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The Paradox of Choice: How Less Freedom Makes Us Happier

One of the biggest dogmas runs like this:

If we want to maximize our happiness, the best way to achieve it is to maximize our freedom.

This is because freedom is in and of itself something valuable, worthwhile and essential to every single one of us. It sounds logical.

When we have freedom, we can use it to do things that maximize our happiness, we’re not taking orders from anyone, and no one needs to make decisions on our behalf. And the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. Most people want to make more money not because they want the cold hard cash, but because money actually brings more freedom into our life.

The more choices we have, the more freedom we have. The more freedom we have, the happier we are. No one ever questions this.

The top goals most people have today are certainly not job security nor stable relationships and a happy family. Most people want to have more freedom to choose how they spend their lives on in their own terms.

Indeed, we are bombarded by endless choices today:

  • There are more than one hundred degree programs to choose from in a wide range of colleges and university nowadays.
  • Our smartphones come with billions of downloadable applications.
  • When we walk into a grocery store, we have hundreds of different salad dressings to choose from.

All of them should make us happier since more choice means a happier existence. This belief is heavily and deeply embedded in our day to day life. But does more choice really lead to more happiness?

The Negative Side of More Freedom

I’m not suggesting that more choice and freedom are bad for us. There is no argument regarding how having more choice changes our world positively. We have all experienced the feeling of happiness that comes with increased freedom. So, let’s dive right into the negative impact that more choice creates in our lives.

1. Too Many Choices Result in Procrastination & Paralysis

Just imagine what would happen if Apple actually launched 100 different models of the iPhone in a year. The sales will definitely drop, why? Because there are so many models to choose from, it would make it incredibly hard to finalize the decision and actually pick one.

The problem is not about the iPhone’s quality here, but the hassle customers need to go through to make the right choice. The more choice we have, the harder it is for us to choose. And most people will simply walk away due to the difficulty of making a decision.

The best example is seen in the majority of startups failures. Most startup failures aren’t caused by the lack of resources or market size but by a lack of focus on the part of the founding team. Smart people with great ideas and endless resources have more choice, which is not always a good thing. In this case, more choice produces procrastination and distraction which leads to a loss of focus on the most important matters at the moment.

2. The Opportunity Cost Leads to Comparison & Dissatisfaction

Now, you have five oranges to choose from, one of them is the best orange you will ever have in this world. And this is the only chance for you to have that, if you miss it, you will never be able to get your hand on the world’s tastiest orange in your lifetime — ever. How does that make you feel?

More choice produces higher expectations for each and every option you have. We now know there is a world’s tastiest orange out of the five, but our brain will assume that all five are the tastiest. Even if we don’t think so, rationally and logically we assume we should pick the tastiest one, and we can’t accept anything less than that.

But even if you’re incredibly lucky to pick the best, you might think it’s not perfect, because you can never know what the other four oranges tasted like. The opportunity cost of the other oranges leads to dissatisfaction in us. This happens a lot in many areas of our life. Some people will think their spouse is not the best because there is always a better one, even if their spouse is actually the best one for them.

Eliminate Options and Choices

DeanYeong Happiness and Freedom Matrix

The solution to this problem is clear. We must first stop believing in the dogma we adhere to so much. More choice does lead to more happiness up to a certain point, but it’s never linear. After a certain point, it’s clear that given increasing choices, we become more miserable.

We should trim down the choices we have by prioritizing. Here are a few examples you can implement into your life now.

  • Focus only on one business idea or career goal. Put all your effort and time towards building that up first before you hop to the next one.
  • Be content with what you have and who you are.  Appreciate your marriage. Make an effort to see the good in your spouse and focus on giving not receiving.
  • Set only one fitness goal. You can’t build mass, cut fat, boost strength, improve endurance, and train for mobility all at the same time.
  • Niche down your targeted market when you’re crafting your marketing campaign so that you can provide what your customers really need and talk to them using their language.

