Optionality: Why Less is Often More

Which film should you select on Netflix? Simultaneously there are too many great options, and yet at the same, time nothing stands out as the right choice. Petrified of choosing wrong, you scroll endlessly through the menu. What if you waste an hour watching Dexter when you could really be maximizing your happiness with a different series? You start one episode, only to stop it halfway through and switch to a different show.

Freedom brings options. And we love optionality, right?

The advent of digital communication meant that more plans and options became possible in any given minute [see Coping with a Fast-Paced World]. This is great in some regards, but also means that each decision takes more mental processing and the opportunity cost goes up. The resulting Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) phenomenon can turn into a jammed schedule without any real satisfaction.

Hop on your phone and you’re immediately hit with an endless buffet of potential uses of our time and attention. If you open a dating app, you’re confronted with millions of potential mates.

On the surface, this might appear like a blessing, but there are a few issues. Let’s take dating apps: if you find someone that you really like, you might find it difficult to commit to them knowing that there could be an even better option out there for you, just a swipe away. While historically our mating pool was much more limited in this regard (and especially in hunter-gatherer times when you might have had only a couple of suitable options), suddenly there are so many great choices that it seems impossible to make the right one. While it’s great to have some flexibility, there’s also such thing as "optionality paralysis” whereby you become unable to make up your mind, resulting in constant dissatisfaction.

One study demonstrated that a larger set of potential partners led to increased dissatisfaction. And it’s not just dating where optionality causes issues: another study on selection of jams concluded that “the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory, but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.” When you can change your mind about a choice, you may fear that another selection would have been better.

So what’s the antidote?

Albert Einstein was a brilliant man who enjoyed spending his time solving the mysteries of life. He simply couldn’t afford to cloud his mind with decision fatigue. His strategy was to wear the same tweed jacket (he owned several identical ones) each day, eliminating all other options. There are other successful individuals that have taken the same approach to getting dressed: Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck, Barack Obama’s suit, and Mark Zuckerberg’s grey sweatshirt. They make so many important decisions each day that eliminating the less important ones makes a lot of sense.

Now I’m not suggesting that you wear the same clothes every day necessarily, but by similarly reducing optionality in realms that matter less, you can prioritize what does matter in your life. You save valuable mental energy not worrying about trivial matters. For you, clothes may be an important way in which you show your character and personality, but you might trim the number of apps on your phone to include only those you need, eliminating the time-traps.

Focus [see Focus Article] is in many ways the ability to eliminate options. It requires conviction and attention. In the modern world, more options = less focus, and so the more areas of your life in which you can determine what’s important and reduce optionality, the more room you’ll have for what truly matters to you. How does this relate to meditation? Training your mind is a full-time job because whatever you pay attention to shapes your brain. Optionality can not only lead to unhappiness but also eats up valuable processing space. You’re creating unnecessary mental clutter that will limit your progress in meditation toward unlocking your mind’s full potential.

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Liam McClintockComment