It’s 2019 and we have options for every single facet of our lives. We have more choices than ever before in recorded human history.
From the shows we watch, to the food we eat, to the friends we make, to the partners we choose, we have more access to options than people could have thought feasible even twenty years ago.
Here’s an interesting conundrum: logic tells us that the more options we have, the more likely we are to reach that perfect, idealized life where we’ve customized every aspect of our existence to suit us perfectly.
“It is another truism, in the developed, Western world, that more freedom brings more wellbeing, and that more choice brings more freedom.” — Barry Schwartz, psychologist and professor of social theory
But we’re not logical beings. Human brains are not perfect reasoning machines who can input unlimited amounts of data, and output the perfect answer. In reality, too much choice has been demonstrated to reduce our happiness, increase our stress, and, in economic terms, reduce revenue from customers overwhelmed with options.
Why does having more choices affect us this way? And what can we do to minimize the effects?
Why do more choices make us less happy?
Let me walk you through my latest trip to the supermarket to illustrate why more choices make us less happy. I was there because I wanted to buy some chocolate. Not just any chocolate — I was in the mood for chocolate with rum and raisins in it, that costs under a certain amount.
I went to the supermarket and I was still presented with a dizzying array of chocolate choices that met my criteria, even as narrowed down as it was. I spent ten minutes staring at my options, trying to find the best one.
Finally, I grabbed one at random and left. At home, I unwrapped it excitedly, only to be disappointed — the rum overpowered the raisins. Maybe I should have gone with option B, or C, or D, or Z. And because there were so many options, this can’t be the store’s fault. It can only be mine.
They provided me with so many options that the right chocolate had to be out there. I just picked the wrong one. With those unassailable facts, my brain tells me that it is my, and only my fault that I made a “bad” choice.
In our heads, it’s simple to believe that we could have made a better choice. So we’ll always be slightly more disappointed in our decisions when we’re overwhelmed with options.
There’s basic psychology at work here. Think about the old parable of the donkey and the hay.
The donkey is placed exactly evenly between two identical piles of hay. Unable to choose which one is best, the donkey ultimately starves to death, paralyzed by indecision.
Now, we’re obviously not donkeys, but the moral of the story holds true. The more options we have, the more we struggle to pick the “right” one. And the more important the decision is, the greater the pressure is to choose the correct option.
But that’s not so bad, you might say. Maybe it takes more time, but more choice does eventually give you the possibility of a better option?
That might be so, but that doesn’t take into account the active cost of decision making. When we choose something, whether it’s breakfast (cereal, shake, or skip), what to do at work (email, report, or project) or even what to get as a gift (wine, chocolate or gift card) that uses up our brain’s resources. Time and energy are not free, and the ocean of options threatens to drown us if we run out.
“As the number of options increases, the costs, in time and effort, of gathering the information needed to make a good choice also increase.” — Barry Schwartz, psychologist and professor of social theory.
So what can you do about it?
In short, automate and minimize.
There’s a reason all those productivity gurus out there swear by having a morning routine. It makes sense: you put a lot of thought and energy into something once and then you have a solid, energy-efficient way to start your day right, no matter what. When you take out the choices and make your mornings as streamlined and automated as possible, you give yourself the energy you might need to make choices later on.
But you can go further than just choosing the right breakfast option. The real gains in productivity when it comes to choice limitation come when you start applying limitations to the choices in your work life. One study found that limiting options in creative work boosted creativity.
“Restricting the choice of creative inputs actually enhances creativity for experienced consumers.” — Anne-Laure Sellier, Clinical Assistant Professor of Marketing
This is because when we have a ton of choices before us, we tend to choose the energy-efficient route of the default option, the path of least resistance.
So for example, if you knit for a living, when you have to decide between 56 different colors of yarn, you’ll choose the one you used last or the one that’s closest. If you have to select between only three or four colors, you automatically give it much more thought, applying more of your creative process and deliberation to the choice.
In other words, you’re forced to move away from your normal way of doing things and entertain a new and different way of solving problems and living your life. If you automate as many routines as you can, and where you can’t do that, simply eliminate the unnecessary choices wherever you see them, you’ll find your productivity increases and you have more energy.
Whenever you can, try to give yourself more limited choices. Too much choice overwhelms your decision making process, exhausting you and nearly guaranteeing to disappoint you.
Too little decision, and you’ll be stuck on autopilot, static and unchanging. You’ll stagnate.
The perfect amount of choice will free up your mental processing power, fire up the analytic side of your brain, and maybe give you your best shot at an optimized life.