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Choosing To Choose: Pushing Through Decision Paralysis

October 08, 2021 by Amanda Reill

Decisions, decisions. Life is absolutely full of them. Decision-making is a fundamental part of being human. From the minute we wake up to finally shutting our eyes to sleep, the human day is one long chain of decisions, one right after the other. And these decisions have gotten progressively more complicated as time has passed.

Let’s take shopping, for example. Spending money used to be fairly simple. For hundreds of years you bought one kind of soap, one kind of clothing, one kind of vehicle to get you from here to there. But the more affluent a society gets, the more choices arise. And that’s a good thing, right? Isn’t it good to have better and better options, and more of them to choose from? Isn’t that what freedom means? 

Well, maybe. But in the last few decades researchers have noted a sharp increase in dissatisfaction among members of affluent societies, and many studies have linked that lack of satisfaction with the increase in choices. This decrease in satisfaction shows up in high rates of clinical depression and anxiety, so the stakes are high. 

Choosing To Choose: Pushing Through Decision Paralysis

With a link between choices and depression, it would seem that more isn’t necessarily better, but it would take a book published only in the last twenty years to explain why. 

The Paradox of Choice

In his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz defines the aptly-named phenomenon as the concept that decision making becomes harder when there are too many choices, so--paradoxically--people choose not to choose. This is more commonly referred to as “decision-making paralysis,” or sometimes “analysis paralysis.” 

The Paradox of Choice

In one famous study, consumers were presented with two dozen different types of jam laid out on a display table for sampling. They were told that they could receive a coupon to purchase one type out of the twenty-four on display. Another time, on a completely different day, another display table was set out, but this time there were only six types of jam on offer. The first table got very little attention compared to the second table, and shoppers who saw the large table were less likely to purchase a jam than the ones who saw the small table. 

Subsequent studies have been conducted over the years, including one in which employees were faced with options for 401(k) plans. Turns out, when the decisions we make have deeper stakes and more complicated financial details than simply choosing a jam, it’s even harder to make a choice. Each study has led researchers to conclude that consumers are easily overwhelmed by choices, and when that happens they are far less likely to make a purchase. This carries over into other areas of life, of course; the more limits we have on our choices, the easier it is for us to choose. 

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you push through and pick a jam from that big display table. It may seem like the hard part is over, but this is often where the real difficulties begin.

Not My Jam

Something interesting happens when we fight the paralysis and make a choice anyway. Schwartz notes that people who choose one jam out of the twenty-four options are more likely to be unsatisfied with that jam. He attributes this to the fact that it’s easier to nitpick the choice we made and assume we could have made a better one. 

These decisions can lead to something economists call “opportunity costs”, where we are nagged by the idea that the other options are somehow more attractive than the jam we chose even if that’s not true. 

Furthermore, having multiple options raises your expectations about the entire category of item you’re choosing. So if you have two dozen jams in front of you, and choose one that you don’t like, then you’ll probably blame yourself for choosing “the wrong jam” instead of assuming that none of the jams are going to be perfect. High expectations lead to disappointment, and there’s no one to blame but ourselves. 

The Secret to Happiness

When a client approaches you feeling stuck, odds are it’s not because they’re trying to choose between one path or the other. It’s probably because they have dozens of paths they could take, and they just have no idea which way to go. There are just too many jars of jam. What if they pick the wrong one? What if that jam tastes bad? What if that lowers their satisfaction about every jar of jam they’ll purchase in the future? 

But even worse: it’s not jam, is it? It’s jobs, and relationships, and big purchases, and where to live, and how to live. It’s the Big Stuff. And they are coming to you for help. 

Barry Schwartz notes, with his wry sense of humor: “The secret to happiness is low expectations.” And while the reader or audience member--or your client--may laugh at that, it’s not exactly incorrect. 

Those of us who live in largely affluent, consumer-focused societies are spoiled for choice, and it’s destroying our sense of satisfaction and our ability to make decisions. But there’s a cure, and it lies in another proven concept: growth mindset.

Growth Mindset Strategies

With the help of a growth mindset, life coaches are perfectly placed to help their clients make decisions that are healthy and fulfilling. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Forget Perfection. Growth mindset never assumes that there’s a “perfect” choice, because every decision we make is a chance to learn. Encourage your client to see each step as an opportunity for personal growth. Choose the wrong jam today? That’s okay! You learned you aren’t a fan of marionberry. Move on to something new. 
  2. Foundational Values. The only wrong choice when approaching decisions with a growth mindset is making a choice that doesn’t align with your personal values. Help your client verbalize and hold to their values so they can make decisions from a place of strength. If it doesn’t fit with your foundational values, it doesn’t belong on the display table in the first place. 
  3. Formulate Goals. If you could do anything, what would you do? For most people, that’s too general of a question. Your client should always keep their unique, specific goals in mind when making decisions. If a choice doesn’t get them closer to that goal, it should be shelved. This will help narrow down the table of jams to a handful of choices that truly draw them closer to where they want to be.  

Savoring Every Step

Life is full of decisions. Often, far too many. But that doesn’t have to lead to paralysis, despair, or disappointment. When we lay aside our need to choose the perfect thing, or make the “right” choice, we are given the opportunity to grow. And that’s the beauty of life coaching: encouraging growth through making decisions, taking steps, and turning mistakes into life-building magic. Whatever jam you choose, you’re right. Savor it.  

Savoring Every Step

You may also enjoy this powerful question from our Get the Answer series: What are some tips for cultivating a healthy mindset?









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