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How Fewer Choices Make for Better Decisions

Strategies and goals

“Overwhelmed” isn’t a very good state of mind in which to make decisions. When we have too many things competing for our attention at the same time, it becomes difficult or impossible to compare them all to one another at the same time. It’s like having a whole classroom of kids calling out answers, or a dozen different messages coming up at once on the computer: if there’s no time to stop and go through the items one by one, we may be able to pick out useful things here and there, but we can’t evaluate all the choices effectively. At this point, habit tends to take over. If the habit in question is a good one, that’s great, but in areas where we’re trying to make life changes, this is generally bad news.

The way to make better choices in these situations is to narrow things down, to get the choices to a small enough number that we can make an intelligent, considered decision about which to pick. Two good ways to do this are sequencing and filtering.

Filtering: honing in
If you know certain things about the choice you want to make–for instance, that you want the job applicant to have sales experience, or that you want to pick a menu item that’s heart healthy–you can filter by putting aside or ignoring all the options that don’t have the quality you’re looking for. Once you’ve done that, you can filter or sequence further to get an even smaller set of options, or if the group is small enough, choose directly from the filtered selections.

The reason filtering is often better than evaluating items one by one is that it’s easy to get distracted or preoccupied with less-important factors when you have a lot of different criteria to consider. Going through options one by one, you might end up hiring someone with a really good cover letter but no sales experience, or eating the delicious-looking fried food platter that caught your eye.

When to use filtering
Filtering is mainly useful for situations when you have specific, definite needs. If sales experience isn’t essential, for instance, then filtering by it could make you ignore the best candidate for the job. In cases where you can’t come up with rules to apply to narrow down selections, sequencing may be a better choice than filtering.

The exceptions are for less-important decisions or decisions you have to make very quickly. If you want to make a good decision but don’t necessarily have the time to make the best possible decision, or if the time involved in considering every possible option isn’t worth it for the decision you’re making, then filtering is still useful even with criteria that aren’t entirely absolute.

Sequencing: one thing at a time
Sequencing means taking the options one after the other and considering each of them. You can consider each item individually and pick out only your top choices, or compare each item to the item after it and choose between each pair. With the first approach, you should end up with a much smaller set of options that you can either consider as a group or sequence or filter to narrow down more. With the second approach, you’ll already have your final choice when you’re done going through the list.

Sequencing is also very useful when you have a set of choices that aren’t numerous enough to be overwhelming, but that are difficult to choose from. Comparing each item to the next and carrying along the “winner” of each comparison makes it possible to focus attention on just the differences between two choices.

Whether you use filtering or sequencing, narrowing down choices is a good defense against feeling overwhelmed by options, and a good way to serve your goals rather than serving the habits you’re trying to break.

Photo by ZeHawk

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