Why Reducing Your Choices Increases Your Chance of Success

Why Reducing Your Choices Increases Your Chance of Success

Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, wrote: “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”

For those of us who grew up in a society believing that having numerous options is always better, promoting fewer choices might sound like the ramblings of a radical minimalist.

But, there are reasons why having fewer choices could make you more successful, not to mention happier.

In conjunction with limiting your choices in life, you should also set realistic finish lines. That is, identify what is “enough” in your life.

Identifying your “enough” not only leads to better and faster decision-making but also ensures that you avoid the trap of the hedonic treadmill.

Let’s delve deeper into why an abundance of choice is detrimental to your success, how to find your “enough,” and the 3 best practices for minimalist decision making.

What is Analysis Paralysis?

Analysis paralysis is a phenomenon that occurs when people have too many options and begin to overthink the problem, leading to an inability to make any decision. It’s a prime example of how more choices make it harder, not easier, to find a solution.

A 2010 study of white-collar workers across five countries — the United States, China, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Australia — found that 62% of employees admitted the quality of their work suffers when there’s too much information to sort through in a given period of time.

These employees also reported that they spent 51% of their working hours going through the information, rather than acting on it to perform their specific duties.

The data from this study showed that more guidance doesn’t always translate to better results, increased productivity, or a higher chance of success.

If analysis paralysis is such a prevalent problem, how do we overcome it?

How to overcome analysis paralysis

Proactively experiment with the following three measures to minimize the burden of analysis paralysis in your daily life:

  • Recognition. The ability to separate analysis paralysis from healthy decision-making is the first step toward overcoming it. Healthy decision-making consists of building out a list of possibilities and using a process of elimination to arrive at a solution. In contrast, those stuck in analysis paralysis continuously expand their list with additional possibilities — never stopping to narrow down the options.
  • Find the root cause of your overthinking. Are you worried that the wrong choice will be detrimental to your business? Has a poor decision in the past shaken your ability to trust yourself with major decisions? Do you feel your decision will adversely affect other people if you don’t choose correctly? Identifying and addressing the underlying causes of your overthinking is crucial if you want to move past analysis paralysis.
  • Make minor decisions faster. Forcing yourself to decide quickly when faced with trivial choices offers a low-friction starting point toward decisiveness. Choose a restaurant without reading the reviews; walk around your city with no set destination; watch the first recommendation on Netflix instead of browsing your queue for an hour. Do anything inconsequential that creates a habit of speedier decision-making.

We’re not suggesting that you become impulsive as a means to eliminate your tendency to overthink.

It all comes down to finding your Goldilocks zone. In the same way that astrophysicists use the Goldilocks zone to identify habitable planets, you can also use it to establish the ideal number of choices for optimal decision-making.

In his paper for the Symbiosis Institute of Management Studies Annual Research Conference, Dr. Rony George Kurien says:

“There is some tradeoff between getting the product that best matches your needs (by increasing variety) versus the amount of effort it takes to choose as the number of possibilities increases.

Given that, you can think of a theoretical optimal number of varieties that balances the incremental benefits of an additional option versus its cost.”

Maximizers vs. Satisficers

“Maximizers are people who want the very best. Satisficers are people who want good enough.”

– Barry Schwartz

The concept of satisficing was introduced by Nobel-prize-winning economist, Herbert Simon, who combined the words satisfying and sufficing into a portmanteau.

When presented with a decision, satisficers consider what they want to gain or preserve and select the option that best meets those requirements.

On the other hand, maximizers set exceedingly high standards for every decision they make.

This often leads to feelings of buyer’s remorse and a sense of disappointment when the outcome fails to meet expectations.

Maximizers continuously doubt their choices and wonder how things would have played out if they’d chosen differently.

Since maximizers struggle to feel satisfied, they are liable to fall into a cycle of spending even more time on their decisions — until the outcomes meet their unrealistic standards.

If you’re a maximizer, the best way to overcome this cycle is to limit your choices.

This practice leaves less room for doubt after making a decision.

The best way to become a satisficer is to set realistic expectations instead of dwelling on past decisions.

Limit your options to achieve more: a practical view

Having adequate options to make a satisfactory decision is often better than gathering dozens of alternatives to find the “objective best solution.”

To demonstrate this, let’s imagine you’re in the market for a new grill.

If you ask several of your friends which grill they use and whether or not they’re happy with the product, you’ll only get a handful of choices.

Due to the small sample size, it’s unlikely that any of these options is (objectively) the best choice available. 

Still, you could purchase a grill from those options that serves your needs and makes you happy — without spending too much time or effort on the decision. 

Alternatively, you might research all the latest and greatest grills online.

After looking at the pricing, specifications, and reviews for dozens of grills, you’ll increase the odds of finding the ideal product for your situation.

However, you’ll also spend significantly more time on this decision and create a higher risk of second-guessing your choice later.

The above scenario is just one example of how striving for “good enough” — rather than the best — can help you achieve more in less time while feeling happier throughout the process. 

