Eliminate the Paradox of Choice

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Endless Energy (get the book or audiobook) by Peter Hollins is a guide to becoming insanely energetic.

Episode Transcript

While most people tend to think that having choices is good—and the more choices there are, the better—current research on human behavior actually suggests otherwise. In a phenomenon that psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice, people tend to be worse off when they have more options to choose from as opposed to when they have a single course of action available to them.

For example, suppose your company offers multiple types of research grants you can apply for. Pressured to make the “best” choice among all your options and overwhelmed by the details and comparisons you need to sift through in order to do so, you put the whole research thing on the backburner and leave it untouched for years. With zero additional research studies under your belt, you suffer career stagnation simply because in the face of multiple options, you’ve been too paralyzed to do anything. You wasted your energy on this nonsense and you’re still standing at a crossroads. What a waste.

Learning to deal with the paradox of choice is thus a necessary technique to maximize energy. If you’ve established a mindset that’s able to promptly make sound decisions in the face of multiple options, then you’ll less likely waste your energy on things that probably don’t matter.

The paradox of choice tends to have a negative impact because once people become overwhelmed with too many options, one of two things tends to happen:

One, after making a choice, you may still constantly think about the other options that you didn’t choose. For instance, after buying a painting, you may fixate on imagining how great the other paintings you didn’t buy would look in place of the one you bought. So you’re never really satisfied with the decisions you make because a part of you remains preoccupied with thoughts of all the other options you missed out on. It is the ultimate case of buyer’s remorse.

Two, having too many options can subject you to a very difficult time deciding, such that you become paralyzed from making a decision and from doing anything at all. In philosophy, this is illustrated by the paradox of Buridan’s ass (quite literally, donkey). Popularized by philosopher Jean Buridan, this paradox tells of a hungry donkey standing between two identical piles of hay. The donkey always chooses the hay closer to him, but this time both piles are of equal distance away. Unable to choose between the two piles, the donkey starves to death.

Applied to the mechanisms of productivity and energy, the paradox of choice thus ultimately saps your energy, as you delay making a decision under the perception of great responsibility, or you spin your wheels uselessly.

To beat the paradox of choice, the key is to set rules and restraints upon yourself. You’ll need to find a way to see things in black and white, because gray areas are fertile grounds that breed overthinking and wasting of energy. That spectrum of color is likely to see you get stuck and agonize over which shade of gray is the best choice until you get tired of the uncertainty, lose motivation, and end up unable to make any choice and act at all. When Buridan’s donkey saw shades of gray instead of one defined path to one defined dish of food, he faltered and ultimately starved to death.

To avoid falling into that trap and conserve your energy (remember ego depletion?), use the following strategies.

Focus on one factor and willfully ignore everything else. Every option is sure to offer its own pros and cons, and deciding among numerous options is not merely a matter of tabulating which has the most pros and the least cons. Rather, making a choice depends heavily on what you really care about, which often boils down to only one or two critical factors. So instead of having to deal with countless criteria that can overwhelm you from making a choice, focus only on one or two vital factors and ignore the rest. That way, you have a clearer idea about which option is best for you, and you can select it faster, too.

Suppose you need to buy a new microwave and have multiple models lined up in front of you, each with its own set of features and unique innovations. If you don’t know which factors you want to focus on, it’s easy to get confused by all the bells and whistles that such a large selection offers.

So to make it easier for you to make a choice that’s really suited to your needs, decide beforehand on one or two specific features you want to base your decision on—say, size (i.e., must fit your kitchen space) and sensor cooking. With just these two features in mind, you get to eliminate a lot of other models that don’t fit the bill, thus effectively narrowing down your choices to make it simpler to select the right one.

Set a time limit on making a decision. Commit to making a decision within, say, two minutes tops. Whatever decision you arrive at by the end of two minutes, stick with it no matter what. This defeats the paradox of choice by putting a cap on the amount of time you spend agonizing over which decision to make. It saves you from suffering the negative consequences of letting things pass you by and spurs you into the action necessary to realize your goals.

For example, imagine you’re in charge of choosing and facilitating the venue for your upcoming gala, but you’re torn between Venue A and Venue B. You’ve put off making reservations for weeks now simply because you can’t decide which venue would be the better choice. To save yourself from wasting any more energy, set two minutes for you to come up with a decision and pledge to stick with it.

You may go back and forth between the two venues within those two minutes, but once the time is up, whatever venue you settle on should be the one you go for—say, Venue A. To strengthen this strategy (no backsies!), make sure to call and make reservations for Venue A by the end of the two minutes.

Immediately choose a default option and stick with it if no better alternative comes up. Once you’ve selected one option as the default, you can set a short amount of time to try to find alternatives and weigh them against your default choice. If none of the alternatives measure up to your default, then you just revert to that initial choice. That way, you’re ensured of having already made a decision beforehand, which you can simply follow through with once it’s time to act.

The fact that you’ve identified a default already constitutes a choice in itself, one that you’ll most likely be inclined to stick with and follow through on.

For example, again imagine you’re in charge of choosing the venue for your upcoming gala, but you’re so torn between Venue A and Venue B that you’ve put off facilitating the task altogether.

To save yourself from wasting further energy, you may set Venue A as your default choice, then allow three days to continue searching for other alternatives or comparing the pros and cons between Venue A and Venue B. If by the end of the third day you find yourself either unconvinced by the other options, or so convinced by all of them you’re now confused, then just revert to your default choice of Venue A.

That way, you can start moving on with the rest of your event planning instead of faltering because you can’t make a choice.

