written by Mick Ukleja

Harnessing the Power of Less

4 Ways Subtracting Choices Becomes a Plus


Who hasn’t been discouraged by lack of follow through or falling short of a desired goal or milestone?  There are probably some good objective reasons why this occurred.  But one that may go undetected is the surplus of options that we encounter.  That might sound strange, for it seems at first glance that options are what allows us to choose well.

Research has shown that too many choices can lead to discouragement, frustration, and ultimately a failure.  Fewer choices = better results.

What we label a “lack of willpower” could in fact be too many choices.

There is a famous experiment on the purchase of jams entitled When choice is demotivating.  When too many choices of jams – 24-30 choices – were presented, sales plummeted.  When the choices were limited to 6, sales increased.

This goes against the premise that is promoted in our modern information society. We talk about options as though they were the key to success and satisfaction.  This assumption is applied to selling, investing, buying, and making important life-decisions – from vocations, to relationships, to objectives.   The endless choices often come disguised in the pronouncement “Have It Your Way.”

Why do folks want more choices?  Because information is addictive.  Dopamine also causes you to want, desire, seek out and search. Dopamine makes you curious about ideas and fuels your search for more information. So caution!

It’s nice to have options.  Having a few options is better than having none.  But too many choices can cripple our ability to succeed.  The researchers call it “choice overload.”  Reducing our choices can be beneficial.

Here are 4 ways subtracting our choices can become a plus.

1.    Fewer choices deliver more satisfaction.  Variety is the spice of life, but only to an extent.  Too much variety can sour life.  Making choices with our values in mind helps point out where the spice of life ends and sourness begins.  When “limiting our options” is guided by what is important to us, our options bring personal satisfaction.  These become value-based options instead of a smorgasbord of choices.

2.    Fewer choices create energy.  Extensive choices can have demotivating consequences.  When the options are fewer we are more energized to participate.  This is true whether we are shopping, joining, investing, or goal setting.  The never-ending choices do more immobilizing than motivating.

In one study, students were offered an extra credit paper for their class. They were instructed to choose from a list of topics.  Some had a list of 6, and some had a list of 30.  The fewer options consistently produced a higher completion rate as well as a higher quality paper.  The energy level both to participate and produce was increased.

3.    Fewer choices decrease second-guessing.  Having unlimited options can lead to questioning our choices.  In our “option-rich” environment we can find ourselves wondering about the choices left on the table.  In another experiment students were given the choice of chocolates.  Two groups were again tested – one with 6 choices and the one with thirty.  Both groups were happy with the multiplicity of choices.  But in the end the group with more choices displayed a higher level of regret for not having made an alternate choice.

4.    Fewer choices deepen learning.  In today’s world the amount of information is endless!  Too many things to learn means we don’t learn anything well.  Deciding on what we want to master, and then taking it deep, is more empowering than dabbling in endless subjects and ideas just a click away — ricocheting from one thought to the next.  It’s hard to go deep in the information fast lane.  What is needed for personal mastery is not more information, but interpretation – not more content, but context.  Deciding what we will learn and filtering out the rest creates comprehension and clarity.

A culture always setting itself up for the “next NEW thing” can create chronic dissatisfaction.  Our world has exponentially more options than we had even 10 years ago.

Choices are not intrinsically bad.  It’s the complexity that too many can create that causes us to quit – or not start.  Streamlining our choices reduces the complexity that hampers good outcomes.

It’s an irony.  Subtraction can become a plus.  Like any art it improves with practice.

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6 responses to “Harnessing the Power of Less”

  1. dakotah says:

    SO RIGHT ON!!! I can/will only shop in stores where I can see the entire contents from just inside the door. My eye sees immediately that which I
    either want or what I specifically came in to purchase. I make my purchase and then I leave. In a large store I wander and wander and most frequently leave not having made a singular purchase. I cannot do it. I hit overload the
    moment I step into a store beyond what my eyes reveal to me. Marketing I
    know what I like and I get it. Every 6 months or so I may try something new.
    Perhaps. I tell this to people and they think I am nuts but I definitely think
    they are nuts. It overwhelmes, confuses, frustrates and exhaust me. Thank you.

    • Mick Ukleja says:

      Thanks:)! You just made my point. When we extend this to other areas of our lives, we can see how it “dumbs” us down.

  2. You prove the maxim that Less is More. Having too many choices can cause mental gridlock and an inability to decide.

  3. Mick says:

    Thanks Steve. Not having enough is not optimal. But having too much is detrimental. There is the law of diminishing returns, and it is certainly in effect when it comes to overload.

    • Robert Skidmore says:

      Mick, this is a great piece. Another consequence of reducing choices can greatly benefit a company’s efficiencies. A Southern California wholesaler of industrial products completed an analysis of the one hundred and seventy-five product lines they were representing to the metalworking industry. Applying the Pareto principle (80-20 rule) they eliminated 60% of those lines and concentrated on the remainder. Their sales personnel were able to focus more clearly, their inventory investment was reduced, turns improved and their customers viewed them as a targeted supplier. Over the following five years they grew exponentially.

      • Mick Ukleja says:

        Good insight, Bob, on the Pareto principle. It’s relevant in business and in our personal lives as well. Your example could be multiplied. Thanks!

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