discuss a very interesting phenomenon; the paradox of choice. This post will serve as a summary for the book written by Barry Shwartz, but I’ll talk about other relevant ideas too.

I’ll also talk about a concept called decision fatigue, how unlimited choices affect us psychologically, the contribution of capitalism and how to move forward.

Why more is less

As previously mentioned, it seems like having too many options is paralyzing us, instead of liberating us. We don’t realize how when comparing so many choices, it often leaves us with a sense of regret.

I should’ve ordered the usual. We should’ve chosen the first hotel. We should’ve watched the other movie. I should’ve joined the other course.

“Instead of increasing our sense of well-being, an abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time. “

onegreenplanet.org

According to Barry Shwartz, good decisions usually involve 6 key aspects. As you’ll notice, the more options that are available to us, the more effort will be required to make a sound decision. Here are the 6 steps:

  1. Identify your goal or goals
  2. Evaluate their importance
  3. Array the options to achieve them
  4. Evaluate how likely each option is to meet your goals
  5. Pick the best options
  6. Modify your goals based on the outcome

You can see from the list above, if firstly, you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve, you’re going to have trouble making a decision. Understanding how important your goal is to you also plays an important role, because it allows you to sort through the options more effectively.

“Nobody makes plans because something better might turn up, and the result is that nobody every does anything.”

Let’s see how trying to sift through several options affects our ability to further make decisions.

Decision fatigue

You have a certain capacity for the amount of good decisions you can make in a single day. Essentially, your willpower diminishes and the quality of your decisions decrease based on the number of decisions that you make.

The graph below shows what I mean by that. It clearly illustrates that the quality of your decisions are higher, when you make less decisions. Why is understanding this useful? Because it allows us to focus on making our decisions earlier and on what matters.

bluejeanwellness.com

Let’s think about the first hour of your typical day and how many decisions you make before leaving the house. Okay in this case we’re not leaving the house anymore, but until you start being ‘productive’ at home.

You’d usually start on auto-pilot; snoozing, then brushing your teeth, making the bed, stretching a little, maybe even scrolling through your phone (terrible idea btw).

Then comes breakfast. What do I eat? What should I drink? What should I prepare for lunch later? Then you need to get dressed. What should I wear? When should I shower? Should I exercise now or later? Then you have to prepare to do work. Which assignment should I start with? Should I respond to these emails now? Why won’t these people leave me alone?

You get my point. Before we can even start making any important decisions, we’ve already exhausted a handful of our will-power’s supply.

This essentially means that we should make the most important decisions early in the morning. Start planning for your daily activities in advance. Choose your breakfast and your outfit the day before.

Reduce the amount of decisions you need to make per day and you’ll clear up a lot of cognitive space.

The psychology of unlimited choices

When you make a decision that doesn’t turn out well and then find better alternatives, how does usually make you feel?

Regretful.

How does regret play a role in our decision making? There are two main forms of regret, namely: post-decision and anticipation.

When things don’t go well after a decision is made, that’s called post-decision regret. When we anticipate that things aren’t going to go well before even making a decision, it often leaves us feeling anticipatory regret.

Having an enormous amount of choices leads to constantly evaluating “What if”. That is called counterfactual thinking. When we ponder over scenarios that could’ve been. That often leads us to appreciating what we have less and therefore, we derive less satisfaction from our decisions.

Being aware of these psychological consequences is actually a great way for us to overcome the paralysis of over-stimulation. We can identify more clearly our objectives before making a decision, we can learn to accept “good enough” and learn to focus on the few options that meet our standards.

“What looks attractive in prospect, doesn’t always look so good in practice.”

We need to decide when choices really matter and focus our energy there. We tend to believe that the choices we make are a reflection of who we are, so we spend more time than we realize evaluating them.

Capitalism

The root of all evil. I’m kidding haha. I won’t dive too deeply into this, just needed to share some of my thoughts. It seems that the ever increasing number of choices for everything, is rooted in modern consumerism.

Capitalism has bred this kind of thinking in several ways. By making people believe that their sense of value is determined by their net worth. By creating a culture of social comparison, where everyone’s ego is on the line. By creating a ‘satisfaction treadmill’, where we continuously chase the latest products and trends, thinking that we’ll get satisfaction from it.

We might not be able to change the way the system runs on our own, but we can learn to better maneuver through it. We can become aware of how it influences us and our ability to make decisions.

Better awareness -> Better choices -> Better results.

How do we move forward with all this?

Great question. Here some of the points the author mentions that are imperative for us to remain satisfied with our decisions.

  1. Choose when to choose
  2. Be a chooser not a picker
  3. Make your decisions non-reversible
  4. Focus on your blessings and be grateful
  5. Regret less through acceptance
  6. Anticipate adaptation
  7. Control expectations
  8. Curtail social comparison
  9. Learn to embrace constraints

We need to realize that we often try to make decisions based on the objective experience it will provide. However, what’s actually important to us, is often the subjective experience. How we feel about it.

