After I moved to a new flat in January, it took a week to get my internet connection hooked up, leaving me without Netflix. So each evening, I chose from shows broadcast over the air in London. The lack of choice was glorious.
The liberation I felt isn’t unusual, says Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. While some choice is good, our mistake is thinking more of it is always better. “The act of choosing is very debilitating cognitively,” he says.
Most of us aren’t aware of the number of decisions we’re faced with or the vast range of choices on offer. You can buy hundreds of different types of shower gel or shampoo. Starbucks sells coffee in five cup sizes with six java-to-froth ratios and four flavors of syrup. Did you want that with full-fat, 2%, skim, oat, almond, or soy milk?
Barack Obama famously kept his White House closet full of almost identical blue and gray suits. When journalist Michael Lewis asked him why he didn’t vary his wardrobe, Obama said he didn’t want to waste his time fretting about which suit to wear. “You need to focus your decision-making energy,” Obama said. “You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
Too many choices can lead to “decision fatigue,” which in turn can lead us to opt for the wrong thing when it really matters. That’s a problem if we’re at work trying to make an important decision but we’ve squandered our energy shopping on Amazon at lunchtime.
Schwartz, who is color blind, began thinking about choice when his wife would stare in horror at the garish pink shirts he bought, thinking they were blue. To avoid embarrassment, he started wearing only blue T-shirts and jeans to work.
Some studies have shown that the sweet spot is 8-10 options. Any more and we become paralyzed, but less choice makes us feel like we can’t get what we really want.
“We tend to think, ‘Somewhere out there is the perfect X,’ and our job is to find it,” says Schwartz, who collaborated with actor Aziz Ansari on Modern Romance, a book that argues that many people end up perpetually single because they’re overwhelmed by the unlimited choices on today’s dating apps. “That’s really a mistake. Perfect Xs get created, not discovered.”
The same issue arises when we look for the ideal restaurant, holiday, or even a new job. Too much choice forces us to overemphasize the search process, Schwartz argues. Unless the situation is truly unworkable, we should seek ways to improve what we already have instead. In the workplace, that means talking to colleagues and your manager about how you could shape your existing role to better suit your core values, rather than looking for a new job in the hope it will be a better fit.
Schwartz explains that with so much choice we’re often unhappy with our decisions, because the longer we spend researching different options, the more likely we are to ruminate over what we didn’t choose in the end. Sometimes “good enough” is better—and it doesn’t help that we’re constantly told we should be smart consumers and consider all our options. Western cultures place an especially strong emphasis on the importance of the individual, rather than the collective spirit, he says.
“Everything about the culture really urges us to discover or invent the ‘you’ that you want to be,” he says. “It’s incredibly narcissistic, and it makes people miserable because every decision you make becomes so damn important.”
Schwartz’s tips for avoiding decision fatigue from the tyranny of choice:
• You can decide when to choose. Distinguish between trivial and important decisions.
• Acknowledge that you have to discipline yourself because the world isn’t going to reduce choices for you.
• Rely more on recommendations from friends and family.
• Never click the “show all” button when online shopping.
Schwartz says falling into a routine is a good way to limit choice, so if something doesn’t bore you, stick with it. But if you start to chafe, switch things up. “Have untoasted cheese instead of toasted cheese!” he says, or wear bright pink socks if you’re tired of the black ones.
But it’s not so easy. After a week of broadcast TV, I finally got my internet running. The first thing I did was head to Netflix, and deluged with choice again, I wanted to watch everything at once. After an hour of clicking through trailers, I just turned over and went to sleep.