Discover more from The Prism
Overchoice and How to Avoid it
Five Heuristics to Help You Decide
"A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance."
—Hunter S. Thompson
In our age of abundance we’re constantly faced with choices, which we must navigate with a brain that evolved for a much simpler life. As such, we’re overwhelmed by options, lost in the labyrinth of possibility, trapped by unfettered freedom.
According to various polls, people estimate that they spend between 2.5 and 3 hours per day making trivial decisions, such as what to eat for dinner. That’s around 1000 hours, or 40 days, of dithering per year, and it doesn’t include the weightier decisions like where to live or who to marry.
Most of our everyday choices are between similar things; what movie to watch, what brand of toothpaste to buy. Fredkin’s paradox states that the more similar two choices seem, the less the decision should matter, yet the harder it is to choose between them. As a result, we often spend the most time on the decisions that matter least.
This is illustrated by Buridan’s ass, a mythical donkey that finds itself precisely equidistant from two identical bales of hay. The ass tries to make a firm decision as to whether to eat from the left bale or the right, but since there’s no rational reason to prefer either, the donkey wavers until it starves to death.
Buridan’s ass illustrates that there’s a cost to weighing options, which can exceed the cost of any of the options. Thus, the choices we make don’t need to be the best; they just have to be worth more than the time spent making them. If we spend less time making decisions, we can spend more time making whatever decision we made work.
The best way to manage the myriad decisions of the modern age is by employing “philosophical razors,” so-called because they shave away options, simplifying choices.
Naturally, there’s an overwhelming range of razors to choose from. I’ve tried scores of them, and have found that most aren’t workable, either because they lead to poor decisions or they’re too complicated for everyday decisions.
A few, though, have proven indispensable. Here are the five I use most.
“If you can't decide between two equally difficult choices, take the path that's more difficult/painful in the short term.”
Humans are guilty of “temporal discounting,” the tendency to overvalue short term pain/reward and undervalue long term pain/reward. So if a decision is painful in the short term, you’re likely overestimating that pain, and should choose it over the longer term pain that only seems small because it’s far away.
“If a task will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it’s defined.”
Adding a 2-minute task to your mental to-do list, keeping it in memory, and managing the anxiety of not having done it will take more effort than just doing it now.
Unresolved decisions nag at you, costing you time, attention, and peace of mind. It’s worth making trivial decisions immediately to lift their burden and make space for more important matters.
“If you can’t decide, pretend you’re deciding for a friend.”
Solomon’s paradox is a robust finding that we're better at solving other people's problems than our own, because detachment yields objectivity. But research has found that viewing oneself in the 3rd person yields the same detachment and objectivity. So if you’re stuck in a dilemma, consider what advice you’d give if the dilemma was your best friend’s.
“If you can’t decide, the answer is no.”
We live in an age of abundance, where new options are constantly becoming available. But every option has an opportunity cost, so if you keep taking opportunities you’re not eager for, you’ll miss out on ones to which you’d unequivocally answer “Yes!”
This heuristic is best used as a last resort when other decision-making heuristics have failed. It’s also conditional on you having many options available. If for whatever reason you don’t get many options, you should use the opposite heuristic: “If you can’t decide, the answer is yes.”
“The opinion you should care about most is your future self’s.”
One of the most powerful razors is to view a decision from the perspective of your future self. It combines the effects of Solomon’s Paradox and Uphill Decisions, offering the former’s detachment and the latter’s view of the long-term.
One way to achieve this is with the 10:10:10 strategy: consider how a decision will affect you in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years. This is particularly good for fighting addictions. For instance, if you’re on a diet but craving a chocolate muffin, consider how you’ll feel 10 minutes after consuming it, and you’ll realize you’ll no longer taste the chocolatiness, and will only feel guilt. Furthermore, in 10 months you’ll have no memory of ever having eaten it. By stepping outside the present moment, you become less vulnerable to the desire for immediate gratification.
More momentous decisions benefit from even bigger leaps through time. When trying to decide whether to start a business called Amazon, Jeff Bezos imagined himself at 80 years, looking back at his life. He realized that what he would’ve regretted most was not failing but never trying.
Think about it: somewhere in the future, your older self is watching you through memories.
Whether it's with regret or nostalgia depends on what you do now.