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How fewer choices (options) create more freedom

We human beings love variety. From trivial things like choosing a garment to cardinal things like choosing a life partner (I’m talking about arranged marriages), we always need a lot of options to choose from. But do you know that having a lot of choices sometimes makes you choose nothing or the same thing over and over again? How many garments are lying in your wardrobe without being used much? Why aren’t you wearing them regularly?

Now imagine that you’re asked a question, and given some options to choose from, as an answer. If you answer it correctly, you’ll be given 1 million bucks. Will you be satisfied with three options or five? Initially, you were happy that you had options to choose from. But as the number of options grew, your happiness started to fade away. Right? The same applies to every life decision. Decision making becomes simpler as the number of options gets reduced.

The choice game

freedom comes with fewer choices

The need to choose starts right from our birth. Our parents are bewildered while choosing a name for us. Ask any parent, and they’ll tell how difficult it was to choose a name for their newborn. Until the child gains conscience, parents make decisions for the child. After that, the choice game starts for the child.

Some of the important life-decisions that one should make from the vast sea of choices are

  1. Which subject to specialize
  2. What career path to take
  3. Where to invest the hard-earned money
  4. How to spend the earned money
  5. Whom to marry
  6. How to spend the vacations
  7. How many kids to have
  8. Decisions for the kids until they gain conscience
  9. How to spend life after retirement
  10. Which places/countries to visit in the lifetime

These are a few of the most important life decisions we should make among hundreds of others. The options for each of these are unlimited. Apart from this, we’ve to make other trivial decisions like what to eat, what to wear, how to spend the leisure time, etc. And there’re choices everywhere. They are never-ending.

Though we initially feel satisfied when we see a lot of options to choose from, we feel more stressed while having to choose one out of them. We may choose one of the options but we won’t be truly satisfied with it.

This mixed feeling of satisfaction on having selected the option you desired and dissatisfaction with missing out on other worthy options causes Cognitive dissonance, which is a mental discomfort of having two contradicting feelings at the same time.

One of the ways of getting rid of this mental stress due to cognitive dissonance is by limiting the available options when we’re required to choose. But how? Well, that’s a tricky part that I’ll try to answer in this post.

How to limit the available options to make better choices

1. Create constraints

Life naturally puts certain constraints on us. And we blame life for doing so. We think we lost our freedom because of those constraints. For example, we feel that we don’t have enough money to start a new business or pursue higher education, etc. Here money is a constraint. Similarly, you may want to pursue your dream career, but your household chores don’t allow you to do so. Here your family is a constraint.

But the truth is that these constraints are the only thing that can drive us forward. Let me explain.

Let’s say you have a whole lot of money. With this huge amount of money, you could literally start any business. You’ll be perplexed on which one to go with. On the other hand, if there’s a money constraint, you’ll figure out what’s the best possible thing that you can do with this limited budget. Since that’s the only thing that you can do with the money that you have, you’ll give your whole energy into it. This won’t be the case if there’s no constraint on the money.

The same applies to any constraint that life gives you. Constraints may seem to restrict your freedom. But they’re the ones that make your path easier and clearer.

How to create constraints for yourself

Instead of waiting for life to put constraints on you, you can do it yourself.

The best example of this is creating a budget. You may have a lot of money to spend, but you restrict yourself from doing so by creating a budget. The budget acts as a constraint and limits the available options to a huge extent.

Let’s say you’re buying a mobile phone and your budget is ₹12,000. This budget eliminates all the options that are above ₹12,000. In today’s competitive market, you can get several models below this price. So, you impose another constraint that the camera quality should be good. So you choose the model that offers the best camera quality that’s below this price. The greater the number of constraints, the clearer the picture you’ll get.

Constraints act as a filter to eliminate the unuseful options.

Some other examples of imposing constraints on yourself include,

  • Timeboxing: Giving yourself lesser time to complete a task than what normally takes to complete it. Here time is your constraint. By creating this constraint, you force yourself to put all your attention on that single task without any useless diversions.
  • Dieting: By creating a constraint on what to eat and when to eat, you become healthy. Most people who don’t impose this constraint end up consuming junk foods, which makes them obese.
  • Resources: There’s always limited resources but unlimited desire. We think we need a lot of resources to be the best. You may say, “To be successful, I need this, that, and so on.” But, by limiting the number of resources, you’re limiting the number of options. And by living within these limited resources, you’re designing a perfect destiny for your life. More on this here.

Life without constraints is like being stranded in a vast desert. You’re free to travel in any direction, but where you’re heading towards? Only if you have a map that shows which direction to travel (a constraint), that you know where you’re going. The map eliminates all the other directions (options) and shows the one that could take you home.

2. Consider your values while making choices

One of the ways to limit the number of options is having clarity on what you want out of your life. Here’s where your core values come into play. Your direction in life should be determined by your values. Your values are the principles you’d like to live by. To know more about the importance of finding and living by your values, read this.

In our above example of being stranded on a vast desert, the map gave you clarity. In the same way, your values give you clarity on where you need to go, thereby eliminating other options. By considering your values in choosing important things, you’ll escape the confusion of having too many options. So, first of all, find your values. I always stress a lot about identifying and living by your values.

For example, while choosing your life partner, you can use your core value as a guiding principle. Does he/she give importance to things that I’m giving importance to? Do both of our values coincide, or are totally different? Let’s say you’re someone who values family a lot. If your partner doesn’t value family as much as you do, there’s always gonna be frequent conflicts. One of the main reasons most marriages fail is because of too much difference in opinions and values.

If you’re deciding for your company, consider your corporate’s core values. Before making any important decision, ask yourself if it complies with the core values of the company. When you’re making important life decisions, consider your personal values. Choosing the one that best suits your value, makes you feel happy and contented about your decision. It may not be the best choice, but it’s best for you.

