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irrelevant options

November 11, 2022

I was at the grocery store the other day. It was the time of day when you don’t expect a lot of shoppers, the cashiers aren’t prepared for a lot of shoppers, but then suddenly a glut of shoppers are crowding the checkout area.

So, I was stuck in a long line that extended into an aisle where all around me were pills, ointments, creams, sprays, drops, inhalers, bandages… every possible answer to any possible rash, bump, ache, cough, sprain….

I don’t typically shop for these types of things. If it’s allergy season, I’ll pick something up. Or if I run out of ibuprofen. So, due to my unfamiliarity, I was surprised that so many products like this existed.

Then, suddenly, my thinking shifted. Maybe I have skin irritation caused by dryness, I thought, as my eyes scanned some lotions. You know, I have noticed some back pain, I told myself. Maybe I could be breathing better, digesting better, all-around feeling better.

Maybe I need that garlic supplement!

Now, before getting stuck in that line, I was fine. None of those products in that aisle would have solved a problem I actually have. It was all… just noise.

But my brain didn’t want to treat it as noise. It wanted to take it all seriously and it wanted to get to work. It wanted to start weighing the options. It wanted to decide.

The availability of options can create the illusion that you need to make a decision, even when no decision is necessary to make. You may not want to watch a movie, but if Netflix shoved options in your face, you might start thinking, “A thriller sounds good, but this Kevin Hart flick might be fun.” You may not be craving ice cream, but if you were instantaneously teleported to an ice cream shop, you’d probably start wondering, “Do I crave something fruity or something chocolatey?”

Then, next thing you know, instead of going to the gym and having a green smoothie – which is what you’d already decided was the best thing to do – you’re watching a mediocre Brad Pitt movie while scarfing cookies and cream.

I’m not saying this will happen all the time. I’m just saying it’s likely. Why? Because the brain is efficient. It works fast - faster than we realize. And because of this, it’s short-sighted, favoring rewards now over rewards later. Throw options at your brain and it’s likely to get to work choosing between them. It’s much less likely to slow down to ask whether the decision is worth making in the first place.

This tendency to get consumed with irrelevant decisions can strike anywhere. It keeps people stuck in dead-end jobs and unfulfilling relationships. It keeps us from hitting our weight goals. It's why business meetings get annoyingly (and wastefully) off track.

It’s not ideal to get stuck making decisions that happen to you by chance. Next time you find yourself struggling with a choice, ask yourself, “Do I even need to make this decision? Is this decision relevant to my endgame? Am I making it because it will get me somewhere important, or because a bunch of options just got thrown at me?”

In other words, make sure you – and not random options – are driving your decisions. Don’t let your next decision waste time and energy or throw you off track. Make your next decision about getting you where you really want to go.

Because that’s what it’s really all about anyway.

That is all.

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