How to Rescue Our Lives and Careers from Choice Paralysis

Key Ideas & Takeaways:

→ We must direct our focus to avoid being unconsciously directed by others.

→ Our decisions can be misdirected or indefinitely delayed due to an abundance of options.

→ By actively engaging with our diverse interests, we can avoid these distractions.

→ Developing a habit of reflection and proactive planning, we can chart our destiny.

→ The action steps are yours, as long as you return to them regularly.

What has Your Attention?

In a world where we can begin a journey to be whatever we want, at any time, it is only natural to feel overwhelmed by all the things we could be doing. The pace of life has accelerated dramatically in the new economy with endless interruptions from advertisers, mobile apps vying for our attention, and thought leaders who seek fame from rehashing an old idea with their new spin. 

Some have even termed this the “attention economy” and have argued that it has evolved as a byproduct to the ever-increasing presence of information. Rather than the individual consumer merely accessing information on their own accord, companies have been incentivized to aim targeted messaging campaigns at the individual consumer. 

As this has unfolded, our ability to remain focused on the what matters most to us is an increasingly valuable asset because it is increasingly rare. If we are not careful, we will either give our attention away too easily or get so overwhelmed by endless options that we become paralyzed by analysis – losing sight of what we want and even who we are.

Too Many Choices

When confronted with endless choices, we may engage in activity that does not align with our most important interests. Even worse, we may also choose to do nothing. Many people sense overwhelm and retreat into comfort, subconsciously rejecting the pressure of making difficult choices. 

In his 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice,” Barry Schwartz made a compelling case that businesses who offer too many potential choices, face more hesitancy, or even inaction from customers. 

There are endless examples of this “paradox of choice.” We may experience this when we sit down at a restaurant with loved ones, sifting through an 8 page menu looking for a meal that makes our mouth water. Decisions from which pair of jeans to purchase, to which Bachelor’s degree to pursue can have the same paralyzing effect.

This behavior is bad for business but it is even worse for our personal and career development. How do we regain our focus and limit our susceptibility to distraction? What happens when the hunger of being in a restaurant, anticipating a delicious meal isn’t enough motivation to guide us past the paralysis of too many choices?

Active vs. Passive Approaches

When it comes to making decisions, our closest friends, our family, and society all have their own standards. We must actively define what matters to us personally.

Our decisions (or lack of decisions) are often made in the image of external influences. To some extent, this is necessary. After all, if we neglect all external input and do whatever we want, whenever we want, we could end up alone or in jail. 

Passive decisions are often based on the wisdom of the collective voices around us. When we let those voices dominate us, our focus on what we care about deteriorates.

When making active decisions, we tend to try new things that strategically align with an internal mission, or purpose. Through this process we accumulate practical knowledge, which brings us closer to where we want to be. 

The tricky part is knowing how to motivate ourselves to dive into the overwhelm of decision-making, rather than unconsciously drifting away into a more comfortable, yet pernicious environment that detaches us from ourselves over time.

How to take Action

“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise so I am changing myself.” -Rumi

As external actors attempt to divert our attention with their shifting rather than supportive advice, mindless entertainment, or the toxic words of the loudest, most disgruntled voices on social media, we must stand strong. 

If you are an ambitious person who would like to grow in something that requires skill or creativity, there are two broad categories of action steps to consider. One is that we must iterate and persist toward success. The other is to reflect and strategize so we ensure our activity aligns with our priorities in the long term.

You may notice this mindset is similar to how a company engages in strategic planning and attempts to execute on their plan. The next quarter the company revisits this plan and adjusts as necessary. Who says you can’t take the same approach in your own personal and professional life? Here’s how.

1. Iterate Toward Success

Television and popular culture have a way of subconsciously indoctrinating with the notion that success is anything other than a culmination of several dedicated, yet imperfect steps toward a worthy outcome. The most successful among us are decisive enough to at least know what to focus on.

How do they direct their focus? There are countless examples. They say, if you take financial advice from broke people, you are likely to be broke yourself. Likewise, if we listen to advice from successful people, we are more likely to be… well, successful.

Television and popular culture have a way of subconsciously indoctrinating with the notion that success is anything other than a culmination of several dedicated, yet imperfect steps toward a worthy outcome. The most successful among us are decisive enough to at least know what to focus on.

Everyone knows Jerry Seinfeld from his legendary show and immense fame. He is undoubtedly successful by any definition. Luckily for us, he has given interviews in which he describes his regimented approach to comedy writing. Listen to him speak for more than a moment and you will notice his intensity. You can tell he is not kidding around when he discusses his approach to success.

Jerry uses a refreshingly simple regiment in which he puts a big ‘X’ on his wall calendar for each day he achieves his writing goal. This visual on his calendar symbolically represents his version of iterating success and fuels his continued progress.

This is an unoriginal and obvious tactic but it can work for anyone. The trick is to determine what activity should be completed before we mark our calendars. This is where most people get stuck because of the overwhelming options that we face. How do we do this?

2. The Periodic Review

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” – Stephen Covey

If we acknowledge that planning is primarily about prioritization, why do so many of us avoid prioritizing? Well, if we know what we want to do, not only do we need to avoid the temptation and distractions of the attention economy but now we face a second layer of choice paralysis as we decide how to prioritize our time. A double whammy of information paralysis.

But what if we cut ourselves some slack and re-frame our mindsets so that we expect to misallocate our time? What if we expect to waste, even a majority of our time and expect to do things poorly? The English writer and philosopher, CK Cherston provided us with a useful insight when he stated, “anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” 

The English writer and philosopher, CK Cherston provided us with a useful insight when he stated, “anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” 

When we strive to be more productive, we can even expect to fail by misallocating a majority of our time. This means that we can succeed even by taking imperfect, flawed action as long as we still persist toward our goals. 

If we think of progress in this way, we no longer need to fear failure because we recognize that adapting and learning from our attempts are most important. What a powerful concept, now we are immune from failure1. What would you do, if you knew you couldn’t fail? 

By simply revisiting our activity in regularly planned intervals to ensure it is aligned with our key areas of personal interest, we develop a formula for persistence. Formalizing a time on our calendars either monthly or quarterly to review these priorities is highly recommended.

Your New Friends: Repetition and Persistence

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

Just by writing down what you want, scheduling steps to get there, attempting them and repeating this process over time, we will move the needle in the right direction. When we internalize the mindset of imperfect progress all we need to do is make a plan, attempt to execute, and re-attempt.

Repeat, repeat, and repeat. Imperfection will do just fine, as long as we return to it regularly.

Once this routine becomes a habit, you can even formalize a personal strategic plan, much like a corporation would. This way, your priorities will come first, instead of allowing external actors to prioritize your life.

Persistence carries much more weight than execution because when we revisit, we can pivot and adapt based on circumstances. It is in the repetition that we will find success.

When we actively engage in this way, growth is imperfect but inevitable, as long as we’re thoughtful, adaptive and persistent.

Further Reading:

1 “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett has lots of encouraging and practical advice on how to implement the strategy of iterating towards success by encouraging readers to hold a “bias toward action” and prototype different paths to success. Chapter 10, “Failure Immunity” further explains the exciting concept of failure immunity.

Success! You're on the list.

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