3. Make choices for the future

Most of the time, we make choices for our present self. “Today, I have a lot of money, so I’ll buy this,” or “Today, I have a lot of time, so I’ll take a rest.” Human beings are present-biased. That is, we tend to make choices considering our present or near-end situation alone. What we aren’t aware of is that the choices that we make today can affect the choices we’ll have in the future. These are called Intertemporal choices.

Let’s say you’re offered two jobs. One job demands long work hours and is highly stressful. But the salary you’ll receive will also be high. Other job offers less salary but doesn’t demand much from you. Which one will you choose?

If you choose the less stressful one, you won’t get good compensation. So you won’t have much to save for the future. On the contrary, if you choose the highly demanding one, you’ll have more freedom and money for the future. By sacrificing your today’s comfort, you make available better options in the future.

This has to be considered every time you make a choice. When you do this, many useless options that don’t serve your future self will be eliminated. Thereby making decision-making much easier.

More examples of this

If you take a loan, you can spend it as you like, today. But, you’ll be in debt, which limits your spending ability in the future.

By mindless eating today, you’ll have fewer choices of food to eat in the future.

Not choosing to work today will make your work much harder in the future.

4. Don’t ignore your gut instinct (emotions)

Sometimes, you may not know whether a choice benefits or harms you in the future, or you may not have the time to analyze the situation. What to do in such cases? The answer is to trust your gut instinct. But beware, sometimes it can get you wrong too. So if we could deduce a pattern of how our emotions play a vital role in the decision-making process, we can reduce the error that may arise from decision-making based on emotions.

Do you know that most of the choices made by human-beings are purely emotional-based? That is, we don’t choose rationally most of the time.

According to a behavioral scientist, Daniel Kahneman, the human brain can be theoretically divided into two systems.

  • System 1 – which decides based on intuitions, experiences, feelings, and emotions.
  • System 2 – which makes rational decisions analyzing the situation at hand.

The decisions made by system 2 are slow because it involves logical thinking and a lot of mental effort. On the other hand, system 1 makes decisions in a flash.

System 1 makes our decision-making process much easier. It saves us time, energy, and mental effort. It is unconscious. So it’s also prone to errors. If we can identify and rectify these errors made by system 1, the chances of making bad choices are much lesser.

How to spot the errors of System 1?

There’re certain ways to spot the errors made by system 1. These are based on the article written by James Clear.

Name of the errorHow does it happen
The survivorship biasOur emotional brain assumes that the choices made by successful people are the best and tries to adopt the same, without thinking, i.e without using system 2. This is an error because what worked for them may not work for you. Not everyone is the same. Right?
Loss aversion– System 1 tends to avoid losses, even if they’re small. The magnitude of distress while losing a thing is more than the magnitude of satisfaction while gaining the same thing.
– That is, if I give you ₹100, you’ll be happy. But if you lose ₹100, you’ll be much sadder. This tendency lets us make bad choices.
– This bias stops you from making investments that are riskier than bank FD. If you want to outperform inflation, it’s a well-known fact that you should invest in equities or equity-related mutual funds. But it comes at a risk. You must take this risk and avoid being biased by your emotional brain if you want a good return in the future.
The availability heuristic– This refers to making choices based on what comes to our mind immediately while thinking about something.
– When I say America, what immediately comes to your mind? It’s a super-power and a highly-developed nation. While there had been a lot of socio-economic crises in America too, why the concept of super-power alone came immediately to your mind? It’s because the media had reported the advancements made by America more than the crises there.
– Deciding based on what you know or could easily remember, rather than what is true, will sometimes result in making bad choices. Here media too plays a vital role.
Anchoring– When your mind is anchored onto something, it’ll make bad choices.
– Marketers make good use of this mental error. When you enter a store, you’ll first see an expensive product. Immediately, your mind will be anchored onto it. As you move on, you’ll see the same product at a much cheaper price. The chances that you’ll buy this cheaper product is much higher now. Reason? They’ve made the cheaper product look reasonable (even if it’s not so) by anchoring your mind on an expensive product.
The confirmation bias– Of all the biases that we discussed above, this one rules most of our decision-making process. – When we suffer confirmation bias, we tend to search for only the information and ideas that support or reinforce our existing beliefs while ignoring everything against it, even if they’re true.
– Let’s say you’re someone who believes that having a child is nuance. Then, you’ll read any piece of information that says not having a child is the best thing. While there might be some level of discomfort in raising a child, the joy and happiness they give can be second to nothing.
– To overcome this bias, we must be open to new ideas and concepts that are contrary to our existing beliefs. This highly enhances the quality of our choices.
Common biases that affect our choices

There’s a lot to talk about these biases, which we shall deal with in a separate article. For now, learn that choosing out of intuition or gut-feeling is a good thing as long as you don’t fall into the above mental errors.

Summing Up

During our lifetime, we’re required to make hundreds of thousands of choices. Naturally, some of the choices we made might not have been the best ones. But, never regret it. After all, we’re all human beings and tend to make bad choices, which is absolutely natural. Don’t fret over yourself that you could have chosen better. You know what, for the given knowledge and situation, the choices that you’ve made are the best ones. So no more regret. I hope this article will help you make better choices in the future.

FOOTNOTES

A lot of my articles are inspired by James Clear. I highly recommend that you check out his blog here, where you’ll gain a much deeper understanding of how your mind functions.

A lot of the biases that I discussed here are the works of Daniel Kahneman. His book, “Thinking, fast and slow,” is a must-read for anyone who wants to make better decisions.

“The Door choice” – Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

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