Today we have a guest post from Kraken of Fireball Finances. He very graciously offered it to us because it aligns with the desire for freedom and the behavioral economics themes we focus on at Freedom Is Groovy. We hope you enjoy it.
We all want freedom right? However, everyone sees freedom differently. Some see freedom as the ability not to need to work for The Man. Others, like me, imagine freedom as the capacity to be able to pick up and go anywhere at any time. Some parents would consider freedom as always being able to attend their child’s sports game.
Freedom is valuable, worthwhile, and arguably essential to being human. It enables us to do our own thing, maximizing our utility. Having the ability to choose is also freedom—no one tells a free person what he has to do. It stands to follow that the more options we have, the freer we feel. After all, what’s more freeing than being able to choose from 31 different flavors of ice cream?
If this is true then why is it that every time I stare at a menu I feel overwhelmed with options? After all, don’t I have the freedom I so desired? Chances are you have been in a similar circumstance, potentially as recent as yesterday. Barry Schwartz answers this issue in his TED talk here and his book Paradox of Choice. Below I’ve distilled the concepts and solutions, along with addressing some of the issues I had with the original TED talk.
Choices are Limiting
Behavioral Economics has addressed this situation on many fronts. When we humans are faced with more options our chances of making a decision go down, drastically. Our survival brain wrestles with analysis paralysis, settlement regret, and decision fatigue. Each one of these takes away from our freedom and ability to enjoy life.
When we are overwhelmed with the number of choices a crazy thing happens. We tend to make no choice at all. We spend our limited energy trying to learn about the differences among our options. Or worse, we avoid the overwhelming task in general.
In the video above Dr. Schwartz mentions this study. It showed that the more retirement fund choices they presented to employees the less likely the employees were to invest. For every ten plans offered, engagement went down 2%. Due to a plethora of choices, people stopped investing in future freedom.
When you jump the hurdle of analysis paralysis, there is another hindrance waiting for you not much farther down the track. Once you make a decision, you’re left wondering “What could I have done instead?” This question is even more likely to happen if the choice you made doesn’t end up perfect.
You’ve settled on a decision, but was it the best one? If it wasn’t the best one how could changing your choice have made your future better? The worst part of all this is that you only have one person to blame: yourself. After all, you’re the one who made the wrong selection out of all those options!
All these decisions eventually start wearing you down. The more choices you make, the more tired you are. For example, Costco is a draining experience for me because I’m surrounded by tons of items to choose from. By the end of my shopping trip I can tell that I’m an irritable man.
Throughout the day decisions pile up. If you’re not careful you can spend the first hour or so of your day making 5-10 decisions, potentially more. This only increases through the work day. By the time you get home from work, deciding what to eat for dinner can seem as exhausting as running a marathon.
We now see the burden of choice in our daily life, so how do we address it? How do we gain the freedom we desire from the cacophony of selection out there? When navigating the rough waters of choice, I take three steps to alleviate myself from difficult decisions. These three phases systematize the decision-making process and free me to do better things with my limited time and energy.
Step #1: Eliminate Obviously Wrong Choices
Remember when you were taking tests in school and multiple choice tests always had one or two obviously wrong answers? By removing those, you enabled your mind to focus on the other options. There are various ways to let this flood into your daily life.
I eliminate most choices in my life by avoiding content heavy sites such as Reddit, Facebook, YouTube, and sometimes even my email. When presented with so much content I find myself scrolling through and skipping most of it.
This superficial engagement is what I want to avoid. Instead, I have found a handful of blogs, websites, podcasts, and YouTubers that I enjoy and I can focus on diving deeper into their content. This system gives me a better connection to what I read and is much more fulfilling in the long run.
There are decisions we have to make every day, no matter what. What we eat, drink, wear, and do are a few. Habits or routines are a fantastic way to free yourself from having to reinvent the wheel every time you start a task. When I wake up, I know the next thing to happen. My day flows like this from journaling to breakfast to meditation, all the way until I find myself at my desk ready to write. None of these are choices that I make, they are ingrained habits that I follow without much thought. This rigorous system gets me focused and frees my creative mind from wondering what will happen next.