The French philosopher, Voltaire, summed this up well:

“Perfect is the enemy of good”

What is enough?

If pursuing “good enough” is the most efficient path toward happiness, how do we identify what is enough?

How do we isolate the point of optimal sufficiency without allowing societal norms and cognitive biases to sway our decisions?

Paul Jarvis, the author of Company of One, took an introspective approach to solve and optimize for “enough.”

He calls this method “exterior mindfulness” — an effort to apply the core principles of minimalism toward life and decision-making. 

As Paul says: “If we don’t solve for enough, for our specific and personal enough, minimalism is vapid at best and a constant state of judgement at worse (sic). In order to be more aware of what makes sense for our lives and businesses, we need to be aware of what enough means.”

The difficulty is that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for enough. 

Enough is different for everybody. 

“It’s not up to us to judge what someone else’s enough is. It’s up to us to be mindful about where we are personally, and either work towards or optimize for what our own enough actually is. And we could all do with a bit more empathy and understanding here.”

– Paul Jarvis

Beyond the cost differences of living in a rural area versus a metropolitan city, the nature of your business — along with your criteria for a happy life — also dictates what is enough for you.

As our wants and needs change, so too does our perception of enough.

Even so, we need to identify which changes are reasonable and important to us and which are a result of lifestyle inflation, i.e., trying to impress others.

Paul also notes that: “We can’t figure out our own enough if we’re judging others and comparing where they’re at in their enough journey to ours.”

Escaping the Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill — also known as hedonic adaptation — is the tendency of humans to quickly return to a baseline level of happiness even after significant positive or negative events in their lives.

For example, the pain of a failed business or a nasty divorce will likely fade over time. The initial thrill of buying your first sports car or purchasing your dream home will also diminish. 

The novel rapidly becomes mundane.

We seek out new challenges and opportunities to restore our original state of excitement.

It’s a vicious circle.

Once you have established your criteria for “enough,” the three practices below will aid your decision-making process and limit any tendency towards impulsiveness.

Minimalistic decision-making: 3 best practices

1. Consider your emotions

If you want to make faster decisions without sacrificing quality, then begin by gauging your emotional state.

Choose a moment when you’re at a relative baseline, i.e., when you are not excessively happy, sad or angry.

If you do this, you’ll make quicker decisions and avoid the risk of impulsive mistakes.

We’re not saying that you should — or could — entirely eliminate your emotions from the decision-making process.

As Morgan Housel, the author of The Psychology of Money said, “Aiming to be mostly reasonable works better than trying to be coldly rational.”

A common example is someone who pays cash for their house rather than taking out a mortgage.

Getting a bank loan would leave them with more investment capital, but if debt keeps them up at night, is it worth the objective benefit?

2. Don’t fear the consequences

Human beings have a knack for overestimating the negative or positive impact a decision will have on their lives.

While we’re not suggesting that you live rashly or ignore the potential ramifications of your actions, don’t succumb to a disproportionate fear of consequences either.

We’ve all suffered failures in life and business.

But we got back up.

We survive the outcomes of our actions and move forward with increased knowledge to apply to future events.

It’s more common to regret inaction over a decision, so an irrational fear of consequences shouldn’t inhibit our resolve.

3. Reframe your brain

Simply reframing a worst-case scenario will facilitate quicker and bolder decisions and help you cut your losses when things don’t go to plan.

A study from the University College London supports this approach.

In the experiment, participants were offered £50 and given the option to either, a) lose £20 and go home with a guaranteed £30 or b) gamble for a chance to keep the entire £50. 

62% of participants chose to gamble on securing the full amount instead of taking the £20 loss.

However, when the question was reframed as keeping £30 and returning the rest, only 43% of the participants took the gamble.

This demonstrates that a single word — lose versus keep — can reframe not only our perception of the choice at hand but also our final decision.

To use this to your advantage, try focusing on what you’ll keep if events play out poorly rather than what you stand to lose.

This adjustment in your thinking could make even the most intimidating decisions seem less daunting.

Conclusion

As you’ve seen, not every decision needs to feel like a matter of life or death. 

There’s nothing wrong with considering the adverse effects of a misstep but we shouldn’t paralyze ourselves by overthinking every choice that’s presented to us.

We must strike a healthy balance between carefully pondering key decisions versus spending days or weeks considering an ever-growing list of options.

Similarly, finding happiness in what you already have ensures that you live a life of satisfaction rather than one of constant struggle — like Sisyphus eternally rolling a boulder uphill.

If you stop sweating the small stuff, moving the goalposts, and letting your emotions take control, there’s no reason why you can’t achieve more with fewer choices.

Finally, if you’d like to discover your approach to decision-making, there’s a quiz for that!
Are you a maximizer or a satisficer?

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Juliet Lyall

Juliet Lyall is editor in chief for the discourse publication. She has been writing and editing articles and newsletters for digital businesses (mainly investing sites) for 10+ years. As an entrepreneur, Juliet has built and worked with bootstrapped startups for 20+ years and is proud to support other women in their online journeys. The Oxford comma. Always.

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