If you have made a choice before – for your career, relationship, or finance, focus on the choice you’ve already made. Stop comparing your decisions with other alternatives. Instead, focus on what you decided before and make the best of it.

The Fish and The Aquarium

We are like a fish in an aquarium. The size of the aquarium dictates the freedom we have, and some of us see it as our constraints. To grow, we need a bigger aquarium. Unfortunately, what most people are trying to do is to break the aquarium. Without it, you’re a dead fish.

With the advancement of technology today, limitless choices have been opened to us. Thus, we want to believe that we could have limitless freedom so we can be happier. But limitless freedom is never a good thing. Yes, we do need some freedom to expand and grow, but without constraints, we will have no direction, no standard, no plan, and certainly no happiness.

This post was written by Dean Yeong and first appeared on his blog.

Dean Yeong

Dean Yeong writes on, where he shares lessons and thoughts on how we can perform better and achieve more by optimizing our mind, body, and environment. To receive fresh ideas and techniques on mastering the art of becoming better, check out his weekly newsletter.

Maximize Your Performance With Decision Minimalism

To explain the concept of Decision Minimalism, let me start by telling you about an interesting experiment:

The Chocolate-Radish Experiment

Back in 1996, psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted an experiment together with his former Case Western Reserve University colleagues Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice, examined the effect of a tempting food challenge designed to deplete participants’ willpower.

They kept the 67 study participants in a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate cookies and then teased them further by showing them the actual treats alongside other chocolate-flavored confections. Part of the participants did get to indulge their sweet tooth, while the other part of participants, whose resolves were being tested, were asked to eat radishes instead.

As the scientists noted in their Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper (PDF), many of the radish-eaters “exhibit[ed] clear interest in the chocolates, to the point of looking longingly at the chocolate display and in a few cases even picking up the cookies to sniff at them.”

After the food bait, while the participants thought the experiment was over, Baumeister and his team then gave them a second, seemingly unrelated puzzle to solve. And this was not any average puzzle, it was almost impossible to solve, purposely designed to test the persistence of the participants.

Baumeister found that those who ate radishes made far fewer attempts and devoted less than half the time solving the puzzle before they gave up, compared to the chocolate-eating participants and a control group that only joined this latter phase of the study.

How willpower affects self-control and decision-making

In other words, those who had to resist the sweets and force themselves to eat radishes could no longer find the will to fully engage in another challenging task. They were already too tired, their willpower had depleted. And this directly affects their self-control, discipline, and yes, decision making.

The research illustrates the relationship between our energy and our decision making. Most of the time, bad decisions are made, not because we are lacking certain information and intelligence to make a good judgment, it’s simply that we don’t have the energy and willpower required to process the problem we’re facing at that moment. This research also gave us a clearer picture of how our energy and willpower affect our self-control and discipline.

To perform at the best possible level, a clear and sharp mind is required. Yes, there are numerous ways and techniques to strengthen our willpower and maximize our energy by training them regularly, however, the other way to optimize your decision-making is by avoiding decision fatigue.

There is a trend of minimalism growing in many spaces like digital design, architecture, and day-to-day lifestyle. The core purpose is somewhat similar to what we like to achieve here – gain better clarity, improve focus, and keep only the things that matter.

Which is why I called this Decision Minimalism.

How to Implement Decision Minimalism

Hopefully, you grasp the idea of decision minimalism. The implementation of this concept breaks into three phrases – track, measure, and automate.

Phase 1: Track Every Decision

If you want to change what you eat, don’t start with shopping for chicken breast, instead, start with paying attention to what you’re currently eating. The first step to change a behavior is not by changing what you do and how you do things immediately, but by observing and tracking the current behavior. To practice decision minimalism, don’t hop right into dumping all your clothes, start by tracking your current decision. Observe the pattern – when you make good decisions, when you make poor judgments when you usually being indecisive. This provides a better layer of clarity on what you should change.

Phase 2: Measure Effectiveness

Efficiency is about how quickly you make a decision or get the work done with very little input, the other side of it is effectiveness – how big the impact of your decision or action. After you get a clear picture of your decision-making pattern, measure the effectiveness of every decision you made.

