Navigating Through Choices

It’s the weekend and you want to watch a decent movie on Netflix over some well-earned junk food. You have pre-ordered a good burger, some fries, and a nice large cold soft drink. However, you have not decided what to watch. You skim through the movies and series on Netflix. You try out teasers, IMDB ratings, and recommendations from friends, to shortlist on that one ‘best’ movie or series that is worth spending the next two or three hours. Most of us have gone through this routine. The burger, fries, and soft drink would be over well before you shortlist on what to watch. In the end, you are unhappy.

Welcome to the chaos of the modern world caused by overwhelming choices. This is the phenomenon that Robert Schwartz explains in his book ‘The Paradox of Choices’.

When I was a kid, I was amazed by the 31 varieties of ice cream choices that Baskin Robins offered (plus the options to sample each one for free), now Cold Stone Creamery and other franchises have much more combinations to offer. Gone are the days of a simple choice between blue and a black pair of jeans, today we have a crazy number of colors and fit to choose from. What about choosing a sandwich? Subway boasts that in its store one can assemble more than 37 million sandwich variations.

But choices make us happy right?

Ironically the plethora of choices that we have today, instead of making life easy and empowered has made it miserable. Schwartz claims that having lots of choices affects us negatively and causes decision-making to become "paralyzed".

Every day we have to make decisions on multiple fronts, a lot of them trivial - what do I wear, sparkling or still, penne or spaghetti, whole wheat bread or regular, read on mobile or buy that book, what font and color scheme to use for the presentation, which color emoji do I use, coffee with cream or without cream, etc. It is said that on average we make roughly 35,000 conscious decisions each day; of that, roughly 200+ are food-related.

But we have a powerful brain to make decisions, right?

Research shows that our brain has a finite capacity to make informed decisions each day. This capacity is what gets utilized to compare options, benefits, and costs, and decisions. The more choices we have to analyze, the more the quality of the decision gets deteriorated, leading to wrong choices and the regret that comes from it.

So, it’s obvious that to improve our productivity each day, we need to channel our finite brainpower to make important decisions. Decisions that matter like life events (marriage, have a kid, etc.) or major work-related decisions (i.e. change jobs or move to a new country), should take priority for our finite neuro power.

To, we need to find out what are the trivial decisions (I acknowledge that this is different from person to person) and commit to a tested pattern. For example, if you know you love egg benedict for breakfast, instead of scanning the menu for 10 minutes and wasting time choosing, go directly to the tried and tested choice.

Another example is that if you are an avid Apple user and all your data (a.k.a life!) is backed up on Apple iCloud; there is no point in going through phones manufactured by other companies only to come back and choose the latest version of iPhone, which in the first place, meets your requirement.

One of the productivity secrets that former American president Barack Obama employed was to wear either a blue or gray suit to a majority of the occasions.

“I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make,” Barack Obama told Vanity Fair.

Similar productivity habits for trivial decisions on ‘what to wear’ were practiced by Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.

Am I a Satisficer or a Maximizer?

Satisficers are people who take the first product that meets their requirement instead of going through an array of choices. For example, when you are choosing a toothbrush, you take the first one that meets your requirements rather than going through the entire aisle of toothbrush choices.

Maximizers on the other hand strive to find the ‘best’ choice. In his study, Schwartz found that, in general, Satisficers are happier than Maximizer. Maximizers tend to report lower satisfaction with life.

For a lot of choices, especially trivial ones, it’s ok to go with the first product that meets the requirement, even if it’s not the best.  As Schwartz says, “You learn that you can get satisfaction out of perfectly wonderful but not perfect outcomes.”

Let's conclude

It’s good to have choices as it directly correlates to freedom. Nevertheless, too many choices lead to unhappiness and decision paralysis. Given our brain’s finite capacity to make decisions, it’s only right to distinguish between choices that matter and choices that don’t. For trivial decisions, its good to commit to a tested pattern.