Having options to choose from is considered superior than having no options or only a few. No one will argue against that statement. But there is a threshold where too many options to chose from can lead to taking no decisions at all. This is called the Multi-option dilemma. In this blogpost I am going to write about why making a decision is so hard, why options might pose a problem and how to avoid the multi-option dilemma.
What are options?
Options is a term from finance and an option gives you the right with no obligation to either buy or sell something within a certain time frame. Options are used for speculation as well as to hedge your portfolio against a certain risk.
What is the multi-option dilemma
With the intention of living a good (sometimes perfect) life we make decisions based on possible future outcomes. For example when we want to go to a certain university in the future or wish to travel around the world for a longer period. Maybe we want to write a book one day that might lead to a writers career. Most often we are just not sure what we want and choose an option that grants us more options in the future.
If this way of thinking is applied to all aspects and questions of life it becomes a problem. After a while you don’t even realise that you are just trying to optimise your future instead of making a decision and live in the present.
“Everyone hustles his life along and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who… organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.”
I am sure you know someone who switches his job every 1.5 years looking for a better opportunity. Meanwhile you keep doing the same job, making deeper connections with your colleagues, getting promoted and building up a reputation. Your friend on the other hand collects a lot of pitstops on his resumé but ultimately ends up where he started, a opportunist with no real experience at junior level.
Why does the multi-option dilemma exist
Optionality exists because of the Fear of missing out (FOMO) and trying to make the absolute best out of life in my opinion. Our desire to maximise the experience on this planet makes us often miss the present because we are always focused on something better in the future.
Social media is partly at fault if you ask me where you see people looking their best all the time. Meanwhile you feel not moving fast enough life. Keeping up with the Jones, especially when they are pretending to be something they are not, can only make you miserable. Not committing to anything worthwhile will leave us emotionally numb and missing out on all the good things life in the present can offer us.
Classic optionality traps
So what are areas where it is easy to fall into the multi option dilemma and not being able to make a choice?
Love is a swipe away
It has never been easier to meet tons of potential partners all over the world. With apps that let you browse through a list of other singles, deciding by a swipe if you are interested or not is a common optionality trap.
Committing to a person becomes more difficult when potential suitors are one click away. You will have the tendency to weight flaws of a person more heavily, after all there are tons of other seemingly perfect singles waiting for you.
Connecting to someone emotionally with all the ups and downs this requires becomes burdensome or impossible in this setup. So at the sign of the first headwind your brain will tell you “just let this one go and let’s move on to the next one”.
Winning the lottery
Another common optionality dilemma is winning in the lottery. People often say that once they win big in the lottery than they will fulfil their dream, buy the house they imagine or travel around the world. This statement is not meant serious in most cases.
Yet it sends a powerful message to your brain saying the way I am living now is just a temporary thing. The real living will start when my bank account shows X amount. What seems harmless on the surface is in reality quiet sad because subconsciously you are telling your self that you are living not the way you want.
You are trading your precious time in the here and now for a happening, that is likely never going to happen.
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow, and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” – Seneca
Education – the generalist path
In education having options makes sense especially when you are young. Chances are that you don’t know what to do with your life and that is normal. Exploring your options, trying out things that interest you is the right approach to this question. But you have to be careful and decide at one point. And older colleague of mine always told me to be in job I want to stay and build on once you are in your thirties.
It is surprising to me how often people talk about their job being just something they are doing for now. Once the economy recovers or XY happens they will change. Often people who say this are in a job for several years and this makes it very hard to change ships.
So ask yourself where you want to be if your choice is always the one for a generalist because you want to keep your options open and decide at a later point.
Your secret dream project
The classic multioption dilemma is the secret dream project you have in the back of your mind, that will never happen. You would like to be a successful writer at one point. But now is not the time to write because this year you are busy with a big project at work.
You want to be a digital nomad and work from wherever you please in the world. The startup company in your mind would be a sure success if you just had the time to work on your ideas more.
But instead you play Overwatch every weekend for several hours or binge a netflix show. Surely you deserve a break after a long week so who can blame you for that.
How to avoid the multi-option dilemma?
I am sure some of the examples above seem familiar to you. But what can you do to escape the optionality trap?
Reduce the choices where it makes sense
Start by reducing the choices you have to make in every day life to a minimum. Barak Obama for example had only blue suits to choose from. In the morning he didn’t have to choose what to wear besides putting on a fresh blue suit. Another way is to automate buying stuff like toilet paper so you don’t have to choose which brand to buy the next time you run out of wipes.
If you keep doing this, you will free up your mind leaving you more time to think about the bigger questions/choices in life.
Track your goals
You might think you have unlimited time on this earth. That is why you don’t feel the urgency to make a decision and postpone it for another time. This is a big mistake and the best way to procrastination.
To tackle that problem start tracking your goals. Make a list of what you want to do, rate your goals on importance (high, medium, low, nice to have). Set a deadline for the urgent goals. Revise your list once every month or week to see how you progress. Adjust your goals and the importance along the way.
In a nutshell
Having options is great and something we have to be thankful for. But applying the concept of optimizing every decision can lead to making no decisions at all and wasting a lot of time.
Cut out options as much as you can where the end result doesn’t differ much based on your choice. If your grocery shopping takes too long because you cannot decide which tomato can you would like to buy, than this is the place to start.
Is choosing your hotel for your next vacation always a multi week project with no decision in sight? Set a few must have features that you want and make a choice based on that. Don’t start comparing every detail of all the hotels on an island in Greece. They don’t differ that much from each other, if one would do a terrible job it would be out of business anyway.
Remember that nothing is set in stone in this life. If you keep a positive attitude, have a clear goal in your mind and track your progress you are all set. Don’t forget that life is short and a once in a lifetime opportunity. Grant yourself the luxury to reflect more about life without any distraction. You will feel more confident and satisfied and life will show you the way.