Stop Making Choices, Focus on Decisions

Choices don’t matter, according to Seth Godin in a recent blog post. Where should we go for brunch? Should I buy the expensive cream that comes in a glass bottle from a local farm or the inexpensive kind in a waxed paper carton that comes from some large factory dairy?

Choices, Godin elaborated in an interview, are the options in life that don’t come with lasting consequences. Decisions, on the other hand, do.

Paradox of Choice

Here’s the problem that Godin is hinting at: Meaningless choices sap our internal resources┬áso that when we are faced with making hard decisions, we don’t have any resources left to do it. Moreover, we go through life pretending that the choices we make about where to have brunch or which cream to buy, actually do matter. We take the emotional and intellectual resources we could be putting into decision-making and instead we expend them on choices. Sometimes it even feels good because we’ve tricked ourselves into feeling like we’ve been busy making hard decisions, in the same way that busy work feels good because it feels like we’re being productive, even though we aren’t.

Plenty has been said about how facing too many choices can sometimes leave us paralyzed to choose, or just plain unhappy. How many spaghetti sauces or salad dressings are on the shelf at the grocery store, and how long could you get stuck staring at them, weighing the pros and cons of each one? Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice goes to great lengths to explain why having too many choices can lead us to greater unhappiness.

Decisions and Personal Productivity

Decisions, not choices, drive personal productivity. What is it you want to do? What is your goal in doing something more efficiently? Why do you want to produce more, and what is it you are producing? Some people want to increase their productivity so that they can do the same job in less time so they can spend more time with their families. Others want to learn how to increase personal productivity so that they can reserve some of their time and energy to put into personal projects.

Figuring out why you want to be more productive is a decision because it shapes how you live your life and whether you are happy in your pursuits.

The Toll of Making Decisions

It’s not the decision itself that’s hard exactly, but rather the fact that the decision will have real consequences, and we will be responsible for them. If you make bad decisions about how to invest your money, for example, if you don’t put away enough money for retirement or an emergency, you’re more likely to end up in a bad situation, and it will be your own fault. That weight of responsibility is a lot to bear, so it’s easier to put off making the decision than to deal with it now.

And it’s even more complicated than that because small choices sometimes can matter when viewed in the aggregate. In the course of my life, it really doesn’t matter if I buy the expensive glass-bottle cream. But if I buy the inexpensive cream, and the inexpensive chocolate, and the inexpensive eggs, and run-of-the-mill iodized salt, and I use all these ingredients to make chocolate mousse, it’s going to be mediocre chocolate mousse at best. If food is something I care about, I can’t blow off every single choice, because at some point they will add up to an unfulfilled lifestyle.

Automating Choices

Godin proposes not choosing at all, and making arbitrary calls. Pick the option that comes first alphabetically, for example.

A better approach is to automate simple decisions when possible. If you consistently buy cage-free eggs and meat raised without antibiotics, then perhaps you are the kind of person who buys cream in the bottle. Then you don’t have to make a choice. You do the action that’s consistent with who you are.

Some people automate decisions about what to eat, for example. The late Oliver Sachs notoriously ate the same meals over and over again because then he appreciated not having to think about it (he also said it helped with self-control).

Beyond automating choices, get in the habit of asking yourself, “Does this decision matter?” Be aware of the difference between decisions and choices. If the question doesn’t matter, then it’s a choice, not a decision, and there’s no need to dwell on it.

Image by Rich Johnstone, CC.

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