Choices choices. Stroll down any aisles of any store, and you are bombarded by an array of different products by different manufacturers and even within each brand there are seemingly endless variations of their own products. What started out as a simple mission to go shopping for food, ends up being a huge mental task of filtering and chosing between all these products to get to the ones we actually need or want. The problem is of course, we like to have choices because it gives us a great sense of power and freedom, but the reality is these choices burden us with decision making tasks repeatedly throughout out days.

Barry Schwartz in his book “Paradox of Choice” talks in depth about this issue of having so many choices that we literally freeze in our tracks and end up instead of making choices, we walk away and make with no decision being made at all. He lays out a great example of a study that used two tables of jams available for taste testing, that one had many choices, much like you find in the super market, 24 or more varieties, then on another table there were far fewer to chose from say 6 samples. In this test the table with the least number of choices ended up making more sales of jam. It seemed as though the reduction in choice helped people in making decisions.

He suggests that there are a few factors that concern us about making choices and it is these that play in our minds and lead us to the indecision we have:

  1. Regret and anticipated regret
  2. Opportunity costs
  3. Escalation of expectations
  4. Self-blame

In psychology this is called the decision paralysis, the mere existence of choice, even between equally good items, paralyzes our minds in making the choice. We fall into the trap of making comparisons and weigh up the differences between the items. This requires such a mental effort that we often when faced with too many items that have many very similar characteristics, that we prefer to not reach a conclusion and walk away, to stop the mental effort required to make that choice.

So how might we over come this problem of being surrounded by choices?

The term “satisficing” is a term that comes up many times in talking about making choices. Going with anything that is close enough to the goal and making do, without the mental burden. Barry Schwartz gives many other great examples of situations of making choices and finding satisfaction in our choices. This is definitely one way to overcome the problem, reducing the need to make so many comparisons.

Another approach to helping people make choices is to setup a “default” state of something that makes some sensible decisions for them. A great example might be allocating money to a pension that defaults to a general fund that takes the S&P 500 for example. Not necessarily the best choice, but a good starting point and reduces the decisions that might stop someone contributing in the first place. This is discussed in more detail in the book “Nudge” by Richard Thaler. That proposes that people can be helped in make good choices by nudging them in the right direction.

Here is a small list of things you can try that can help you make decisions in the future.

1. Have a clear direction or goal of what you are trying to acheive.

If you are picking something as simple as jam, ask what is really important in the decision, organic, type of fruit maybe? Then be willing to accept that nothing is perfect, and maybe try something, with the knowledge that most things can be returned or changed out next time you shop. Sometimes having a very clear statement of intention can help people understand the correct response to any question that might arise. Knowing the ultimate goal of any choice can help make that choice, a little like having a default answer, “the customer is always right”. Dan & Chip Heath talk about this more in this article.

2. Take a break from the decision making, relax and write them down.

Sometimes the indecision comes from getting stressed about the possibilities and the unknown outcomes. Some decisions are very important and some are not make sure you are allocating the right level of concern about you choice at the right time. Writing stuff down can help you get your mind “in order”. Writing pro’s and cons out can make things clearer for those bigger decisions. It also allows you to share your thoughts with others and hear opinion which can help here other arguments. Of course this is overkill for something as trivial as jam.

3. Gather more information Or Use Intuition

Sometimes indecision comes from not knowing enough, or being stuck in a particular mind frame. Try doing more research, find out others ideas and opinions. Maybe look at other similar areas of expertise, see how others may have solved a problem or approached a decision and their outcomes may have been. Sometimes you need to take a step back and see the bigger picture of what the decision means to larger system or project. Sometimes you need to trust you instincts, as Malcolm Gladwell would suggest in his book “Blink” sometimes decisions have already been made at a deeper subconscious level, we just need to listen a little to our intuition. Ask the questions that encourage you intuition, avoid the question why for example, use questions that start with what or how, that have a more positive start to their framing of the question for decision making.

4. Be willing and open to failure and starting over

Even with the best intentions things can fail. Sometimes the unknowns are overwhelming and if you spend too many hours thinking about what might happen with a certain choice you will not even try to move forward. If you accept that things may fail then you can start to experiment, using the methodology of design thinking you can begin to make small bite sized incremental steps to start answering all your questions you may have and begin to see the results of your assumptions with prototyping. I am not saying to start out with failure in mind, but be willing to bounce back if it happens. What are you willing to risk to move forward versus what will you gain, keep the risks reasonable.