Do you think an abundance of choice makes life easier or worse? For many more options means indecision, mental overload and a life less content.
Question: What does a monk in Thailand, President Barack Obama and Steve Jobs have in common?
Answer: All three limits their clothing choices so they can direct their decision making focus towards more important issues.
A few years ago I was staying at a Buddhist meditation centre in Thailand and during lunch someone asked the monk an interesting question- “How many orange robes do you possess in your wardrobe?” The monks reply was instant- “I have only two sets of robes.”
“Anymore and I would find myself confused and distracted. Too many choices are stressful”. TRUE STORY
The Irony of Choice
“A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.” — Hunter S. Thompson
This memory sums up the reality of modern day living today. Everyday decisions are becoming increasingly more complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice we are presented with.
Psychologists believe having to choose between too many options causes decision fatigue. Making a number of small cognitive decisions, like what to wear, drains the mental power that you could be using for more important issues.
Some of the most successful people have already figured this out.
President Barack Obama and Steve Jobs followed a similar philosophy to the Thai monk. Both limited their clothing options. Making too many insignificant decisions each day limits their ability to make more pressing decisions down the track.
In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2012 Obama explained why he only wears grey or blue suits:
‘I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. I have too many other decisions to make’.
How many Decisions do we make each Day?
“We are our choices.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre
We live in an unparalleled age of excessive choices. Making decisions around these choices is something we do all day long.
In an article written by Dr. Joel Hoomans in ‘The Leading Edge’ he breaks down the figures relating to decision making.
Research estimates an adult makes around 35,000 decisions daily.
“As your level of responsibility increases, so does the smorgasbord of choices you are faced with.”
In theory the abundance of choice is appealing; however in reality it can become debilitating. Research published in 2018, by Nature Human Behaviour, indicated too many options can become mental overload. Too much makes it difficult for the brain to process, evaluate and compare all that is available.
Why more is less
“Waiting hurts. Forgetting hurts. But not knowing which decision to take can sometimes be the most painful…”
― José N. Harris
The idea that choice is bad for us challenges the whole ethos we’ve been told for years regarding autonomy to choose. In our modern, capitalist world, the availability of choice is seen as freedom. Nevertheless, the same freedom that makes us free has the potential to overwhelm us and lead us to make bad decisions.
Logically, more choice should lead to more action and more happiness. Paradoxically, however, more choice leads to less action and less happiness. This is the essence of the Paradox of Choice.
In Barry Schwartz’s book, “The Paradox of Choice,” he suggests too much choice comes at a price. The potential consequences can impact on our wellbeing in the form of anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, and depression.
From choosing what to eat to finding the best value new car, today’s perils of choice come from every direction.
Almost every part of daily life requires us to choose. It’s no longer that simple. We do not want to make the wrong decision so we spend hours researching and comparing.
Think back not so long ago when we could book an overseas holiday. If you are anything like me I would spend many hours looking through a million options trying to find the best priced deal. It becomes a mental overload nightmare that was exhausting:
- This one has better onward connections
- This one is cheaper
- This one is quicker
- This one is a night flight
- This one arrives at midnight
- This one includes breakfast
- This one has ocean views
By the time you’ve finally made the choice the deal has expired and you are back to square one.
On a far more smaller scale what about the everyday shopping trip to the local supermarket?
If you are a novice in this arena you could possibly loss half a day of your life just justify the pros and cons of each item. The multitude of choices can be overwhelming. From bread, to milk, to eggs, there are anywhere from five to ten of each item on the shelves to choose from.
We are placed in a predicament where we fear making the wrong decision.
A perfect example of this was demonstrated in a study conducted over 20 years ago. Researchers wanted to explore people’s decisions when confronted with too much choice. Two displays of gourmet jams were set up at a food store for customers to try samples. One display had six jams, whereas the other had twenty four. The outcome of the study saw significant.
30% of all people choose to buy product from the smaller display. Though there was more choice on the larger display only 3% of customers purchased. This experiment showed shoppers were more likely to stop and inspect when there was a larger selection, however they were also less likely to buy.
When it comes to actually choosing from among a large selection, people often find themselves paralysed and unable to make a decision.
The Difficulty of Decisions
“Desires dictate our priorities, priorities shape our choices, and choices determine our actions.”
― Dallin H. Oaks
Decision making involves three distinct mental tasks:
- Knowing what you want
- Understanding what options are available
- Making trade-offs between the available options
It’s easy to evaluate and choose when the options available are limited. People feel confident in their decisions when they understand what is available and can easily compare and evaluate each one.
However, the evaluation process becomes overwhelming and intimidating when the number of options increases.
People feel pressured to make the right decision. In abundant-choice situations, people become hesitant as they contend with the dilemma of judging the differences between good and bad choices. People fear making a wrong decision, which can lead to feelings of regret.
As the difficulty of a decision increases, people experience conflict. They become anxious about their ability to assess the options, and make the right decision. Determining what trade-offs to make becomes particularly challenging, especially when there are many options, and those options are either very similar or very different from each other.
What Influences our Decisions?
“Whatever you decide, don’t let it be because you don’t think you have a choice.”
― Hannah Harrington
Psychological researchers have become intrigued by how our cognitive thinking patterns and behaviours are influenced by too much choice.
- Greater choice makes us imagine there is always a better option out there
- Whenever you choose one thing, you’re rejecting another that could be just as good
- When there are alternatives to consider, it’s easy to imagine the attractive features of the alternatives you reject.
With excessive choice there comes an unrealistic expectation. We start to believe there is another choice somewhere out there that we are missing out on that is better or cheaper. Any subsequent decision based on a fear of missing out (FOMO) will be impacted by a sense of losing out in some way. There will never be satisfaction with the final outcome.
Choice is difficult because it also represents sacrifice. Choosing something essentially means giving up something else.
How to Come to Terms with a World of Excessive Choice
“You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.”
― Michelle Obama
How do you decide when there are two or more possibilities available?
We all have limited capacities for processing information and often choose the path of least resistance, even if the alternative path would offer potential better outcomes. These shortcuts we take protect us from information overload and mental fatigue.
Every decision, large or small, ultimately costs us time and energy.
So how can we make quick, practical decisions where there is too much choice?
Here are some ideas that will help you simplify and overcome those indecisive moments so you can focus on what’s important in your life.
6 Tips to help you when faced with too much choice: Deciding how to decide .
“Beliefs are choices. First you choose your beliefs. Then your beliefs affect your choices.”
― Roy T. Bennett
- Set a Time Limit. Next time you’re about to go shopping decide how long you will devote to the decision and set a timer.
- Use the two-minute rule. When faced with a multitude of choices, give yourself two minutes to make a decision or walk away.
- Narrow it down. Say you have 6 choices. Narrow down to 4, then 2, then 1. Don’t overthink it.
- Follow your Intuition. When there are so many choices, we try so hard to get things right. But when we overthink our decisions, we suppress our intuition and gut instinct that more times than not is right.
- Decrease Your Options. Just like the monk, Obahma or Jobs we can choose to reduce the number of choices we have. What we wear each day is a great example. By limiting your wardrobe you do not waste time and energy on trivial decision. The same can be applied to what you eat.
- Make Important Decisions Early. Decisions become less effective once decision fatigue kicks in. It’s a good idea to try and plan the day so important decisions are made by early when you are mentally fresher.
What helps you deal with choice overload?
Do you have a way of making decision quickly and effectively?
Share your thoughts below.