The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle: 6 Formulas for More Output and Less Overwhelm


Photo: CyboRoz

I was stressed out… over dog cartoons.

It was 9:47pm at Barnes and Noble on a recent Saturday night, and I had 13 minutes to find a suitable exchange for “The New Yorker Dog Cartoons,” $22 of expensive paper. Bestsellers? Staff recommends? New arrivals or classics? I’d already been there 30 minutes.

Beginning to feel overwhelmed with a ridiculous errand I’d expected to take five minutes, I stumbled across the psychology section. One tome jumped out at me as all too appropriate—The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen or read Barry Schwarz’s 2004 classic, but it seemed like a good time to revisit the principles, among them that:

-The more options you consider, the more buyer’s regret you’ll have.
-The more options you encounter, the less fulfilling your ultimate outcome will be.

This raises an difficult question: Is it better to have the best outcome but be less satisfied, or have an acceptable outcome and be satisfied?

For example, would you rather deliberate for months and get the 1 of 20 houses that’s the best investment but second-guess yourself until you sell it 5 years later; or would you rather get a house that is 80% of the investment potential of the former (still to be sold at a profit) but never second-guess it?

Tough call.

One call wasn’t tough: he recommends making non-returnable purchases. I decided to keep the stupid pooch cartoons. Why? Because it’s not just about being satisfied, it’s about being practical.

Income is renewable, but some other resources—like attention—are not. I’ve talked before about attention as a currency and how it determines the value of time.

The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen explores this using case studies, but here’s one example to illustrate: is your weekend really “free” if you find a crisis in the inbox Saturday morning that you can’t address until Monday morning?

Even if the inbox scan lasts 30 seconds, the preoccupation and forward projection for the subsequent 48 hours effectively deletes that experience from your life. You had time but you didn’t have attention, so the time had no practical value.

The choice-minimal lifestyle becomes an attractive tool when we consider two truths:

1) Considering options costs attention that then can’t be spent on action or present-state awareness.

2) Attention is necessary for not only productivity but appreciation.


Too many choices = less or no productivity
Too many choices = less or no appreciation
Too many choices = sense of overwhelm

Some people find that religion enables a practical choice-minimal lifestyle, as tenets often limit the number of possible actions. During his year of attempting to follow the rules of the Bible literally, the then-agnostic AJ Jacobs of Esquire cited the rules and restrictions of the Bible as amazing in this respect. Not having to consider a wide spectrum of options or actions—as he was following immutable if-then rules—allowed him to focus undiluted attention on the areas that weren’t constrained. The result? Increased output.

Even though I attended an Episcopal high school, I’m not religious in the common sense (and I don’t use the term “spiritual”), so this approach isn’t mine.

What to do? There are 6 basic rules or formulas that can be used, regardless of denomination.

1. Set rules for yourself so you can automate as much decision-making as possible (see the rules I use to outsource my e-mail to Canada as an example of this)

2. Don’t provoke deliberation before you can take action.

One simple example: don’t scan the inbox on Friday evening or over the weekend if you might encounter work problems that can’t be addressed until Monday.

3. Don’t postpone decisions or open “loops,” to use GTD parlance, just to avoid uncomfortable conversations.

If an acquaintance asks you if you want to come to their house for dinner next week, and you know you won’t, don’t say “I’m not sure. I’ll let you know next week.” Instead, use something soft but conclusive like “Next week? I’m pretty sure I have another commitment on Thursday, but thank you for the invite. Just so I don’t leave you hanging, let’s assume I can’t make it, but can I let you know if that changes?” Decision made. Move on.

4. Learn to make non-fatal or reversible decisions as quickly as possible.

Set time limits (I won’t consider options for more than 20 minutes), option limits (I’ll consider no more than 3 options), or finance thresholds (Example: If it costs less than $100 [or the potential damage is less than $100], I’ll let a virtual assistant make the judgment call or consider no more than 3 options).

I wrote most of this post after landing at the monster that is ATL airport in Atlanta. I could have considered half a dozen types of ground transportation in 15 minutes and saved 30-40%, but I grabbed a taxi instead. To use illustrative numbers: I didn’t want to sacrifice 10 attention units of my remaining 50 of 100 total potential units, since those 10 units couldn’t then be spent on this article. I had about 8 hours before bedtime due to time zone differences—plenty of time—but scarce usable attention after an all-nighter of fun and the cross-country flight. Fast decisions preserve usable attention for what matters.

5. Don’t strive for variation—and thus increase option consideration—when it’s not needed. Routine enables innovation where it’s most valuable.

In working with athletes, for example, it’s clear that those who maintain the lowest bodyfat percentage eat the same foods over and over with little variation. I’ve eaten the same “slow carb” breakfast and lunch for nearly two years, putting variation only into meals that I focus on for enjoyment: dinner and all meals on Saturdays. This same routine-variation distinction can be found in exercise vs. recreation. For fat-loss and muscle gain (even as much as 34 lbs. in four weeks), I’ve followed the same time-minimal exercise protocol with occasional experiments since 1996. For recreation, however, where the focus is enjoyment and not efficacy, I tend to try something new each weekend, whether climbing at Mission Cliffs in SF or mountain biking from tasting to tasting in Napa.

Don’t confuse what should be results-driven with routine (e.g. exercise) with something enjoyment-driven that benefits from variation (e.g. recreation).