Being a chooser entails understanding what is important to you and how that aligns with your values. Being a picker means just ‘going with the flow’ and picking anything. By making your decisions non-reversible, you’d spend less time ruminating over the other choices. Having an “attitude of gratitude” is pivotal to appreciation and also helps with overcoming regret.

We’re hyper-adaptive beings. We need to keep in mind that everything that was once novel, will become ordinary and comfortable after a while. We need to manage our expectations more realistically in order to avoid disappointment.

Curtailing social comparison is essentially not worrying about everyone else. You’re living your own life, based on your circumstances and your life goals. Don’t worry about impressing other people or missing out based on their experiences. Finally, embrace constraints. Manage your options by limiting them whilst maintaining your standards.

“Choice within constrains, freedom within limits, is what allows us to imagine a host of marvelous possibilities.”

5 tips to help you with tough decisions

When was the last time you were stuck making a difficult choice? Do you feel like there’s a decision that will change the rest of your life? There’s always going to be a point in our lives when we’re going to have to make a sacrifice between several options, to move forward.

This post will deal with how to approach difficult decisions. Not in the sense where you’ll figure out exactly what to do, but rather a guiding tool to help you understand your situation better.

Better awareness, leads to better choices which ultimately leads to better result. So let’s try and enhance our self-awareness skill-set. I’ll dive into asking the right questions, starting with why, walking, then finding time to sit with your thoughts, praying & writing.

It’s like another collage of all my favourite topics. But again, reminders are extremely important, especially when you can use the concepts in every aspect of your life.

1-Ask the right questions

Questions are the answer. Every thought you have is a result of some question you’ve asked yourself. Once you realize the impact that has on you, you’ll be able to start asking yourself better questions.

I’ll give a few examples of what you can ask yourself in face of difficult decisions, but you should try and find what works best for you. Use them according to your own needs & circumstances.

  • Will this be in line with my values?
  • Why am I doing this?
  • Will this help me serve others?
  • What do I feel passionate about?
  • If I were to die tomorrow, will this really matter?
  • What impact do I want to have on the world?

Ask those questions relative to the options you have & use the most relevant answers to guide you.

I know some of these questions are rather vague, but you shouldn’t be expecting an immediate answer either way. It’s about giving yourself something to ponder over, and assisting your intuition to serve you.

2-Start with why

Another key aspect that directly relates to questions, ask yourself why you’re doing this. Find out the root cause of your indecision. Remember that the Golden Circle has 3 components, as introduced by Simon Sinek.

If both decisions are in line with your WHY, then you’ll have to do a lot more work. This would require some introspection and self-awareness. This comes in the form of meditation (or sitting in stillness) and journalling.

3-Go for a walk then sit in stillness

Walking as many of you may already know, is one of the healthiest habits to have. Not only does it serve as a mild form of exercise -which in itself has tremendous benefits- but it also does wonders for the brain.

Walking specifically helps you digest thoughts, get more creative, and deeply reflect. These mental benefits can’t be attributed to other forms of intense exercise (such as gyming or running), as those will distract your mind.

After giving yourself a topic to ponder over, go on a 15-20 minute walk (preferably in nature). When you’re back, find a safe space to sit in stillness. This would also be a lot better if you’re surrounded by nature.

Allow thoughts to come and go, without judgment or force. Focus on your breath initially, to immerse yourself in the present moment. Then allow yourself to reflect over the decisions you need to make.

You can also use your previous experiences to help you with the thought process. We’re feedback machines. We’re constantly learning from our mistake (hopefully), and using that knowledge to make better decisions in the future. So think of aspects in your life where you needed to make tough decisions and reflect on how it turned out.

4-Identify pros, cons and alternatives

Part of your introspection can include identifying the pros and cons in your decisions. Don’t dive too deeply into this, but use it to see if a certain decision would be far better than the others.

We often hold onto a tunnel vision and see things from one point of view. Look for alternatives (if possible) and try to identify other perspectives.

Asking people for advice can also work, but don’t rely too much on their opinion. Remember that it’s you who’ll have to live with the decision for the rest of your life (no pressure).

5-Pray, write & choose what feels right

Pray for guidance and constantly remember your purpose in life. We haven’t been created randomly. We’re here to each serve a cause greater than ourselves.

Time and time again, I bring up the notion of death. That’s because this life isn’t going to last forever. Don’t give decisions too much weight over you. There’s always room for learning and forgiveness.

Keep a tab of your thoughts by writing in a journal. This will allow you to easily notice patterns and aspects of your life that you wouldn’t otherwise see. It also gives you a bird’s eye point of view, seeing yourself from a completely different perspective.

At the end of the day, choose what feels right. The aforementioned tips will only serve as guide to help your intuition.

There’s no right or wrong. Life is full of lessons. Whatever you end up choosing, embrace it fully and live your best life. We can’t determine the outcome, but we can always choose our response. So choose optimism. Choose growth. Choose to learn.

Now is all we have, so let’s be thankful for that and strive to contribute to our best ability.