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

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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.

Therefore:

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.

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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.

[Did you find this useful? If so, please take a second to vote for it here.]

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Posted on: February 6, 2008.

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

  1. When I was in school in south carolina I took a day trip with my then boyfriend to Atlanta. As we neared the city the car started making some funny noises. We parked and get on with exploring the city, but I noticed as the day wore on my boyfriend was getting more and more pensive (and he wasn’t that sort of person) he confided that he was very worried about the car and that we couldn’t get home etc. I pointed out there was no point worrying about it as there was nothing we could do, it either broke or it didn’t no point spoiling you day out because of a possiblity.
    On driving home the car failed just outside the city, and he got a lift in the back of a pig truck to a motel.
    What do you think I remember?
    I remember a really fun day in Altant, something happened on the way home which was out of our control and it left me with a cool story.

    I have been brought up to think that way. My Dad tought me, ‘don’t give people choices — it will only paralyze them, simple is best’.

    The end.

    Frances

    Like

  2. Hi Tim,

    I have a fantastic decision making device that I’ve used for the last two years. It’s guided me through many tight situations such as hitching rides on yachts across the atlantic and arriving in unknown parts of Brasil at sunset.

    It’s simple – I flip a coin.

    If the coin lands on an option and I’m stoked – great. I’ll go for it. If it lands on an option and I’m not happy, then I know this wasn’t the option I wanted. And I go the other way.

    It’s a way of ‘try before you buy’ Decision making. It forces you to go the whole way, and see how it feels.

    And anyway, I’ve found it usually lands on the option I want. Funny that.

    Naomi

    Like

  3. I wonder how this applies to relationships.

    Common sense would dictate that the more you date, the better your chances of finding a suitable partner. However, I wonder if at some point, looking for that “perfect” partner is counterproductive. You’re always going to find faults with the person you have and there is bound to be someone “better.”

    You could also make the extension that our high divorce rate might be partly attributed to the ethos of looking for more. There’s a reason married men shouldn’t spend too much time in a single’s bar, they’re bound to start looking. The grass is always greener on the other side, until you lose what you’ve already got.

    Like

  4. My girlfriend and I can spend an hour at Blockbuster making a decision that neither one is very happy with which shocked me the first couple of times. We never have that issue with movies at the theater. Last time it happened it finally dawned on me that there were too many choices.

    We don’t go to Blockbuster together anymore. One of us might grab a movie and say, “Hey, do you want to watch this?” It usually works out or we do something else.

    Like

  5. Side note – What did you think of the Mir/Lesnar fight. I see on Twitter you were pulling for Mir. Do you think he had a chance if Lesnar didn’t get caught. mmamania has a picture of his face after the fight, he was in a fight.

    Like

  6. I’ve often wondered about the “more choice = fewer real options” concept. Many year ago when I worked retail, we’d often present a plethora of options to customers (picture frames, in this case) and the sense of overwhelm was palpable. More often than not, they’d leave empty handed because they couldn’t decide.

    But I’m curious as to what Schwarz would think about how this paradigm works regarding relationships.

    I have a very attractive ladyfriend who’s consistently being approached by successful men. She’s one of those fortunate people that has pretty much got it all: beauty, brains, excellent health, she’s well-adjusted, has plenty of resources and all the rest. In short, she has pretty much her choice of men.

    And she always – ALWAYS – ends up with a lummox, some bone-headed goofball who treats her like dirt. Then she comes crying to me as her best friend, wondering where all the good men are.

    Is it because she has so many options that she always makes bad choices? And I’ve seen this pattern before, it’s not limited to my attractive friend and her choices.

    I know you’re not a relationship guru, Tim (well, maybe you are, but that’s not the point of your site, book or this blog), but I’d be curious as to your take on how this overwhelm of options relates to relationships.

    Like

  7. I always think of this as the potato chip aisle syndrome while at the super market. I don’t want to take the time to decide if I want chips with ridges or not, or if I prefer kettle boiled or hand shaped by artisans. I’d be happier just having to decide if I want chips or not.
    I think this is part of the success behind Costco. They have fewer product choices, so you don’t have to decide among so many brands. “Chips, yes or no?” is so much more pleasant than deliberating for half an hour about a consumable product.

    Like

  8. Hey tim,

    Great article. I really like your stuff. Quick question… I have a gaming business that ships games out consistently, which I outsourced. However, I want to outsource customer service and was wondering how much you spend for customer service for your business? My fulfillment company quoted me at $3 per complaint, but that seems a little high. Your knowledge is always appreciated :)

    Thanks,
    Matthew Owen

    ###

    Hi Matt,

    $3 per complaint isn’t bad. For a decent call center, you’d be looking at $0.85 and up, at least in the US. I haven’t experimented with non-US centers as of yet. Canada was attractive, but the US dollar isn’t making that as cost-effective as it once was.

    Here’s the thing to remember: you can always do something cheaper yourself, but if you spend time on admin task, you can’t grow revenues. Sell more product, and make sure the product is good, and the $3 per complaint is a drop in the bucket. Spend all your time on complaints and you will 1) never scale the business, and 2) never have time to enjoy your income.

