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.

Multiply Yourself: 6 ways to improve your life

Imagine doubling your productivity.  Hard to do, especially if you’re like a lot of people — on any given day you feel overworked and yet underutilized. It may seem impossible to believe we can do any more than we’re already doing.

But I’m guessing we can. According to Liz Wiseman, author of Multipliers, businesses can achieve a 2-fold improvement by leveraging their people. Her insights are based on analyzing data from more than 150 leaders.  So, I asked myself: “Why can’t we do that for ourselves?”  If the best leaders make people smarter at work, how can we use these techniques to enrich our own lives? Don’t wait for someone else to do it.  Be your own leader and apply these concepts yourself.

Focus on your strengths and multiply your productivity

1. Be a talent finder — in yourself. How well do you know your talents?  Take the time to research your natural strengths. Find your “native genius,” as Wiseman calls it.   While “genius” may seem a bit grandiose, we all have an area or two where we truly excel.  It’s a skill we find as easy as breathing.  Something we’d do even if we weren’t getting paid, where we easily forget about time because we’re so engrossed.  Often it is something we’re passionate about. Plus, the more we devote time and energy to our talent, the more likely we are to get “extraordinary results from very ordinary people.” It makes sense because the activity is a better match to our natural skills, interests, and abilities.  Identifying talent isn’t a new idea, but how many of us have really taken the time to know ourselves — until there is a crisis.  That’s not always the best time to be open minded about ourselves.  So spend less time trying to shore up minor talents (unless they truly hamper your relationships), and focus on what you’re good at.

2. Find ways to fully utilize your natural strengths. Think about ways you can accelerate your learning cycle.  To spark the learning in you, Wiseman advises the development of an overactive imagination and a serious case of curiosity.  Find ways to create the right environment or mindset.  That way, you’re less likely to hold back because you’re more confident.  As you offer your very best thinking, creativity, and ideas, your intelligence and skill level grows.

3. Remove roadblocks. What’s really getting in the way of your being successful — your happiness?  It is easy to suggest “other people,” when often we’re our own worst enemy.  Which roadblocks apply to you: Time wasters. Overly committed.  Perfectionism.  Constantly shifting priorities.  Second-guessing decisions.  Addicted to the adrenalin rush of crisis.  All too often, reacting seems easier than planning; but the price is lost productivity.  Weisman suggests we tone down our egos.  Forget being a know-it-all and our need to be right. Stop “making a millimeter of progress in a million directions.”  Instead, leverage your actions on what’s most important.

4. Develop success traits. Motivate yourself by investing in your success. Find safe opportunities to test your skills, your ideas, and your learning — and learn quickly.  You’re sure to make mistakes — so having a sense of humor is essential.  A little laughter can go a long way.  Find smart people to learn from and debate your ideas.  As Wiseman says, “listen and ask questions 80% of the time.” Don’t feel you need to have all the answers. Spend time with people who help you become smarter, more capable. When people believe in us and support us, we’re naturally more productive.

5. Commit to working hard. Major achievements never come easy.  But you’ll be doing what you’re best at, so you’ll generally be less stressed and better able to work harder.  You’ll be highly motivated because you’ll be doing something you’re good at, which makes  improving much more likely.   Set your goals high, but give the stress a rest.

6. Believe it is possible. What will it take to ignite a fire within you? What will make you “feel exhilarated, challenged, and gratified?”  What are the first action steps you can take to test it out? Learn enough so that you can believe it just might be possible.  Break down your goal in such a way that you can actually imagine it happening.  Reframe problems as opportunities.  You can’t expect to be as motivated solving an impossible problem as you are creating a compelling opportunity. Wiseman writes about Steven Spielberg’s mindset: “All good ideas start from bad ideas.”  But Spielberg produces so many successful movies because his crew is twice as productive as others, people doing their best work, working together, giving their best.  Of course, you’ll need to anticipate problems, respond and adapt.  Above all, make sure your goal is worthy of all your hard work. Keep track of your progress — and make it visible to yourself and the people you rely on for support.

The cynic in us is quick to discount this theory. Exhausted from long hours at work and managing our complex lives, negativity and pessimism can loom large — killing our own passion. Wiseman calls this a “Diminisher.” It’s bad enough when people around us are motivation killers, but it is far worse when we do it to ourselves.  Under the guise of logic or experience, we think we have the answers.  It’s easy to lose track of how unreasonable we’re being, feeling trapped when there are options for practically all of us.  Both Diminishers and Multipliers have high expectations, but Diminishers get caught up in what they think of as honesty.  Sure, there are real obstacles, but there are real opportunities too. Often the Diminisher acts as a guard for the status quo, feeding complacency or inaction.

Of course, Pollyanna thinking won’t help either.

Smart people examine the facts, know themselves, and confront reality. To give your idea fair consideration, it requires you to think like a Multiplier.  Remove the urge to come to the first conclusion — and actively debate the pros and cons.  Even when the stakes are high, explore ideas with as little stress as you can.  Stay calm — and committed — enough to feel you’ve given it a fair shake.

A recent Twitter quote summarized the dilemma well:

RT @tnvora: There’s a difference between having a vision and suffering from a hallucination. ~Peter Scholtes

I’d say there is a fine line between the two, which requires a combination of facts and intuition. It requires an honest evaluation of your strengths and engaged debate about the possibilities.  Many great things have been accomplished while others thought the people involved were “suffering from a hallucination.”

I’m not suggesting that everything you do will automatically translate into more wealth, fame, and power — but I’d say that if you focus on your strengths and think like a Multiplier, you’re more likely to happier — and therefore more successful too. Given the right circumstances, you can even exceed the 2x multiplier by a long shot — because opportunities create more opportunities.  Or as the old adage says, nothing breeds success like success.

So start thinking about applying your strengths to your dreams:  writing that novel, starting your own business, retiring early, volunteering in Africa…or?

RT @SangyeH: “Like all explorers, we r drawn 2 discover what’s out there w/o knowing yet if we have the courage two face it.” ~Pema Chodron