Our networked world is one abundant with choice.
The internet brought us the collective knowledge of humanity to our fingertips. It expanded what was possible for an individual to do at any waking second of the day and gave us access to the world beyond our previously small bubbles.
With an unlimited access to information, we believe that we can minimise regret by systematically finding all the best decisions. We look to others for answers by performing one of the 3.8 million Google searches made every minute, searching for "what to do when [blank]?", "the pros and cons of [blank]", "the best [blank] out there".
What is thrown back to us by the far-reaching hands of underwater fibre optic cables is a library of opinions and information that root us in place as we compare endless matrices of pros and cons. Each search provides us with a lifetime’s worth of content and if we fall too deep down the rabbit hole, we can come out on the other side feeling anxious, exhausted and uncertain.
More choices and more information promises to provide us with more freedom but often it just makes us slaves to a new master: analysis paralysis.
Some Choices are More Equal Than Others
Our lives are defined by choices. Without them we are nothing more than atoms compelled by the laws of physics (which a determinist might say that we still are).
Each decision we make represents a branching path where our life differentiates from the alternate one in which we went left instead of right, took the train instead of an Uber or chose University abc over University xyz.
But in reality, not every choice is made equal and not every decision is worthy of the time or attention we spend deliberating on it.
As Tim Ferris explains, deliberation comes at a cost:
"Every second spent performing complex mental simulations to imagine whether this or that choice would be better for us subtracts from our pool of attention units that are necessary for both attainment and appreciation: that is, both accomplishing more with our time as well as enjoying experiences in the moment."
Time and attention are the necessary ingredients for any action and every choice eats into the limited reserves that we start each day with. Research has even shown that too many choices, and the overthinking that comes with them, can negatively effect our cognitive ability, willpower, creativity and happiness.
The question then, is how can we avoid these costs and overcome analysis paralysis?
If we recognise that (1) not all choices are worthy of our time and that (2) considering our options for too long limits what we can do with our attention, the task becomes:
- Recognising decisions worthy of our time
- Reducing the tax of unworthy decisions for more time and attention (and by extension more accomplishment and appreciation)
- Approaching worthy decisions systematically to avoid analysis paralysis
What's the Worst That Could Happen
When it comes to prioritising and deciding which of our many decisions are worth thinking long and hard on, it is necessary to put things into context. That is, to envision the future outcomes that our options present us with.
You might be thinking "well yes, envisioning future outcomes is what decision making is and is the root of the analysis paralysis problem" and you'd be right. But the important add-on is that we need to limit the future outcomes we look at by focussing on one side of the spectrum: the one where things go wrong.
We spend so long trying to make the best choice for the best outcomes, but the likely possible downsides of a wrong choice tell us whether looking for that best choice is really a good use of our time.
Why should we try to maximise when the cost of that maximising (time and attention) is higher than making the worse choice?
The quick and efficient heuristic is to ask yourself "what is the realistic outcome of a ‘wrong’ decision?"
If the wrong decision leads to a not-so-bad outcome, that means that the cost of making a quick choice is similarly not-so-bad. In that case, just trusting your internal barometer is a better choice than staying stuck.
Choosing the wrong dish for dinner may leave you with some slight dissatisfaction or maybe envy when you see your friend digging into a nice juicy steak but it’s hardly an important decision with far reaching consequences. On the other hand, dumping your life savings into a stock that some faceless internet dudes told you to buy for reasons that you don't understand could end up pretty badly and you should probably take a few minutes to think about the investment.
Remember to be realistic. With enough time and imagination, I could wrongfully employ the butterfly effect to tell myself that choosing the wrong font for my essay will cause everyone I care about to abandon me but even Comic Sans is unlikely to do that.
Constraints direct our attention towards the most salient pieces of information and allow us to cut away the extraneous.
One study from Columbia and Stanford psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper found that:
“people are more likely to purchase gourmet jams or chocolates or to undertake optional class essay assignments when offered a limited array of 6 choices rather than a more extensive array of 24 or 30 choices. Moreover, participants actually reported greater subsequent satisfaction with their selections and wrote better essays when their original set of options had been limited.“
This is what psychologists Barry Schwartz calls The Paradox of Choice: the idea that having an abundance of options can overwhelm us and induce stress, anxiety and a feeling of paralysis. Schwartz goes on to explain that considering too many choices not only overwhelms us, it also means that even when a decision is finally arrived at, we can walk away feeling self-doubt rather than content as we wonder whether option 2 or 3 or 67 was better than the one we chose.
What the Paradox of Choice tells us is that when it comes to decision making, we can do more with less.
By applying constraints, we can limit the data that we have to process and limit the taxing effects of both small and big decisions. We can make our choices quicker and more satisfying by:
- Limiting the options we allow ourselves to consider in the first place (if we follow the results of this study, that would be about 6).
- Framing the options (as Schwartz recommends) by grouping them together based on similar outcomes. For instance, choosing accommodations for a vacation through the lens of what type (hotel, motel, hostel) or what part of the city you want to be in.
- Filtering the options through the lens of goals, money or time.
The Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher once responded to a journalist that his decisions are made simple by asking one question. “Are we the lowest cost airline?”
A clearly defined goal - like offering the lowest prices - gives us a first filter to limits the options we consider. Instead of being distracted by all the unimportant selling points that each option presents to you, choose what it is you are looking for and cut through the noise.
Think about your goal. Make sure it's the right one. Limit your options to those that achieve that goal.
Tim Ferris talks about how he applied financial thresholds to lessen the number of business decisions he had to make. He gave the simple instruction to his assistants that they should make the call if the decision or the potential outcome would cost less than $100.
Now, while you might be working under different limitations, this same principal can be applied to your own life when you’re tossing and turning over whether a purchase is worth making.
Parkinson’s Law causes the time we take to complete a task to expand and fill the time given. The same is true for our decision-making. We will deliberate until we are forced to commit.
After considering what the wrong choice would lead to, think about how much time you think is worth devoting to this choice? Answer that question for yourself and set that deadline.
But just saying that you need to make a certain choice by a certain time is often not enough without strict self-control. Being another thing that we have a limited supply of, discipline isn't a reliable source of applying constraints, so better yet is to rely on an external force. Reinforce your deadline by getting others to hold you accountable. For example:
- Set a forfeit with a friend or family member if you fail to make a decision by a certain time (eg. “I’ll pay you 100 bucks if I don’t settle on this by tomorrow”)
- Create the social pressure of somebody waiting on you: for instance by calling the waiter over before you’ve settled on what you want to eat or telling somebody that you’ll get back to them by a certain time of the day.
This is Always the Wrong Choice
Overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, we might be tempted to just remove ourselves from choice. We say that we'll decide later but just end up putting things off until they're out of our hands.
We do this to be free of responsibility but end up causing ourselves harm by leaving things to chance or the will of others. What we need to remember is that not choosing is in itself a choice and one which is almost always the wrong one.
As David Schwartz says in the Magic of Thinking Big:
“Action cures fear. Indecision, postponement, on the other hand, fertilise fear.”
Overcoming Analysis Paralysis comes down to identifying what is important and eliminating what isn't.
The abundance of choice doesn't have to be a problem. More information and more options open up more possibilities for us to pursue. We just have to change the way that we approach them.