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One of my least favorite questions to hear from friends or family is: Where do you want to go for lunch?
I…uh…I don’t know…I want whatever you want.
With such a wide range of places to eat around here, I don’t want to commit someone else’s lunch plans to a place they don’t like just because they’re with me!
There is one particular person that I used to have this conversation with a lot. Finally, I started to ask him to give me two or three choices, depending on what he had a taste for that day.
This simple response took loads of stress off of me, as my options became limited, and I couldn’t go wrong.
In the first scenario, I was experiencing choice paralysis, which we will learn about in this article. After defining this concept, I’ll demonstrate how choice paralysis can prevent you from making progress in your life, and offer five examples of what you can do to limit its negative effect on you.
Let’s get started with a detailed definition of choice paralysis.
What Is Choice Paralysis?
Making good choices is a fundamental part of maintaining your wellbeing. It gives you a sense of control over your life–some even argue that life is nothing but a continuous stream of direct or indirect choices that you make. And while it’s great to be able to individually customize your life, trying to manage too many choices at once costs time, energy, and focus that could be better applied elsewhere.
Choice paralysis is the inability to choose one option among many, resulting in negative emotions and decision fatigue, which can cause you to make decisions that aren’t in your best interest.
But isn’t having so many options a good thing?
Well, yes and no. Choice paralysis occurs when you’re faced with several options that are difficult to compare. So if you’re trying to decide between options S and D, you may go with option A or decide to give up altogether. And, the more options you’re presented with, the more difficult it becomes to pick one (which is explained by Hick’s Law), leading people to often elect the default option.
Take Coke, for example. While we used to only have the options of Coke and Diet Coke, we now have Coke Zero, Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke, Black Cherry Vanilla Coke, Coca-Cola “Life”, Orange Ginger Coke…and that’s just off the top of my head. While stores may offer a few varieties, if you go eat at a restaurant, you’re likely to only have the default options of Coke and Diet Coke. If you’re drinking a Coke, you probably know immediately which of these two options you will choose.
So, yes, it’s nice to have a lot of options to find one that best suits your wants and needs, but the amount of mental energy you expend on making a choice isn’t worth the slight difference between option A and option Z in the end. And most of the time, the decision at hand makes absolutely no impact on the bigger picture of your life.
How Can Choice Paralysis Limit You?
Giving something extensive thought may seem like the most responsible way to make a decision, but research shows that in addition to inducing anxiety, overthinking can negatively impact your nervous system and contribute to physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, high blood pressure, and even panic attacks.
And there’s more– the more complex a choice is, the more energy it depletes. This often leads to procrastination–and by the time a decision is made, you’re so exhausted that you don’t have the energy to follow through with the appropriate actions.
This leads us back to one of the larger causes of procrastination, which is not knowing what to do first when faced with two important tasks, which can turn into taking no action at all. When you don’t know where to start, doing nothing seems like a great option.
Once you do make a choice, you may waste more time and energy re-thinking the options you didn’t choose, rather than being content with the one you did choose. And, of course, the more options you leave behind, the more you may believe you’ve missed out on, leading to a higher chance of experiencing regret.
So what happens if you make a big life decision— you get married, accept a job out-of-state, or something else that you could technically go back on? You may conclude the grass is greener on the other side and experiment with other options you think you’re missing out on…which may offer one explanation as to why people cheat on their partners.
The easier it is to move on to something new, the less satisfied you may become with what you have. But this can lead to continuously starting over from scratch and never making progress with anything that you start.
One last point before we get to the examples: Researchers from Harvard and MIT set out to study the relationship between people’s decision-making process and subsequent feelings of regret. The study participants were students in a Harvard photography course who were instructed to choose just two of the many photos they had taken throughout the entire course to potentially take home.
Half of the students were then told to make their final decision of which one out of the two they wanted to have framed and put on display in their home. The other half were instructed to initially choose one, with the option of changing their mind throughout the next week.
The researchers monitored the students’ level of satisfaction with their choice throughout the study. They found that those who were in the group that could change their minds were significantly less satisfied with their final selection than those who made an instant final decision.
So what does this mean? The first group (who wasn’t given time to analyze their choice) reported being happy with the picture they chose. The other half of students, who spent a week mulling over their decision, weren’t all happy with the outcome. So while the second group was limiting themselves in other areas of their lives while they were wasting time making a decision that wasn’t necessarily the best in the long run, the students in the first group were able to go with their gut and save their mental energy for other endeavors moving forward.
So, as it turns out, when a choice is final, you’re more likely to feel satisfied with your decision.
Now, this is not to say that if you’re accepted to seven colleges, you shouldn’t weigh your pros and cons. But, you can probably quickly eliminate some options to narrow down your list, and ultimately go with what feels right and trust your ability to make the right choice.
Let’s look at how this can apply to your life.
5 Ways to Use Choice Paralysis to Your Benefit
1. Recognize It
If you can recognize that you’re overthinking something, you can save yourself the time and energy of making the choice at hand. But how can you distinguish between making a healthy decision and experiencing choice paralysis?
A healthy decision-making process usually involves creating a list of options before going through a process of elimination. But with choice paralysis, your list may continue to grow with what feels like endless options that are all beneficial in some way. This becomes overwhelming as you think you have to elect just one correct choice from the seemingly endless list of options. Since they all seem like viable choices that should be considered, you end up in crisis mode, making it tempting to quit.
But why is it so hard to make the decision at hand? Did you make a decision in the past that ended up being harmful, making you question your decision-making abilities today? Are you concerned that the decision you’re faced with will negatively affect others?
