Goals and Decision Paralysis

Barry Schwartz's blockbuster pop-psych book, The Paradox of Choice (you can get the gist of it from the TED talk), claims, that after a certain point, more choice is a bad thing. Everything in moderation, including choice, if you will. It's bad because there's an inherent cost to your satisfaction in knowing the opportunity cost of what you decide to do, and the more choices you have, the more things you have to decide not to do, and the higher the apparent opportunity cost of what you decide to do.

This doesn't really jive with what the usual definition of opportunity cost (i.e. only the one next best option) and having more options shouldn't raise the opportunity cost of the option you choose. Yet, people are irrational, and if I buy a Honda Civic, I'm not just thinking about the Toyota Camry I didn't buy, but also the whole classes of SUVs and convertibles and all-electric vehicles and even the vacation I could have gone on if I hadn't just sunk twent-five Gs into a sedan. So while I'm sniffing that bright new-car smell and revving my four cylinder engine, I'm thinking about how we're going to have a staycation instead of a vacation. This is what we call "buyers' remorse" and we pretty much always get it because we're faulty human beings that didn't evolve to function in a consumer society.

Even worse than "buyers' remorse" is "decision paralysis." You have decision paralysis every time you sit at home and watch an entire season of Game of Thrones in one day, not because you just like the show that much, but because you can't think of a single other thing to do.

REALLY? You can't think of a single other thing to do besides watch 10 hours of fake violence and actually pretty decent acting?

Of course not. But the more options you have, the harder it is to focus on any one option and the easier it is to pretend there are no other options.

In any given day, here's a list of productive, rewarding, and interesting things I could do:

  1. Read a book.
  2. Write a blog post.
  3. Research for a book I'm helping a professor write.
  4. Work on my comedy pieces or routines.
  5. Practice French or Hebrew.
  6. Teach myself Python.
  7. Apply to summer jobs.
  8. Go to any number of interesting lectures on campus.
  9. Meet people at the dining halls, fairs, parties, seminars, receptions, etc.
  10. blah blah blah literally a million other things.
Here's what I might actually do:
  1. Watch TV.
  2. Play video games.
  3. Read a book for like half an hour.
  4. Surf the internet for what feels like 5 minutes but what turns out to be 5 hours.
  5. Stare at the ceiling for a bit.
It's not like I want to do those things. I'd actually rather do the things on the first list. But there are so many of them that I can't decide which to do and I end up doing none of them. I don't have to decide to watch TV. My body does it without any direction. Which is so much easier than parsing through a million-item list of good ideas for one to do at the given moment.

Here's a good system I use sometimes, but which I never successfully built the habit of using:
  1. Find yourself doing something uninteresting/unproductive and acknowledge that it's happening.
  2. Wait for the inevitable thought, "I should be doing _____"
  3. Go get a glass of water. Always get a glass of water.
  4. When you come back, get started on the thing you thought of in step 2.
In the long term, find ways to get rid of choices. Only read one book at a time. Only have one major. Only learn one language at time. You can use the same general idea of parsimony for most things.