August 27, 2016

How Limiting our Choices can make us Better at Everything We Do.


“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”
~ Steve Jobs

I go on a book-buying spree and download six e-books on my Kindle. I am so conflicted over which one to start first, I end up reading none of them. Instead, I start reading a book that’s been lying on my bedside table for ages.

I want to start a new exercise regimen and need to decide between a 12-week strength program, rejoining my cross-training club, or taking up running again. I pick the strength program. I feel good about this, until I get a call from a friend who reminds me how fun and invigorating it is to be part of the cross-training team.

Now I feel frustrated and confused; I want to do both the strength program and cross-training, but I don’t have the time.

I’ve realized that having too many choices is one of the causes of my anxiety and sense of overwhelm.

Every time I make a decision, I feel like I’m missing out on other options.

We burden our lives with unnecessary choices. We put ourselves under pressure, instead of saving much-needed energy for the bigger things in our lives. From mundane decisions about what to eat at breakfast, to big decisions we need to make in our lives—each option requires attention from our over-active minds. The result: by the time noon arrives, we are exhausted, and our energy has dissipated.

“The problem, simply put, is that we cannot choose everything simultaneously. So we live in danger of becoming paralysed by indecision, terrified that every choice might be the wrong choice.”
~ Elizabeth Gilbert

We make a lot of decisions every day. A light or a dark suit for today’s presentation? Eat that pancake that jumps out at us or not? Listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast or the New Yorker podcast when driving? The list goes on.

However, our brain has limited energy for decision making. As we make more and more decisions, we become mentally tired. We then start choosing the easier options and, in turn, often make bad decisions.

This is called decision fatigue.

In James Clear’s article, “How Willpower Works,” he cites a study published by the National Academy of Sciences, in which Psychologists examine the factors influential in causing judges to approve parole to criminals. They found, in over 1,000 cases, that judges made decisions not based on factors such as the extremity of crimes committed or the behavior of the criminals in prison, but rather on their own state of mind—whether they were tired or refreshed and, most notably, the time of day.

In the mornings, a judge was likely to give a favorable ruling about 65 percent of the time, but as the morning wore on and the judge became drained from making decision after decision, it became easier to say no. So the favorable rulings dropped to zero.

“One is weary of eating on porcelain and eats on silver; wearying of that, one eats on gold.”
~ Søren Kierkegaard

Often, we invite alternatives into our lives. Not necessarily because we want the best, but because we’re bored with what we’re doing. Not due to lack of choice, but rather because we’re not content with ourselves. We feel we are missing out on something. We compare what we are doing with what others are doing and presume their lives would give us more joy.

I’m all for trying out new things and looking at different options, but for the right reasons. How many times have we bought the new bag or Nike trainers and discarded the old ones, which could still serve the same purpose?

I love writing. I have three platforms to do so—Word, Scrivener and Evernote. However, I find myself spending half of my energy choosing how to write, rather than allowing myself to write. I become anxious, thinking I’ll be ineffective if I don’t use the right platform.

Deep down, I know I’ve entertained these choices because I have my doubts about being a writer. Perhaps one of those platforms can make me a better one, I think. In reality, the most important thing is what I write—not what software I use.

“The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”
~ Søren Kierkegaard

I’ve found the best way to simplify my life and make it more effective is setting constraints. These self-imposed limitations can help us become more focused and, therefore, better at what we do.

It allows us to live with clarity and enjoy the things we love and find meaningful, rather than wasting our time and energy on futile actions.

This simplistic lifestyle also puts us in a space of peace, rather than chaos—creating a clear positive in our lives as well as a structure that sharpens our minds. It frees us to become more creative and proactive, too.

However, constraints must be supported by a regular practice.

When I started to blog, I was inconsistent. I felt overwhelmed with questions of where, when and what to write. I would write when I felt like it. Often as much as three articles a week—and then nothing for a month.

I then set myself the constraint to blog, every Thursday, on whatever piqued my interest that week. I backed it up with a daily writing practice of an hour a day. I have hardly missed a Thursday since making that decision.

In Barry Schwartz’s 2004 classic, The Paradox of Choice: Why more is Less, he says the more options we consider and encounter, the less fulfilling our ultimate outcome will be. It reminded me of what my late uncle once told me when I wanted to sell my car.

He said, “Always go with the first offer you get.”

At the time, I laughed it off as bad advice. Especially in my world of “get as much as you can” and “win at all costs.” But now I see the true wisdom in that simple statement.

In the time for waiting and comparing offers, anxiety builds. Then there is the stress of negotiating the best deal. All of which undermine the simplicity of getting things done and moving on. (The caveat being that the offer must at least meet 80 percent of what we had in mind.)

Setting constraints doesn’t mean we are boring and unadventurous. It doesn’t mean we have limited opportunities. Rather, it shows we are focused enough to latch onto the right opportunity when it comes our way.

Opportunities and choices are plentiful; however, this world lacks committed people who take advantage of the many that come their way.


Author: Mo Issa

Image: Rori DuBoff/ flickr

Apprentice editor: Catherine Simmons; Editor: Toby Israel


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