Keeping your options open will cost you more than you may realize. Whether it’s personal relationships or business decisions, more choices can actually work against you. This seems paradoxical, but it’s true. When we give ourselves more choices, we’re actually lessening the possibility that we’ll decide on which one would lead to a desired outcome, and we’re increasing the chances that we’ll regret a choice we finally make.
Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, explains that in modern society we tend to think maintaining more choices means better decision-making. But the reverse is true. In the book’s description, we are warned to “beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress. And, in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.”
Schwartz wrote a piece in the Scientific American called The Tyranny of Choice, again pointing out that keeping your options open is a recipe for unhappiness. While more choices actually prevent people from making a decision, the result when they finally do decide is often regret. How can this be? One would think the relief associated with finally making a decision would be a good feeling. But what actually happens is that by keeping your options open with more choices, you’ve levied higher opportunity costs. Schwartz explains the relationship between these costs and choice overload:
Investor Glen Larson agrees. In “Keeping Too Many Options Open May Actually Be Hurting You,” Larson mentions a book by Dan Ariely entitled Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions.” Ariely reports on a study done at MIT where students demonstrated how much they were willing to pay to avoid what they perceived as a loss, even when there wasn’t a true cost associated with it. Stock and options traders, professional and amateur alike, keep relationships going in markets they should have abandoned long ago. Larson reports that traders employ such choice overload as a hedge, “just in case” the markets break open, losing money day after day, month after month. The cost of these lost opportunities can actually be measured, but the analogy to other decision-making situations shouldn’t be missed.
Too many options makes it easy to ignore or postpone a decision that should be made. “I might need it someday” is a justification many of us make to avoid getting rid of clutter, for example. The result can be a house full of unused objects you spend a lifetime maintaining, storing, cleaning, while more and more indecision builds up. The incapacitation of choice overload is physically manifested in overcrowded houses and capitalized upon by the lucrative storage unit industry.
This morning, I took the photo at right of an angel ornament Pete made when he was a child. A wind gust through an open window the other night sent it flying, and it’s broken beyond repair. He suggested we discard it – it had served its purpose over more than 45 years. Still, we went around for a bit deciding what to do. At one point, I even suggested tacking it up as a reminder about our trouble with deciding. We both laughed when we realized we were thinking of keeping something around to remind us not to keep stuff around!
Keeping your options open to play the field is a classic strategy the commitment-phobe uses to put a decision about marriage on hold. In many cases, someone who is afraid to commit wants desperately to do so, but the opportunity costs are less to bear than the cost of potentially regretting the decision. The result is structuring life to provide more choices with which to back out should things get a little scary. Such choice overload will pretty much guarantee an unhappy outcome.
What’s the effect on others? We justify keeping things around and stringing people along to maintain a higher number of options. But this is a kind of overbooking that hinders other folks, not just ourselves. It’s like reserving a seat on three different flights to the same city. You can only arrive at the destination by taking one, but then you’d have to actually decide. Who might have an actual use now for the item you might need someday? How many people have you inconvenienced because you couldn’t decide to accept or decline an invitation when it was offered?
Something better doesn’t always come along! Seth Godin regularly asks a variation of the following question: “When you look back on (a year, a decade, a lifetime) what will you have to say for yourself?” Godin laments:
Glen Larson thinks the best thing we can do to avoid opportunity costs and regret is to focus:
- be self-aware (Pete and I realized our silliness with the angel)
- eliminate the incomplete projects and situations (if we’re not going to finish something, be honest – hmmm, my knitting projects and magazines come to mind)
- resign from activities, groups or committees that aren’t fulfilling (less busy time = more quality time)
- re-evaluate relationships that drain energy (trade negative for positive)
- prune to-do lists (eliminate the less meaningful to create room for more meaning)
Keeping your options open can truly be a wise choice while we ponder viable alternatives. But there needs to be a time limit. We think the main reason people keep their options open is they fear the consequences of their decisions may not live up to the high expectations they have. Could you be interpreting real results as failures instead of learning experiences if they fall short of your expected outcome? Why are you really keeping your options open?
- Mind Undecided. (mylifeasawizard.wordpress.com)
- The Power of Choice (chriscallaway.wordpress.com)
- Depression And Bad Choices Linked To Bias In Decision-Making (medicalnewstoday.com)
- Delay, dither and destroy (thehindu.com)
- The Consequences of Perpetual Indecision and Uncertainty (passingthru.com)