When choice is bad news for wellbeing and what to do about it

Has anyone else made the mistake of assuming that some choices will be straightforward?

“I’d like a latte please”

“What size would you like, small, medium or bucket size?”

“Small, thanks”

“Eat in, or takeaway?”

“Uh, takeaway”

“Would you like to try our new <insert exotic sounding flavour> coffee beans today? It’s only an extra 25p.”

“No thanks, just the normal stuff please.”

“Would you like a pastry with your coffee?”.

“No… oh wait maybe the… actually no, just the coffee”.

“Do you have our points card?”

“No”.

“Would you like to start a points card today?”

(At this point one’s voice starts to strain as the ‘busy and exasperated Londoner’ battles to override the polite and patient customer within)

“No and I’m hoping to catch a train in about 60 seconds so shall we skip to the payment part?….Please?”

“Would you like a receipt?”

As a highly organised, law abiding citizen that pays her tax promptly and scrupulously records every receipt, this last choice was easy to make. “Yes please!” I swipe my latte from the counter and run for the train, trying not to feel regretful about declining a pastry.

All day we are making choices. A lot of them are small decisions like working out what to buy for dinner at the supermarket, deciding which will be the fastest route home or filtering out urgent emails from the rest of the gumpf…   And some are larger choices like resolving a complex crisis at work, deciding if it’s time for a new job (perhaps if resolving that aforementioned crisis didn’t go well!), choosing where to live and so on.

Freedom to make choices is of course a wonderful thing, but in today’s world, the sheer number of decisions can escalate to the point where the impact is deeply negative for our wellbeing. Barry Schwartz enlightened us on the Paradox of Choice, which explains that more choice makes us more dissatisfied and not happier, and indeed the cumulative effect of choice can lead to substantial distress.

He suggests three ways of minimising the negative effects of choice whilst utilising and enjoying the benefits that autonomy can bring:

1) Choose when to choose

What choices really matter in your life and which choices can be passed by? Consider the last time you booked a holiday. How much of the internet did you trawl to get the best deal? Could you have limited your research to just a couple of websites? Perhaps holidays are too sacred a choice but there are undoubtedly choices where you’ll be content to limit the options.

2) Be a chooser and not a picker

“Pickers” are slaves to an overwhelming array of choice, passively making a selection from what is available. Choosers have the luxury of deciding which decisions are (or crucially, which are not) important. Or perhaps it’s a case of introducing new choices that are of greater value. With the time gained by parking or limiting less important choices, explore whether there are any new choices you need to be making to achieve your personal goals. I often find that my coachees have had little time to reflect on their career development path to properly consider the direction they want to go in.

3) Satisfice more and maximise less

This is my favourite tip that Schwartz gives, which is learning to settle for ‘good enough’ (satisficing) instead of always striving for the absolute best outcome in every choice (maximising). To become a satisficer, you also have to stamp down on those feelings of regret and learn not to retrospectively question the decisions you’ve made. By intentionally aiming for good enough, those feelings of regret will be easier to battle. Of course, this ties in with the other two strategies because you need to know which choices are important to you (when maximising is then the right course of action) and which choices are less so and ‘good enough’ can apply.

“Enough is as good as a feast”

The popular quote, ‘enough is as good as a feast’ nicely summarises this point (thank you Sir Thomas Malory and Mary Poppins for this wise advice).

The gratitude list

This is a great exercise for a number of reasons, but the relevant benefit here is that it helps to curb the mounting choices you feel you might need to make and decide what is really important to you right now. The gratitude list is simply listing the things you’re grateful for every day, big or small. Try listing 5 things each day and you’ll remind yourself of the experiences you value and the things that make you happy. This may change how you prioritise some of those bigger choices that simmer away, relieving the pressure that we tend to put on ourselves to push for more – at work or in our personal lives.

And by the way, this a priority skill for leaders

The hunt for ‘what makes a great leader’ is ongoing. As the nature of organisations evolves, alongside technology advances and  economic turbulence, leaders have to be comfortable with ambiguity and be confident in managing a daily raft of decisions. In HBR’s article, ‘4 Things That Set Successful CEOs Apart‘, the first behaviour is ‘Deciding with Speed and Conviction’. Successful CEOs are distinguished by their ability to act quickly and to stand by their decisions. More times than not, it is better to make a decision and take corrective action if necessary rather than dither and do nothing.

“Once I have 65% certainty around the answer, I have to make a call,” says Jerry Bowe, CEO of the private-label manufacturer Vi-Jon.

Identifying important decisions from the less important, knowing when to delegate and judging when to satisfice or maximise are highly valuable skills that enable effective decision making. Failure to achieve results in less effective leadership and negatively impacts leaders’ wellbeing. Skill development and education around the impact of choice and how to make effective decisions should be a key focus for learning & development programmes in organisations, particularly for roles with greatest levels of responsibility.

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