What do I mean by this? Find out what decisions you made, deliver the greatest impact on your life, your visions, and your goals. And identify what decisions you made, make little to no impact at all toward your current focuses. According to the 80/20 rule, 20 percent of your decisions generate 80 percent of the results. Find out the 20 percent and focus all your energy there.

Phase 3: Automate Repeated Decisions

The third step is to put part of your decision-making on autopilot. First, if the decision doesn’t fall under the 20 percent, delegate or automate them immediately, or simply eliminate them if it’s appropriate.

There are always important decisions you need to make consistently on a regular basis. For example, what to eat, it’s an important question because it directly affects how we feel and how we perform. The thing is, it might not be aligned with your current focus if your number one goal now is to build your business. This is the time you automate this repeated decisions. In fact, Ramit Sethi does this, he hired a nutritionist to plan what he should eat, and a personal chef to prepare him the meals. In his words, these are important decisions related to health but he prefers to put his main energy and focus on his businesses.

Practicality of Decision Minimalism in Daily Life

You might be thinking: “Are you kidding me? Not everyone can afford a nutritionist and a personal chef.”

Yes, I get it. Hiring a personal chef may not be for everyone, however, the purpose here is to demonstrate a real-life example of decision minimalism. I’m a big believer of starting small, you don’t need to hire a chef to start practicing the concept of decision minimalism. There are several ways to achieve the same results without spending you a dime (some of them even save you big bucks)

  • Trim the wardrobe. Unless you’re a celebrity or someone in the fashion industry, what you wear is not crucially important. It’s not a life or death kind of decision to make. Pick a few styles of outfit you like and stick to that so you don’t need to think about what to wear every single day. Besides, you also reduce the need of shop for clothes regularly (save yourself another decision to make).
  • Design a morning routine. We are full of energy, high in willpower, and sharp in decision-making in the morning after a good night sleep. Designing a morning routine to schedule the most important task in it. Think about one thing if you complete it, you will consider yourself productive even if you get nothing done for the rest of the day. Another great morning routine will be cultivating a creative habit, if you’re an artist, paint in the morning; if you’re a writer, write in the morning.
  • Eat fewer, same meals. If you’re like me, you don’t yet have a personal nutritionist and chef, this is something you can try out. Do some upfront research on what to eat, design a few recipes for each meal, eat the same thing for a week, then switch. Besides eating the same meals, I also skip breakfast because I’m practicing intermittent fasting.
  • Unsubscribe from information addiction. Before the Internet was invented, information was scarce. If you have a piece of information that others don’t, you’re going to make a fortune out of that. Today, information is everywhere, battling against each other to grab your attention. Go on a low information diet, in most cases, you don’t need to know more, you just need to act upon what you have already known.
  • Jot down key objectives before bed. This helps you gain a better clarity for the next day. It doesn’t necessarily your to-do list for the next day, but your focus and goal. Write down what you want to achieve, get done, and improve for the next day, they will eventually become the framework for all the decisions you need to make for that day.
  • Simplify. Set ONE goal, so you have less thing to focus. Limit your to-do list, so you know you are going to complete them. Buy less stuff, so you have less decision to make and less things to worry about.

Sometimes, Less is More

I believe most creative people working in a highly competitive space want to maximize their performance in both work and life. And here are Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who impacted the world with their creativity and innovation (and make billions at the same time), opts for this simple strategy to improve their decision-making with almost no extra effort and investment required.

Before you consider which performance-enhancing drug to take, implement decision minimalism to reduce choices and decisions you need to make in order to reduce decision fatigue and improve your judgment.

This post was written by Dean Yeong and first appeared on his blog.

Dean Yeong

Dean Yeong writes on, where he shares lessons and thoughts on how we can perform better and achieve more by optimizing our mind, body, and environment. To receive fresh ideas and techniques on mastering the art of becoming better, check out his weekly newsletter.