Step #2: Make a Choice, Any Choice
Even if you make the “wrong” choice, action will always trump inaction. Most decisions are negligible, and not every one of them needs to be Sophie’s Choice. Sitting there and fumbling between minutiae wastes time and energy, both of which are limited resources.
Imagine trying to pick between a dozen YouTube videos you could be watching on a Friday night. Weighing the difference between them and wondering which you might enjoy isn’t helping you experience them. Just click on one of them! You can even close your eyes if you think it will help. Then start enjoying it, after you open your eyes back up. If you do find that you’re not enjoying the video, then switch to one of the other options. A lot of decisions don’t have awful consequences by picking the “wrong” one.
Remember, “Blame is better to give than to receive.” Some of you might remember this from Freewill by Rush. In most cases, it is poor advice, but when it comes to decisions, it’s not. When settlement regret falls on your shoulders shrug it off by simply saying, “It’s their fault for giving me so many options.” You spent time making the best choice you could, given the information provided. If you are presented with new information and your choice no longer holds up, don’t beat yourself up about it.
Step #3: Recognize that Expectations Don’t Match Reality
In the video Dr. Schwartz says that “the secret to happiness is low expectations.” For the longest time I believed this, but I’ve found it’s a pessimistic view to have of the world. I now think of my expectations differently. I expect the best and when reality fails me, I adjust.
If a man walks into McDonald’s and orders a Filet Mignon, should he be upset when the teenage clerk replies, “Will a Big Mac work?” (some of the audience may note that you can now choose between 3 different kinds of Big Macs). The man’s expectation didn’t match the reality which is MickyD’s doesn’t serve steaks.
You should acknowledge that expectations don’t always match reality. If, like Dr. Schwartz, you expected to find perfectly fitting jeans and spent hours trying on different pairs without success, don’t feel bummed. Realize that your expectation of perfectly fitting jeans didn’t match reality. Then, buy the best jeans you tried on and be flippin’ happy about it! Don’t be disappointed about not having the ‘perfect’ pair of jeans, unless you’re going to go out and design them yourself.
The disconnect between expectations and reality is the root of most discomfort. When you can’t change the reality then change your expectations. A willingness to adjust expectations accordingly can lead to a much more pleasurable existence. As a result, you will have more energy. Use this energy on something that you have the ability to change such as earning more money or enjoying life more.
Some choices are better than none, but it doesn’t follow that the more choices we have, the better off we are. There is probably a magical number but I think it is different for everyone. Test yourself to find the point where you stop feeling Decision Fatigue, Settlement Regret, and Analysis Paralysis. Work to free yourself from the shackles of choice fatigue by eliminating as many choices as you can, buckling down to making a choice, and acknowledging that if it goes wrong, your expectations might have overshot reality.
Finally, when someone, usually a person in marketing, decides you need more options, ask yourself: “Was the original setup all that bad?” If so then embrace the choices, but use the steps above. If more selection doesn’t help, then you should default to the original option… assuming they didn’t eliminate it.
Let me know—what are some easy choices in your life that you can eliminate? Is there a decision that you’ve been over complicating, even though it’s not that perilous? How have your expectations not met reality? Did you adjust and find peace, or find you have the energy and ability to change it?
Kraken graduated college with an engineering degree and began working at a job he disdained. By age 23, he saved up $45,000 (he was lucky enough not to have any student loan debt) and was on the Mr. Money Mustache path to retiring by 30. He quit his job in May of 2016 to take a year-long break to focus on his writing, and to find work he loves. He has traveled to a Buddhist monastery in China, worked on and improved his blog, and written for 100+ consecutive days in a row. He also started several side hustles, including freelance writing and tutoring, which he hopes to make his living at to avoid returning to a job he dreads. He dreams of becoming an author of science fiction, fantasy, and self-improvement books, but he’s not just a dreamer—he’s a doer who takes steps towards his goals every day.
Kracken most enjoys writing about reaching goals, financial or otherwise, and living a life that is out of the ordinary. His two favorite posts on his blog are Not Want Cool Stuff and Reasons People Fail to Achieve Their Goals. Aside from reading and writing, he enjoys meditating (as he discusses in Lion Mind), and playing board/card games with friends.