the paradox of choice

Choice – the the opportunity or power to choose between two or more possibilities. Choice is powerful. It opens up new paths and horizons.

But paradoxically, increasing either the number of options to choose from or the frequency of making choices can be detrimental.

Too many options can lead us into a choosing paralysis.

Whether it be toothpaste, a new jacket, or a career path, there’s a sweet spot in the decision tree. A couple of choices empowers because we can weigh the pros and cons to select the best option. At some level however the number of choices exceeds our ability to make a rational choice and we either just ‘choose something’ or we don’t choose at all. The level at which this happens varies to a degree with the importance of the decision, a person’s current stress and energy level, and the operating style of that individual.

I saw this play out for me while searching for a program for continued training. There were literally thousands of options, all with unique facets – well beyond the more straightforward questions of online, location, and costs. How does one even begin to make decision with all of those variables? I really felt stuck. Then I learned that the majority of individuals utilized by my institution in this field came from one of four different programs. Four! I can choose between four. And I did.

choices less is moreToo many choices drains our decision making energy pool.

The opposite side of this coin is too many choices each day. We have a pool of decision making energy every day. And once it is gone, we are very challenged to make decisions. In addition, this pool of energy is directly linked to our ‘will power’ or ability to make ‘good choices’.

Apparently by the time I choose what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, whether to fasten my seat belt when I get in the car, what route to drive to work, and what task to tackle first, I have already used up a lot of my decision making energy pool.

And once I use up that decision making energy pool with more trivial choices, I don’t have energy left in the pool to makeĀ  important decisions. So when I pass by cookies in the break room, I will likely grab one rather than spend additional mental energy on whether it is a wise choice or even whether am I really hungry. This is also why ‘making plans’ to go to the gym at the end of the day rarely work. If we stop and think about ‘should I go to the gym?’ it is almost never going to happen.

So, what does work?

Simplify and streamline on the small stuff. My breakfast is the same thing every work day and nearly all my outfits are some version of black pants, black or white shirt, and then a jacket or sweater. I don’t spend my decision energy on deciding what to wear or what to eat in the morning meaning I have more of it for the big ones that are guaranteed to come my way during the day.

Make some decisions automatic. An automatic decision that I used to have but I’ve lost was to walk every day. At some point, I started thinking about it – maybe I should go to the gym instead of going for a walk; maybe it is too cold for a walk, perhaps I should exercise instead. I suspect you can predict the outcome. Too often, neither happened.

I need to put daily walks back onto autopilot.

And that would be a good choice.

MaryJoBurkhard.com #culturethriving

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