The basic premise of this book is:
The more choices you originally have, the more regret you often end up with due to you always wondering if perhaps the thing you didn’t choose was better. The knock-on effect of this point is the revelation that the more choices you have, the less satisfied you often are with your final choice.
You think you want more options? No, you actually don’t! Options are not always your friend. They often leave you paralysed and result in you not doing anything at all, which is the worst possible outcome! Rather just take the thing that’s 80% good than trying to find the one that is 100% perfect, which often ends up with us never choosing anything at all. Where we could have had 80%, we’re left with 0%.
Let’s dive a little deeper into where the exact paradox comes into our lives:
The amount of information available to us at all times is overwhelming, which means we are constantly being bombarded by choices – constantly being forced to make a thousand decisions before lunch time. If you think that this is completely fine, think again. Decision-making comes with a biological cost; that cost comes in the form of attention. We need to start thinking about attention as a currency – in fact, a non-renewable currency. If we view attention as the currency of our mental energy, then every decision we make costs us a few limited, finite points of attention. Let’s say you have 100 mental energy points every 24 hours; if you keep using your mental energy points on deciding what to wear, what to buy, what to eat, what to listen to next, what to watch next (the seemingly unlimited choices on Netflix is a great example of this), you’re exhausting all your 100 mental energy points on decisions that don’t propel you towards your goals. So when it’s time to decide on the really important things that are going to affect your professional or personal life, you’re left with very few reserves for creativity and productivity, and therefore either take the easiest option (which is often a terrible idea – Jim Kwik always says, “Easy choices, hard life; hard choices, easy life”) or even worse, you don’t make any decision at all. This is the biological price you pay.
Each decision you make, the brain finds it harder and harder to make decisions. Eventually it starts looking for shortcuts in order to save energy. It either gets reckless and you take the easiest option, or it saves the most energy possible by letting you choose nothing at all.
And hence, we stagnate. Suddenly it’s five years later and you don’t know where time has gone or what happened to all your goals and dreams, so you impulse buy a motorbike and get a tattoo. But that is not the answer. It never was. Protect your attention, so that you can use it on the decisions that actually matter.
But let me be clear: decision making isn’t the problem; in fact, it’s the goal. It’s wasting our “currency” of attention on unnecessary decisions that don’t directly move us towards our goals which is the main problem. Having time without attention is essentially empty of all practical value. “Time without attention is worthless, so value attention over time.”
Therefore: minimise your unnecessary decisions. Keep things simple. Use a formula or checklist wherever possible, such as rules and algorithms of “If this, then that” in order to minimise choices and keep options at a minimum.
Automate your decisions. Create a set of rules so that you can automate your decisions in your best interest as often as possible. This translates as controlling and minimising your variables. Tim Ferriss, the author of the New York Times bestseller The Four Hour Workweek, suggests scripting your every move and every decision for the first hour and last hour of your day. He advises you to write it down with such detail that another person can take your checklist and replicate it perfectly.
Here are some suggestions of ways that we have implemented these principles into our lives that you could try to replicate. Perhaps set out on Sunday the exact clothes that you will wear each day this week. Perhaps choose on Sunday exactly what you’ll eat for each meal this week. Use a calendar to plan your day rather than a checklist, which gives you time and decision constraints per hour block, thereby eliminating the factor of indecision and thus increasing output. When deciding between one million different types of deodorants to buy, we ideally take the same one every time and if that’s not available, then we use a financial constraint of any deodorant that is cheaper than X amount. If a product isn’t going to expire and you know that you’ll be needing more of it in the future: rather buy in bulk. Buy in large amounts that are only limited by your storage capacity.
An excellent podcast that covers this exact topic and adds nicely as an adjunct resource is called “How to avoid Decision Fatigue” by the Tim Ferriss Show. This 20-minute podcast is such a great help in figuring out how to preserve and optimise your mental energy, and therefore increase creativity and productivity.
Tim describes how the key to this rather puzzling predisposition we often find ourselves in is called Minimum Effective Dose (MED), which is essentially looking for the least amount of effort to get the desired result. Too little of something, and you don’t accomplish goal. On the other hand, too much of the same thing and then you get side effects. This applies to the amount of decisions you’re making each day. You need to manage your attention resources efficiently to get the best effect.
Tim ends his show with this quote: “The secret to success is not unbound freedom but selecting the proper constraints,” which matches up with my main take away from Barry Schwarz’s book:
We don’t need to think outside the box; we need to find the right box to think in. We need the right set of constraints to be the most productive.