Once upon a time, there lived a King, whose ideas were pretty barbaric. This showed in his amphitheater, in which crime was punished or virtue rewarded. How? The person on trial had to stand in front of two identical, exquisite doors, and choose one. The chosen door became the verdict.

Behind one door stood a hungry, menacing tiger, ready to kill. Behind the other, a person to get married to. And there was no way to know what was behind which door. They both looked promising. One just had to make an intuitive choice. And accept what unfolded.

Excruciating, right? But, those who lived exclaimed, “Heavens, thank you for letting me choose my fate!” And hence, were grateful for the options. Even though they were unreasonable.

We are no different when it comes to choices. We want options. For the food we eat, the people we hire, and even fonts and messaging pegs for our brands. Why? Because the ability to choose gives us control over a situation. William Glasser, author of  ‘Choice Theory‘, argues that we make choices to satisfy five basic needs: survival, love, power, freedom, and fun.

How do choices affect our decision making?

Choices give us control. You walk into a bookstore and notice the same book across all shelves. Hundreds of copies. It’s not the one you want. How would you feel? Frustrated, trapped. Imagine this in a life situation – take the marketing job, or you get nothing at all. Unfair, right? That’s why we need choices. To negate feelings of powerlessness and improve well-being. That’s why revolutions were fought for our right to choose, like the Women’s Suffrage Movement, or the American Civil War.

Too many choices = F.O.B.O. Amazon sells over 10,000 types of toilet brushes. How would you choose one? You’ll read reviews to find the one that meets your budget + quality needs. And that will take hours. This is how we choose gadgets and even doctors, today!

Researching every choice, fearing we’ll miss out on the best, is called F.O.B.O – Fear Of Better Options. Psychologist Barry Schwartz says, “as the options increase, the time and effort in gathering the information needed to make a good choice also increases. Thus, the certainty people have about their choice decreases, and the fear of making the wrong choice increases.” Because of which, we choose nothing.

To validate this, Prof. Sheena Iyengar, Columbia Business School, presented an array of jams and enticed shoppers to buy a jar. In one version, there were 6 varieties shown to shoppers. In another, 24. The larger spread got more traffic. But the smaller one led to 10 times more purchases.

Decisions cause fatigue. Researchers found that Israeli parole boards granted parole to 70% of prisoners who appeared in the morning, but to less than 10% in the evening. What was this about? Not the severity of crime. Towards the end of the day, the judges were experiencing decision fatigue – a phenomenon where our brain has used up its mental energy. Such fatigue prompts us to make decisions based on quick, existing mental shortcuts, without assessing the pros and cons. The same is true when we have too many options. We exert ourselves analyzing those choices.

Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama both simplified their wardrobes to save this energy. Says Obama, “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have many other bigger decisions to make.”

How do we make decision-making easier?

  • Restrict choices. When P&G cut their Head & Shoulders line from 26 products to 15, they saw a 10% increase in sales. The key is to have options, because just one choice creates the ‘single option aversion’. People will keep looking for more. Yet, too many is overwhelming. We need to restrict our options. For example, in creative projects, restricting choices enhances creativity. How many options? 3-5seems to be a good number. 
  • Use your mornings. The bulk of energy to make decisions is available when we wake up. Our cognitive resources are sharp then and reduce as the day wears on. Like an ice-cream slab out of the freezer. So, wake up early, like Apple CEO Tim Cook does, at 3:45 am. And prioritize.
  • Start small. In Europe, you can custom-make your car. That means, you make around 60 decisions, where each has multiple options. For example, you can have four different engines to choose from, or 56 different car colors for the exterior. That’s a lot.

To ease the process, car companies let their customers start with small decisions – leather seats or fabric seats. And prime them up to complex decisions, like 56 colors. Why? As we start small, we learn how to choose. We learn how to eliminate irrelevant options and get more competent. So, don’t dive into a big decision with many variables.

Decision making causes stress. And that’s a good place to be. Stress pushes us to focus on positive outcomes and reorient our decisions. The shift you need to make: stop wanting to be right. According to Buddhism, the desire to be right is what causes suffering. Not the fact that you have to make a decision!