What to Do With an Avalanche of Choices

We like having lots of choices.  Yet with each option, there is always the lurking possibility we’ll make the wrong choice.  And, we hate being wrong.

Which is the absolute right choice?

In her book, Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schultz points out that, “As a culture, we haven’t even mastered the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.” Instead, we justify our choices and actions with false apologies and rationalizations: “I was wrong, but” … or “mistakes were made.”  She explains that, we do it so that we can “distance ourselves from responsibility.” (Schultz references statements by Nixon and Reagan.)  Yet our choices continue to impact our lives.

What’s more, she says, “Our default attitude toward wrongness — our distaste for error and our appetite for being right — tends to be rough on relationships.”  (Here’s her intriguing Pop Tech video.)

Given our distaste for being wrong, what can we do to make better choices? 

What can we do to increase our success and happiness — at work, in our relationships, and maybe even improve the world a bit along the way?  

1.  Limit your choices.  Yes, it seems counter intuitive.  But Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, makes a good case. But it’s not easy to do in a world of seemingly endless choice where you’re faced with literally dozens of toothpaste options or hundreds of dating choices on Match.com. She says, “more choice leads to less satisfaction or happiness.”

Meaningless minutia” bogs us down so that every little difference matters way too much.  We end up constantly second-guessing our decision: “How do I know that there isn’t something better?”  Your enjoyment of this avalanche of choice, Ivengar contends, “will be diminished by your regret over what you had to give up and leaving you less satisfied than you would have been if you had had less choice.”

The perfect is the enemy of the good. — Voltaire

Fearing that you’ll make the wrong choice, your anxiety increases. “We exhaust ourselves in the search,” she warns us.  “Even the most unbiased source can’t promise that a new finding tomorrow won’t reverse recommendations. The more information we seek out, the more confused we become.”  In a study involving 401k investments, “more choice, had, in fact, lead to worse decisions.” Of course, there are times where we really need more choices and do our research, such as weighing job choices or considering surgery. (Check out Iyengar’s TED talk.)

In Acquired Tastes, author Peter Mayle takes you on a journey with the wealthy and their choice dilemma. He says, “I’m not at all sure that they enjoy themselves as much as we think they do.  And why?  Because, damn it, something is always not quite right.”  He explains, “expectations tend to increase in direct proportion to the amount of money being spent, and if you are spending a fortune, you expect perfection.  Alas, life being the badly organized shambles that it so often is…perfection is rare.  Details that we would consider trivial assume enormous significance: the breakfast egg is inedible because it is marginally under boiled…the list of maddening blots on the landscape just goes on and on.”

Regardless of our financial situation, this search for perfection infects most of us. Not only do we hope to find the perfect job, life partner, or doctor, we expect to find perfect all around us:  the perfect cell phone contract, romantic restaurant, or pair of shoes.

2.  Know who you are.  This sounds ridiculous at first.  It’s not the trivial choices that require you to know yourself; it’s the decisions without any easy answers.  Just think about the decisions you’ve had to make recently — about healthcare, a mortgage, a job change, or a relationship conflict.  All too often we don’t know what we want until a situation arises.  Ivengar says, “we don’t bother to mull over the tough questions until we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and by that time, we’re in no shape to give the answers most beneficial to us.”  We’re so busy racing around that when the time comes to make a tough choice, we’re usually too overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed. 

Often there isn’t an obvious right or wrong choice. So “it becomes exponentially more difficult” to choose.  Paradoxically, she says, asking for more options proves that we don’t really know what we want.

For important decisions, Ivengar recommends that we do some honest soul searching — and be open to thinking and acting differently.  But that takes time and reflection.  Most of us aren’t willing to do that.  Then we only have time to react, and fall back into our “I was wrong, but” excuse.  While keeping the status quo seems easier, it’s unlikely to improve our choices — or our happiness. Habits acquired over the years don’t change easily. It is hard work! If we are truly interested into thinking better and improving our decisions, it’s worth it.

3.  Get your automatic brain under control. Ivengar reminds us that, “even when you know what you ought to be doing, what you would prefer in the long run, you can find yourself distracted and dazed by options that set off the automatic system.”  So you over-indulge at the dessert counter, or worse, sabotage a relationship and end up paying the price for a bad decision for years.

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, refers to the automatic brain as “the elephant.”  It’s enormously helpful because it effortlessly, subconsciously, operates our bodily functions and more.  But for many key decisions, you need more — logic and reason — or what he calls “the monkey” brain.  Your logical brain is “completely absorbed in looking out for problems and opportunities.”

Unless you make an effort to control the elephant brain, your automatic thinking will kick in about 95% of the time according to Gerald Zaltman.  The elephant brain can get you into trouble — reacting instinctively to pleasure (over-indulgence) and danger (anger). Oscar Wilde said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”   Imagine how much happier and successful you’d be if you could just engage your logic and reason a bit more often.

4. Learn to be an expert in the process of choosing. It sounds complicated, but it is easier than you might think. Ivengar recommends borrowing the knowledge of others because they can help you develop insights and expertise more rapidly than if you attempt it on your own.  Find a mentor to help you test your thinking.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust your judgment — but rather test your judgment where you know it needs improvement.

Ivengar says you need to “find reasons not to choose what you’re immediately drawn to. Have a heavy dose of skepticism about your own thinking.”  Work with your mentor to probe into how and why you make choices. Start by paying attention to your decisions (which is easier said than done!). Brainstorm about ways to reduce your reaction mode.

Having an outside expert doesn’t solve the problem of your having to choose, she warns. “Given how many ways one can go wrong when choosing, it’s tempting to pass off a choice I’m supposed to make as an opportunity for another person to express an opinion.  This way, I don’t have to take responsibility for the choice, and the person I ask often enjoys giving advice.  Your mentor can’t make decisions for you — or make perfect recommendations.  They can probe deeper, recommend alternatives, and share decision-making successes and failures.  Over time you “can learn to simplify, prioritize, and recognize patterns.”

Don’t start with your most complicated choices.  Instead, begin with something easier so you’re willing to take risks and it will be easier to see progress.  Simplify your decisions and decision process. Invengar and others recommend limiting your choices to 3 — or groups of 3s. (McKinsey consultants apparently use this with their clients.) In a New York Times article, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, says, “When looking for a new camera, limit yourself to 3 Web sites.”  (That makes sense, unless you’re a photographer.) Or if you’re wrestling with something bigger, such as a career change, break down the decisions into groups of 3s.  Instead of thinking of all the possibilities at once, consider categorizing them into types of organizations:  nonprofits, government, or social enterprise.  Then repeat the process of creating job categories.

No one can make the right choice all the time.  But you can stop wasting time on meaningless minutia.  Instead, invest your thinking time in decisions where you feel that you’re making progress in your life.  Leverage them to your best interest — and best self.  Feel more in control and less on automatic pilot.  Get there faster with a supportive mentor who can accelerate your ability to learn and grow.

2 Responses

  1. […] What to Do With an Avalanche of Choices […]

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