Is Having Too Many Choices Exhausting You?

My wife and I decided to repaint our dining room last week. On Saturday morning, we drove over to the local home center to select a color. How hard could that be? We wanted something creamsicle-like. You know, like those ice cream bars you buy from the guy playing that repetitive song as he drives his truck through your neighborhood. (Can you hear that song in your head?)

We arrived at the paint-selection wall, and it truly is a wall, to find that the paint manufacturers have created not a few, but close to 30 variations on “creamsicle” paint. After 20 minutes trying to decide which shade we liked best, I felt like I had been through another of those nuisance exercises such as choosing from 100 toothpaste varieties or 50 kinds of salad dressing.  You’ve probably had the same experience.

In the past two decades, the number of choices we have for pretty much everything has exploded. The irony of this is that the brain dislikes choices. Why? Because the brain dislikes uncertainty and uncertainty produces discomfort.

Having too many choices has three negative impacts: 1) This uncertainty prompts the release of the stressor hormones adrenaline and cortisol; 2) We exhaust our supply of blood glucose (sugar energy) as we consider each of these choices and then say to ourselves, “No that’s not it. No, that’s not it. No, that’s not it,” over and over and over. 3) We have to manage the fear of giving up options as a part of sorting through these selections.

Our resistance to giving up options is one of the main causes of indecision. Sales research has even indicated that if you present customers with too many choices, they will abandon the shopping process. With the advent of digital technology, this overwhelming phenomenon has become even more intense.

So how can we effectively manage these endless choice dilemmas? Here are my five top suggestions:

Get clear on your desired outcome. The more parameters you can add to your expectation of a successful choice, the easier it will be to eliminate the many options that may initially cloud your consideration when confronted with having to make the decision.

Determine how important this choice is in the bigger picture. Have you ever found yourself spending WAY too much time making a decision of little consequence? This is probably because you got swept up in all the options. Be proactive about recognizing this phenomenon and work to ignore it. Getting clear on your desired outcome helps with this.

Accept that you will never make the perfect choice, no matter how options you have. The more significant the decision, the more pressure you will feel, especially if others are watching or depending on what you do. The best decision makers make a best faith effort and then act. You’ll never completely please everyone, including yourself.

Jot down the reasons for your decision. Buyer’s remorse is alive and well, whether it’s selecting a new car or hiring an employee. After you make a significant decision, make a list of your reasons for acting the way you did. When having second-thoughts or being challenged by others, you can reference these notes to assure yourself that you made a good faith effort.

Learn from the choices you make. Take time to reflect on both the outcome and the process you used. Author Michael Mauboussin, says “When evaluating other people’s decisions, you are better served by looking at their decision making process than their outcomes.” Try this on yourself.

Life is a series of choices. Don’t waste your energy on the ones that don’t matter. Pick a toothpaste, pick a paint, pick a salad dressing and move on.

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