6. Regret is past-tense decision making. Eliminate complaining to minimize regret.

Condition yourself to notice complaints and stop making them with a simple program like the 21-day no-complaint experiment. Just a bracelet and awareness can prevent wasted past-tense deliberation that improves nothing and depletes your attention and emotional reserves.


Decision-making isn’t to be avoided—that’s not the problem. Look at a good CEO or top corporate performer and you’ll see a high volume of decisions.

It’s deliberation—the time we vacillate over and consider each decision—that’s the attention consumer. Total deliberation time, not the number of decisions, it was determines your attention bank account balance (or debt).

Let’s assume you pay 10% over time by following the above rules but cut your average “decision cycle” time by an average of 40% (10 minutes reduced to 6 minutes, for example). No only will you have much more time and attention to spend on revenue-generating activities, but you’ll get greater enjoyment from what you have and experience. Consider that 10% of additional cost as an investment and part of your “ideal lifestyle tax,” but not as a loss.

Embrace the choice-minimal lifestyle. It’s a subtle and underexploited philosophical tool that produces dramatic increases in both output and satisfaction, all with less overwhelm.

Make testing a few of the principles the first of many fast and reversible decisions.

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Posted on: February 6, 2008.

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86 comments on “The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle: 6 Formulas for More Output and Less Overwhelm

  1. @blogrdoc-“time is the one thing that we cannot make more of”
    which makes making memories so much sweeter than making money…although some here will probably say making memories of making money is also sweet.
    I think that is the whole point of Tim’s “Dreamlining” as I understand it.


  2. amazing how much time it takes to discuss the concept of utilizing my time. I am now working part-time to build my own business while teaching full-time. Sacrifice now for a future of abundance. Thanks for the great blog. Somr choices are more critical than others, definitely!


  3. @lamberg:
    I do the same thing. See the post on my blog titled ‘Stuff I do’. I basically have 2 cords and 5 shirts that I alternate through for work.

    You and I have the same Alan Kay quote on our blogs. I remember seeing him talk at an internal HP conference. Very interesting talk, as you could imagine.


  4. I always said less is more. I try to simplify my life with less things for example, I would like a camera but my phone already has that feature. So to ease my wants over my needs I simply take photos with my camera. Take a look at the results [on my site].



  5. Great post. It reminded me of something Patton said: “When the difference between two courses of action is so small as to require thought, it doesn’t matter which one you choose.”


  6. Have been digging through some of your old posts. Via a few fluke things in my life the past few months I have started living a minimalist lifestyle. I plan to leave for a trip to Australia in the summer with no plans once I get there and hopefully on to other countries. It was rough getting to where I am but worth the hardships.

    Currently working passive/residual forms of income so I don’t have to attend to and manage my ventures on the road. More free time to play!

    Good read.


  7. My friend and I travel and adventure around cities and such quite often. When we have to make an either/or decision it is quite simple. Rock, Paper, Scissors. I am one option and he is the other.

    If it is a simple decision that must be made quickly: sudden death, 1/1.

    More complex decision: best 2/3.

    It’s simple and it works.

    It’s quite analogous to flipping a coin, but more entertaining and fun. You wouldn’t believe the number of times we’ve struck up conversations by doing this in line (at a restaurant or store).


  8. I love this post! Just last week my boss asked me to help clean out her office. She always admires my paper-free and clutter-free workspace, and she wanted my help organizing and deciding what to keep and what to toss. In the middle of the project we both realized that part of the reason why my desk is ALWAYS clutter-free is that as soon as I get something, I read it and instantly make a decision to toss it or to keep it. If I need to keep it, then I file it away immediately, otherwise it goes straight in the trash. She, on the other hand, agonizes over every piece of mail that comes her way. In her effort to stay “in the know” and on top of everything, she often finds herself completely lost and relies on her piles of paper that she never has enough time to actually read all the way through.


  9. Tim et al-

    Regarding number five, isn’t it important to treat all things as ‘for enjoyment’? To what extent is it worth doing something by rote if you do not enjoy it- even if it may be the most effective strategy?

    Or do you find that you come to enjoy your routine?


  10. We have a saying in Turkish that goes “En kötü karar karas?zl?ktan iyidir” meaning “the worst decision is better than indecision”.

    Sums it all up nicely :)


  11. I was chatting to a prospective client this week (a large global insurance company), they told me the company had just finished a 5 year tender process and was just about to sign the agreement with chosen supplier.

    I laughed as I thought it was a joke. No joke, they really had.



  12. This is great insightful stuff for me… as C. Brandon pointed out, one must have a clearly defined objective so that I know what I’m looking for (that’s something I can polish up), and then as you say don’t take yourself into overwhelm looking at every available option. I love research, and not so adept at productive action, and I find myself slipping into a lot of unproductive time… hopefully your pointers will be enough for me to adopt a new way. Thanks guys!


  13. One of your best. I recall a story about Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm; by employing your first rule, he bounced a whole lot of potential decisions (and people) right out the door. Deciding, as it were, not to decide at all.

    The setup: He got all parties (military commanders from coalition forces) to agree on the objective. The payoff: Any time someone came in with a beef about something (like, say, the way female U.S. soldiers dressed when not in combat gear), wanting him to fix it, he said: How does that relate to our objective?

    Simply asking the question made them realize that, in many cases, it didn’t. They found their own way to the door, and presumably worked it out on their own or managed to live with it.

    No reason we can’t ask ourselves the same thing.


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