    Test it for a period with the contractors and then, if the math makes sense, consider having someone full-time, whether onsite or virtual.

    Good luck!

    Tim

    Like

  9. Tim, another stellar post. I started implementing GTD last year and it has meant a lot to my business, but I’m sooo guilty of that checking email on friday night and thinking about it all weekend. I know you’re not religious, but happy Ash Wednesday anyway. :-)

    Like

  10. Hey Tim,
    I really believe that people who are reading your posts here and “get it” are all the same type of person. I have given copies of your book to people who I thought would get it, but they didn’t see your ideas with the same regard I did. I have spoken with co-workers about your book and the concepts therein, and they want to argue that you are a sham!

    I really appreciate your book and your continued posts, keep putting up great content like this one, and leave them in the dust!

    Erik

    Like

  11. I just gave a post on my blog how I analyze all ‘problems’ on a spectrum from ‘no brainer’ to ‘what is the meaning of life’. I suggest that on the far ‘no-brainer’ end of the spectrum, minimal variation provides maximum efficiency. However, on the other end of the spectrum, (e.g. How can I grow my business) – maximal variations/creativity will need to be deliberately/intelligently applied to arrive at the most efficient solution. Once the solution is found and teh variation (i.e. recipe) is identified … time to drive down variation to the point of automation to derive maximal gain.

    Like

  12. I liked those 6 formulas, If you can keep expanding on the content in your book, that would be great. Sometimes its easier to understand with some further blogs to enhance it. Putting time limits on things really seems like a obvious but highly underlooked tool.

    Best

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

    Like

  13. Great post on decision making.

    I’m currently trying out ‘go with your gut’ school of decision making. While I’m tending to make more expensive choices day-to-day, I’m hoping my gut is seeing some other intangible lon-term benefits.

    PS LitLiberation and Room to Read

    I know Tim’s project was 4 months ago and it was only supposed to be one month, but I’m still fund raising for a library in Cambodia.

    It would be great if any of the readers of this comment could check out my page. I was in Cambodia at Christmas and meeting and talking to the children was by far the best experience of the trip.

    If you can, please click on my name take a moment to check out the charity page I created with my friends.

    Like

  14. Hello Tim,

    I wanted to say:

    1) Thank you for writing a wonderful post on concepts I was sorely in need of being reminded of at this particular moment in time.

    2) Kudos to you for writing such a brilliant book! I am halfway through and LOVING it!

    3) I wanted to give a “shout out” to a kindred spirit! Plain and simple. I am a physical therapist/investor/trader/helicopter pilot/former LAPD police officer/martial arts lover-practitioner/adrenaline junkie/athlete/adventure-seeker/lover of all things fast/bookworm/lover of art, travel, history, people, writing and the learning, creative process… and so on and so forth… So yeah – just wanted to say Hey!

    Feel free to say hey back! I’d welcome it! :)

    Warm regards,
    Lani

    Like

  15. You continue to inspire me, mang.

    BTW, I was re-reading 4HWW and loved the way you describe Randy Komisar “razor-sharp think(er)” is inspiring to me. Thanks!

    The force is strong in this one…
    David

    Like

  16. Hey Tim,
    Did you ever take Peter Singer’s moral philosophy class at Princeton? He introduced me to the idea of more choice lowering utility in the context of euthanasia.

    Some people have argued that you should have a choice to end your own life, because people will make the choice that’s best for them. At the very worst, they just decide to keep living and nobody is worse off.

    However, as soon as you give a sick person that choice, their life can spiral into an existentialist nightmare. Now they have to consciously decide to continue living each moment of their lives, which can be tough considering they know they’re a burden on their loved ones.

    It is definitely a mistake to confuse agency with happiness.

    James

    ###

    Hi James,

    I didn’t have the chance to take Singer’s class, but I wish I could have. Most agreed on all points. Euthanasia as an example, of course, presents some very prickly moral dilemmas, as you could extend the logic to abortion, etc. and end up with no choices. It’s definitely finding the middle ground that is the challenge.

    Thanks for the contribution,

    Tim

    Like

  17. Tim,
    You hit the nail right on the head with this one. I’ve been experimenting with a certain scenario that I know EVERYONE has at one point had to deal with: Trying to decide what restaurant/type of food to eat out at. GOD!! Especially when you have a group of friends that are very comfortable around each other, the decision making process is excruciating! You know what I do now? I just name blurt out a name of a decent place that I know everyone can eat at and stand up. I start lacing my shoes (i’m asian so we don’t wear shoes in the house), grab my jacket, clap my hands and say, “okay everyone ready?” 9 out of 10 times the majority will follow my lead and start heading towards to the door, no questions asked. This often saves me and the group 15-30 minutes of wasteful deliberation – CRAP. In the end of the day, we all had a decent meal and I get compliments like, “good lookin’ out Dave!” Everyone wins. Let’s move on.

    Like

  18. I’ve been studying decision making and it’s relation to happiness lately. I’ve become a big fan of the book Goal-Free Living by Stephen Shapiro. In his book he details research that for decisions both large (who to marry) and small (dinner), the actual choice made has a *shockingly* small part in contributing to overall life happiness.

    In short, do or do not, it doesn’t matter.

    Like