How To Make Difficult Decisions In A World With SO Many Options

Without a doubt, having choices allows us to be unique, creative and live a life that we want. With so much technology at our fingertips, we have an abundance of choices: we can buy just about anything with a click, and we can participate in both casual and meaningful transcontinental conversations in an instant.

But at what point does having too many choices become overwhelming or even paralyzing? And how can we manage our choices while trusting our instincts?

Full disclosure: I once spent 52 minutes, in one aisle, searching for the perfect granola, reading through the ingredients and sampling all of the organic blends ... only to end up with no granola and a very irritated boyfriend.

Having too many choices actually makes us less likely to choose

This issue travels up and down the hierarchy of choice-making, from simple decisions about what to buy at the store, to bigger decisions such as career paths or relationships. In a famous study conducted at a gourmet market, a professor from Columbia Business School set up a jam tasting and invited shoppers to sample 24 flavors of jam. The hope was that after sampling, the customer would buy a jar or two.

As expected, there were many tasters. In fact, 60% of customers stopped to sample, but only 3% of them actually purchased a jar! The same study then sampled only six flavors, and although they had slightly fewer tasters, this time 30% of those tasters made purchases.

The takeaway? While it's culturally appealing to have lots of options, it can actually be debilitating and leave us in what I refer to as, “decision-paralysis.”

This pattern of inaction in the face of too many choices has been shown in many studies across many fields, ranging from choosing chocolate, cereals, 401K plans, and speed dating.

Being exposed to too many choices often leads to dissatisfaction and regret, which ultimately can cause a lack of commitment. Of course we're just talking about jam and granola here, but, let’s go further up the hierarchy: In working with young adults and adults, I found that a recurring point of tension comes from not just making a choice, but furthermore, feeling good about sticking to it.

Due to our perception of vast and instant opportunities — whether a career path, or a relationship — once making a decision, we are more likely to jump to dissatisfaction and regret when we hit a rough patch or a hard time.

Core values are more than just deeply held beliefs, they are an individual’s highest priorities and driving forces — they help define who you are and who you want to be going forward. Unless being directed by our core values, when we have a string of tough days at work, or a few fights with a significant other, we are more likely to jump to “should’ve, could’ve done better” — type of statements, often resulting in negative mood or premature exits.

For example, if you are making a decision on whether to move forward in a relationship, it is important to remind yourself of what is most valuable to you and to approach your decision from that lens. If loyalty, respect, passion and communication are most important to you then you can step back and evaluate your relationship from that lens and make a more effective choice. Does your relationship offer these things? Decisions are rarely perfect and our confidence in choices, fluctuates, yet, we often focus on pressuring ourselves to pick the “perfect” option rather than the option that makes us happy enough.

So where do we go from here?

Choices and opportunities are not (thankfully) slimming down any time soon, but we can learn to skillfully make decisions in a more effective way:

1. For decisions on the lower end of the hierarchy (like shopping or deciding what to order) use the magic number rule.

Allow yourself up to six choices, maximum, and then narrow it down from there to three and so on. Sometimes this curation is done for you. For example, being from Los Angeles, I love the menu at In- N-Out Burger, which only has three options. (Yes, I know they have a secret menu, but on site you only see a few items.)

2. For bigger decisions (career, relationships, etc.) navigate from your values and not from right/wrong judgments.

Know what you value and remind yourself of these values often. The more you make choices directly stemming from what is truly important to you, the easier decision-making will become and the more likely you are to hold true to those choices and find ways to work through the challenges.

Neuropsychological research shows that our brains’ executive functioning kicks in and is able to come up with creative and insightful solutions and resolutions to problems when we are in a positive mood and clearly connected to our values and motivations. Being able to relate a choice clearly to a value is the gold, so help your brain help you and find that gold.

Quick exercise: How to identify your values

Start a “Value Journal.” Knowing your values comes from allowing yourself space and time, mentally and physically, to tap into what's truly important to you. Spending time connecting to yourself leads not only to easier and better choice making, but also to a happier life. Contact me at: for the details on how to easily start and maintain a Value Journal and make more effective choices.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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