Imagine. You’re in an ice cream shop and they have more than 300 flavors.
There are vertical levels of ice cream four levels high that you access with a sliding ladder, like the ones in old libraries. On the ladder peering into an bucket of peanut butter chocolate explosion, you salivate. Oops.
The guy below you looks up and complains about a “leak in the roof.” You smile guiltily, but he doesn’t catch on.
Now looking across the shop at the menu, you see the famous elephant bowl comes with seven flavors! Suddenly, you are in a daze, looking at the same spot on the floor for an embarrassing amount of time.
How are you going to choose? Are you even going to be able to see all of the flavors before they close? Do they have paprika?
“It’s too much.”
The thought pops into your head, and your pro-ice-cream instincts curse the thought of too many ice cream flavors. The shop owner, Jack, glares at you from the second level where all the berry flavors are kept. Jack reads minds.
“I know,” you say out loud this time, “this is amazing, but I’m having trouble deciding.”
You leave and get a chocolate frosty at Wendy’s. Thankfully they were out of vanilla.
Choice Can Be A Burden In Blessing’s Disguise
When I was a young tot and I had one game or a clear favorite video game, it was bliss. All I had to do was play and enjoy.
“Financial success” (and I use that phrase as loosely as I ever will) came later by working part time at Staples. I got to choose between several games, each of which seemed decent. I thought carefully about what mood I was in, how much time I had, what I had played last, and which game fit all of these different variables best. It was a tough decision.
Deciding on which game to buy was even more difficult than that.
Somewhere in this sea of decisions, I lost the simplicity of enjoying a game. It became more about not regretting my choice or “choosing best” than having fun. I’m exaggerating some, but there is a whisper of truth here.
Options – whether in the form of objects or flavors – spoil us to think that one isn’t enough anymore. At ten, or 300 options, the odds of there being a “perfect choice” theoretically goes up, and with it, our expectations go up, which makes them become harder to meet.
We become harder to satisfy.
For many people today, a plain t-shirt isn’t good enough to wear. That instantly complicates their life because they are artificially elevating their “needs.” This happens in many areas besides clothes in well-off countries, and it all adds up to us making frequent, mostly meaningless choices.
Choices aren’t as “free” as they seem. There is a cost, as you’ll see.
I want to be fair too. Having choice is valuable (some people don’t have it) and choosing is usually fun. I love having choices in life. The wonder and adventure built into the concept of choosing is very exciting to me. What direction will I go next? What is possible here?
It’s my love of the “wonder” of choice that drove me to create the world’s first personal development interactive choice-based story (coming soon!)? But these types of choices that I love are different. They matter.
Your life has some very important choices waiting for you whenever you’re ready to make them.
What are you going to do for a living?
Who are you going to marry? Are you going to marry at all?
What is your purpose?
Would you like a frosty with your meal?
How are you going to go from your current state to Superman?
WHAT KIND OF PERSON WILL YOU BE?
Those are BIG decisions. Are you sure you want less important ones getting in the way?
Insignificant Decisions Are Life’s Poison Pawn
In chess, there is a strategic move called “poison pawn.”
First, your opponent baits you to capture their unprotected pawn with a key piece, like your queen. Easy capture, nice! Except that it’s poisoned. Oops. When your queen moves away from her previous spot to take the pawn, it opens up a huge hole in your defenses that leads to a series of devastating blows or even a checkmate.
Do you think daily insignificant decisions affect your ability to make important decisions?
Yes, insignificant decisions soak up all of your attention and energy so that you can’t perform your best when important decisions need to be made.
Do I really need to choose between 18 paper towel brands? Thankfully I can resort to the “cheap one” default for that. But in the ice cream store, do I choose my typical favorite or the new flavor I haven’t tried?
Will you remember in 5 years what you wore today? Why bother shaving? I admit that one was only to justify my beard, which is mountain-man-style right now.
These decisions all beckon for you to make the right choice, like the pawn beckons for you to take it.
The trap and the entire crux of this article is that not all insignificant choices are easy choices. What is the true cost of making a decision? It’s a question we don’t think about much because choices seem free.
Back to ice cream…
Ice cream has sugar in it, meaning that you’ll like it, so it doesn’t matter much which flavor you choose. And yet, you have to create some basis for choosing your seven flavors (dang, are you sure you want the elephant bowl?) instead of the other two hundred and ninety three. That’s a lot of work! But let’s get to the point.
What The Heck Is the Problem With Making Difficult, Unimportant Decisions?
It’s been shown that human decision-making ability (and self-control) is decreased after making a difficult decision.
“Participants who made choices got fewer math problems right and had a significantly higher error rate than participants who had merely thought about the course options without making choices.”
“The present findings suggest that self-regulation and effortful choosing draw on the same psychological resource. Making decisions depletes that resource, thereby weakening the subsequent capacity for self-control.” (source)
Roy Baumeister, PhD, is the willpower and choice guru from Florida State. These quotes come from the linked study of five experiments. All five experiments found a connection between decision-making and self-control depletion sourcing from the “same pool.” Other research (from Baumeister) found that a human’s ability to make a tough decision goes down decidedly once they make a tough decision.
In other words, we’re dealing with limited resources here and the cost of making a decision is more than time. There is a mental performance cost to making a decision (or exerting self-control), and from the research, it seems to be a fairly significant one.
Make a difficult decision, and it becomes harder to make another difficult decision (or resist a piece of cake). Resist a piece of cake, and it makes it more difficult to make a (good) decision or resist ice cream later.
What should we do with this information?
The most logical thing to do is to become minimalist with your decision-making. Cut back on decisions that don’t matter and focus on the essentials. Why spend your decision-making energy on something as unimportant as Rocky Road vs. Spinach ice cream?
We’ve got to preserve our mental resources for the things that really matter to us!
I would try spinach ice cream if it were available.
As it is smart to spend money to buy things that matter, it is smart to use up your “decision juice” on important decisions. This is where minimalists have an advantage. With fewer possessions means fewer choices and fewer “management decisions.” I have less than 10 shirts, and they’re all similar. Do you think I sweat blood picking out an outfit to go get groceries? (I do not, for anyone still wondering. It’s more of a saline solution.).
Here’s what you can do to remove insignificant decisions and maximize your mental strength:
- Minimize your clutter. The less you own, the less you have to manage. You’ll have fewer decisions, fewer distractions, and a more meaningful life.
- Simplify and streamline insignificant decisions like what to eat and what to wear by planning them out ahead of time for the week or month. Some people eat the same thing for breakfast every day, and that’s a good idea.
- Focus on creating healthy habit routines. Habits and routines are great because they don’t involve choice, but they’re healthy! Do you think hard about the decision to eat food, or do you habitually respond to hunger or “it’s lunch time?” This removes some of the need for self-control too (self-control being the other “depleter” in the study), because you’re programmed to perform. It is a very intelligent way to live life and the benefits of healthy habits seem to compound over time.
- Focus on planning your day in the morning, when your mental “reserves” are highest. Then you can spend the rest of the day executing the good decisions you’ve already made. Structuring your day like this is efficient for your brain and you should notice a big difference in productivity.
And when you’re forced to make a tough, meaningless decision, flip a coin.
For more on choice paralysis and other challenges of having too many choices, watch this excellent TED talk from Barry Schwartz.
Should you share this article? Heads means you share it. Tails means you share it twice. Easy choice! 😉