Paralyzed by Choice

When I was growing up in the 1950s, there was one kind of TV, black and white. And it came in a big, hardwood cabinet. In Tucson, Arizona we had the big three TV networks and it wasn't until late in my teens that we got a fourth one.

Nowadays, I surf dozens of channels. TVs come in every imaginable size and shape from tiny portables to giant flat-screens.

Choices, choices, and more choices.

While it was easy to choose a TV in 1955, it gets harder every day. And the same is true of fast food, clothing, business services, software, and so on.

One of the motivation styles is Innovator-Processor. Innovators like choice; Processors like to follow a procedure. Too many options can paralyze a processor, but they can also paralyze an innovator.

I remember a guy I worked with at the phone company. His manager gave him the task of evaluating off-the-shelf software for some application. Months later he was still gathering all of the available programs.

The same is true of the internet. Search for one thing and you'll find a half dozen other interesting topics. If you follow those threads, you'll find dozens more. Soon you'll have no idea where you started or what you were doing, but a whole day has slipped by.

Back in 1956, a behavioral scientist found that humans can only grasp seven plus or minus two (five-to-nine) things at one time. Beyond this, they go into overload. Examples: seven digits in a phone number or nine in a Social Security Number.

Lesson: Too many choices overwhelm.

Escaping the Options Trap

As the number of choices increase, your chances of paralysis also increase.

One of the things I discovered when I work with clients is that they are often overwhelmed with data about their company's performance. They have so much data that they don't know where to begin.

I, on the other hand, have some criteria about what I'm looking for. I'm only interested in data about defects or delay. This eliminates a huge amount of data from my field of vision.

Then, I apply the 4-50 rule (4% of the business causes over half of the waste, rework, and lost productivity). This is a refinement of the 80/20 rule. I'm looking for the vital few pieces of information that will lead me in the right direction.

I have a friend who is very successful at doing mergers and acquisitions in New York. We found that we have the same ability to sift through mountains of information for the few relevant parts. He's doing due diligence, while I'm doing problem solving.

The key is we're both willing to abandon or throw out anything that isn't relevant to our research mission. And we know we're going to throw out most of it to find the few kernels of truth we need to make an informed decision.


How can you tell if you're paralyzed by options? Simple: You will probably feel anxious about what to choose or feel completely stuck. How can you get unstuck? Narrow your options:

Step 1: Establish Criteria
What are you looking for? Take some time to figure out what you want before you start gathering information about products, services, whatever. It doesn't matter if you're surfing the cable channels for crime shows or cooking shows. You're always applying some criteria. The same is true of the internet, better keywords deliver better results. The same is true of looking for a job or someone to date. It's easier if you know what you're looking for.

Step 2: Use the 4-50 Rule
What's vital and what's irrelevant? Abandon everything that doesn't fit your criteria. Update your criteria as you learn more about what you want.

Step 3: Use the 7 plus/minus 2 Rule
Narrow your choices down to five-to-nine or fewer. Then you have a good chance of being able to make a good decision rapidly. Every additional choice increases your chances of analysis paralysis.

Step 4: Good Enough
If there are three relatively good choices, which one is good enough? The search for perfection invites delay. How many people do you know who are waiting for the perfect spouse, house, job, or whatever? What are they waiting for?

It's good to have some choices, but too many can inhibit your success.

Set your criteria; narrow your focus; and choose a solution that's good enough for your current needs. Making choices creates momentum. Excessive analysis invites stagnation. Only you can decide which one's right for you.

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008-2024 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, 888-468-1537, ."