Finally, strive to satisfice your desires more often than not. The word satisfice is a combination of the words satisfy and suffice. It’s a term that Herbert Simon coined in the 1950s, and it represents what we should shoot for rather than something that is guaranteed to optimize and maximize our happiness.

Generally, people can be split into two categories: those who seek to satisfice a decision and those who seek to maximize a decision.

Let’s suppose you are shopping for a new bike. The maximizer would devote hours to researching their decision and evaluating as many options as possible. They would want to get the best bike possible for their purposes and leave no stone unturned. They desire 100 percent satisfaction despite the law of diminishing returns and the Pareto principle, which would warn against such measures.

By contrast, the satisficer is just shooting to be satisfied and is looking for an option that suffices for their purposes. They want something that works well enough to make them satisfied and pleased, but not overjoyed or ecstatic. They aim for good enough and stop once they find that.

These are very different scales, and for this reason, studies have shown that satisficers tend to be happier with their decisions, while maximizers tend to keep agonizing and thinking about greener pastures.

Maximization represents a conundrum in our modern age, because while it is more possible now than at any other point in human history to get exactly what you want, there is also the paradox of choice, which makes it impossible to be satisfied. On a practical matter, there are few decisions where we should strive to maximize our value. Therefore, put forth proportional effort and just make a choice already.

Most of the time, you simply want something that is reliable and works. Suppose you are in a grocery store and you are trying to pick out the type of peanut butter you want. What should you shoot for here? Satisficing or maximizing? The same type of thinking should apply to 99 percent of our daily decisions.

Otherwise, we are constantly overwhelmed and waste our mental bandwidth where there are diminishing returns. Whatever net benefit the most optimal type of peanut butter brings to your life is likely not worth the extra effort it took to find it.
Motivation (and Energy) Follows Action

A final mindset to embrace in the battle against draining energy is the way in which true energy and the appetite for productivity appears. Most of the time, whatever the real reason is, we end up telling ourselves that if we aren’t in the mood (I don’t feel like it), then it’s not getting done.

Look, it would be five-million times easier to achieve our goals if we all knew how to motivate ourselves 100 percent of the time. It would be like pressing a magical button that jolts us out of bed and into work. Whenever our energy is faltering, we could just press the button again, and we’d be injected with another dose of that good stuff and be correspondingly productive. The closest legal method we have to this is coffee, but even that has waning effects.

It’s easier to feel motivated when you like a project or when you’re doing something you are genuinely passionate about. But let’s be realistic—there are days when just the mere act of leaving your bed is a challenge and a huge accomplishment. For most of us, we don’t enjoy what we do for a living enough to feel motivated by it. An artist may be inspired and driven to bring her visions into reality, but for the rest of us? We’re really just trying to scrape together enough willpower to get us through our days. This is all to clarify motivation’s role in taking action and getting started.

Whatever your goals, motivation plays an important role and can spell the difference between success and failure. It’s one of the most important ingredients to influence your drive and ambition, but we’re thinking about it all wrong.

When we think about motivation, we want something that will light a spark in us and make us jump up from the couch and dive deeply into our tasks. We want motivation that causes action. There are a few problems with this, namely the fact that you’re probably looking for something that doesn’t exist, and that’s going to keep you waiting on the sidelines, out of action and out of the race. This type of motivation, if you ever find it, is highly unreliable. If you feel that you need motivation that causes action, you are doing it wrong.

For instance, a writer who feels they are unable to write without some form of motivation or inspiration is going to stare at a blank page for hours. End of story.

The truth is, you should plan for life without a motivating kick-start. Seeking that motivation creates a prerequisite and additional barrier to action. Get into the habit of proceeding without it. And surprisingly, this is where you’ll find what you were seeking. Action leads to motivation, more motivation, and eventually momentum.

The more you work for something, the more meaningful it becomes to you. Your own actions will be your fuel to move forward. After you’ve taken your first step and have seen progress from your efforts, motivation will come easier and more naturally, as will inspiration and discipline. You’ll fall into a groove, and suddenly, you’ll be in your work mood/mode. The first step will always be the hardest, but the second step won’t be quite as difficult.

For repetition’s sake, forget motivation; get started, and you’ll become motivated. Taking the first step is tough, but consider that aside from motivation, just getting started gives you many other things.

For instance, confidence also follows action. After all, how do you expect to be confident about something when you haven’t even tried? A taste of action tells you that everything will be okay and you have nothing to fear. This is confidence rooted in firsthand experience, which is easier to find as opposed to false confidence from trying to convince yourself before the fact that you can do it.

Public speaking is almost always a scary proposition. Consider how you might try to find confidence that causes action: you would tell yourself it will all be fine, imagine the audience in their underwear, and remind yourself of your hours of rehearsal. Now consider how you might find confidence after getting started—how action can cause confidence. “I did it and it was fine” is an easier argument to make versus “I haven’t done it yet, but I think it will be fine.”

The most important takeaway here is to not wait until you are 100 percent ready before you take the first step, or believe that motivation before action is a necessary part of your process. It will probably never feel like you’re completely ready. But starting down the road will motivate you more than anything else will before the fact, so allow your actions to spur you on and build confidence. Change your expectations regarding motivation, and remove the self-imposed requirements you have for yourself.

As a member of the human race, the tendency for procrastination may be hardwired into your limbic system, but that doesn’t mean you should forever be a slave to your own primitive drives and impulses. Building positive mindsets will turn you into an individual in better control of those drives and impulses so you can beat the lure of procrastination.