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Too many choices hinder decisions

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Some years ago, psychologist Barry Schwartz needed to replace his worn-out jeans. He went to Gap but found a bewildering array of choices. He wanted just a pair of regular jeans, “You know, the kind that used to be the only kind,” he told a salesclerk.

The clerk didn’t know what “regular” jeans were, but he found an older colleague to help. Schwartz wound up trying on jeans, but he still couldn’t tell the difference and ended up choosing arbitrarily. The whole experience unnerved him. Buying a pair of pants shouldn’t take all day.

“One of the most insidious things about side-by-side comparison is that it leads us to pay attention to any attribute that distinguishes the possibilities we are comparing,” author Daniel Gilbert says in his book, Stumbling on Happiness.

While choices improve the quality of our lives, too many choices leave us feeling dissatisfied. People freeze when faced with too many options.

Here’s how to handle decisions when too many choices come into play:
  1. Set voluntary constraints on your choices. Choose when to choose. Save your decisions for important matters and delegate the rest.

  2. Determine what’s good enough instead of what’s perfect or even the best. People who maximize their choices worry most about missed opportunities, so be satisfied with everyday decisions. Maximize your choices only when the stakes run high. That way, you’ll appreciate more and regret less.

    Anticipate that the initial accomplishment will fade, so enjoy it while it lasts, and then embark on the next phase.

  3. Control expectations about the results of your decisions. Don’t dwell on opportunity costs or possibilities that slipped away. Allow for serendipity, or happy accidents.

  4. Make decisions final. This reduces uncertainty and second-guessing. It keeps the show on the road.

  5. Pay less attention to what everybody else is doing. Don’t subject yourself or your team to popular whims. The team should know exactly what you’re striving for and what gives meaning to your work. Expressing gratitude will reinforce everyone’s sense of mission.
Bottom line: If you limit yourself to making decisions about only what matters, you’ll free yourself to lead. Everybody will be happier.

—Adapted from The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz, Harper Perennial.

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