Of course you will face challenges when making certain life decisions, but if you find you’re spending hours doing research and making a pro/con list for every decision you’re facing, understanding and addressing why you do this can help you avoid choice paralysis in the future.
While you may have some feelings of FOMO, remind yourself that being decisive about things that could have some consequences could also turn out very well.
Practicing making fast decisions for small things and reducing your opportunity of experiencing choice paralysis will help you with self-growth because it will improve your decision-making skills, which you can apply to increasingly larger and more impactful issues. Use your mindfulness skills to:
By knowing how to recognize that you’re experiencing choice paralysis, you can help yourself grow by stopping the cycle right away and moving into a healthier decision-making mode.
2. Offer (or Accept) Fewer Choices
If you work in an industry that offers choices to clients in some way–and most of us do–cut down on the choices that you offer to reduce the stress of your clients. When you intentionally do this for other people, you can learn how to do it for yourself as well.
For example, I offer patients and their families choices of which home health agency they want to work with when they leave our inpatient hospital. I typically have about 24 agencies that service any given zip code, and I offer that list to patients and families so they can make their own decision (which is a patient’s right to do).
Most of the time, people hold onto the list for a few days and then hand it back to me, saying, “You choose” or “Whatever you think is best.”
They turn the responsibility back over to me without researching the agencies or learning anything about the services offered.
However, when I verbally offer just a few options, people are typically quick to pick one, either because one sounds familiar or it’s our own agency and they’ve been satisfied with the care they’ve received in our hospital. This is mutually beneficial because the patients get a smooth transition of care from hospital to home and it’s easier for me to make the referral to home health.
Assuming your situation is probably completely different from mine, let’s look at another example: Let’s say you work in ecommerce, and you’re in charge of designing online sales. When online shoppers are presented with too many choices, it leads to a delay in decision-making, which can lead people to “sleep on it” and potentially not return to the site. This can significantly reduce the number of sales that you make. In this case, one could:
So what choices can you limit for your clients to eliminate stress and increase mutually beneficial outcomes?
3. Your Diet
You know we are fans of many things on this site, with three in particular being: secrets of successful people, Seth Godin, and Tim Ferris. Well, Tim conducted a study in which he interviewed about 200 very successful people to uncover some success tips from those who have exceptionally excelled in life.
And perhaps surprisingly, many reported it was their specific eating habits that fueled them with the energy they needed to earn their ranking. And while the participants’ meals of choice varied from one to the next (although all were extremely well-thought-out and healthy), they all had one thing in common: they ate the same thing every day, because doing this saved them valuable time and gave them one fewer decision to make throughout the day.
To save yourself some energy that could be better applied elsewhere, create a few healthy meals for breakfast and lunch that you can rotate throughout each week. Then to add some variety to your diet, get creative with your dinners. This can cut down on some stress in your morning routine, which we know is a big part of starting your day off on the right foot.
4. Plan Accordingly
Similar to having your meals all set, you can limit choice paralysis in your life by planning ahead in other areas of your life. We know that choice paralysis kills productivity, and our ability to make beneficial decisions deteriorates as we experience decision fatigue, so it makes sense that planning ahead of time is key to avoiding the pitfalls of this phenomenon.
In addition to determining what types of choices are worthy of their time and deliberation, the most successful people intentionally schedule their day by reducing the number of decisions they will have to make as the day progresses. They try to automate small decisions (e.g. President Obama has been known to wear the same suit every day to save his mental energy for more important decisions that arise later on).
You can automate your decisions by creating habits and routines that become second nature. Doing so will help you have the willpower to make the important decisions that you’re faced with later on. If you get trapped in a trend of choice paralysis, set everything aside and come back to things in the morning with a renewed perspective and replenished energy.
You can also plan ahead when doing things like researching. How many tabs do you have open on your computer at any given time? I know I can’t keep up with them when I’m trying to learn all there is to learn about a subject. But this leads to choice paralysis because you can’t choose which facet of a topic you want to focus on at a time. But if you can efficiently manage the information you consume by first determining exactly what you want to learn with a specific goal in mind—you can make it through a lot of information without feeling overwhelmed.
Some people are able to limit themselves to a single-tab habit, although…I don’t think I’m quite there yet.
Psychologist Daniel Gilbert agrees that we’re often really bad at making decisions for ourselves. He notes in his TED Talk that people tend to greatly over- and underestimate their future happiness following a decision or significant life event.
He goes on to explain that studies have shown that even complete strangers are often better at predicting our future happiness following the decisions we make than we are ourselves. In fact, research has revealed that one randomly selected stranger can estimate your future satisfaction with a choice by a factor of two, as the individual differences between one person and another don’t play an important role in predicting the better option among several.
So when you’re stuck in an overwhelmed state of choice paralysis, ask a friend (or stranger) to get their insight on the subject. This will require you to concisely summarize your options (which could be all you need to do to make a decision) and then you’ll gain validation regarding your ideas, which can help give you a boost of confidence. Because listening to literally anyone else’s opinion can help lead you to a decision that ultimately makes you happier than the decision you may otherwise make on your own.
…And now I understand why I have had several experiences of strangers–whose style is clearly vastly different from my own–ask me for my opinion in stores regarding which article of clothing they should choose.
Final Thoughts on Using Choice Paralysis to Your Benefit
Devoting too much time and mental energy to making a decision can limit your focus on your work, your personal life, or the education you’re pursuing, ultimately limiting your success. You can reduce the effects of choice paralysis by either giving yourself a time limit for making a decision or limiting the number of options you’re considering.
Try the strategies laid out in this article to prevent choice paralysis from limiting you in life. Next time you find yourself contemplating over something for just a bit too long, think back to this article and the potential disadvantage you’re doing for yourself.
Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.