How To Make The Right Decision When You’re Spoilt For Choice


I wasted three hours of my life on Saturday night because I couldn’t make a decision!

I was internet shopping

No big deal, people shop on the internet all the time

Yet, despite knowing precisely what I wanted to buy, I ended up with nothing.

I found what I was looking for on a website based in New Zealand. But the site had no reviews of the product, and I’m always interested in what other people’s experiences have been. So I paid a visit to Amazon to check out the reviews for the product on there.

I found it in no time and was busily reading purchasers’ comments. Then I noticed another similar product. I was keen to see this product, too. Both products had great reviews. But then I saw yet another item in the same range and thought that maybe that one might suit me better.

To cut a long story short, after spending 3 hours looking at endless products and product reviews, I ended up with three remarkably similar products in my shopping cart, plus several books!

My decision making skills closely resemble those of a squirrel when crossing the road!

Feeling stunned at how I ended up with so many things in my basket, and exasperated by my apparent greed and complete inability to decide which products I really wanted, I gave up, bought none of them, turned the computer off in frustration, and went to bed at midnight!

Turns out having too many choices is a problem for many of us

Yep, we share the challenge of being indecisive and overwhelmed when faced with lots of options.

The jam test

make a decision about jam

Professor Sheena Iyengar in her book “The Art of Choosing” refers to a study in which a grocery store established two different sampling stations; one had 24 flavours of jam, while the other had only 6.

Which stall sold the most?

It might surprise you that at the stall with only 6 flavours, 30% of people purchased at least one jar. Meanwhile, at the stall with 24 flavours, although more people looked at the jams, only 3% bought anything.

On my recent ‘trip’ to Amazon, I was quite clear about what I wanted — in fact, I’d already found it on a New Zealand website. But when presented with several alternatives, I wanted to make sure I bought the right one. I didn’t want to face the hassle of returning something unsuitable or being stuck with something that wasn’t fit for purpose.

Again, it turns out that this is a widespread problem

If we’re only able to choose between two things, we have a 50/50 chance of being right. If we have four options, our chances are now only 25%. And, obviously, the more choices we have, the more likely we’ll make the wrong decision.

With a choice of 24 options, things get even more complicated

To begin with, you can’t keep all the pros and cons of each option in your head. This means your criteria for making a purchase are likely to change the more you study alternatives. On top of this, the time and effort needed to get to the decision point increases.

Let’s say you wanted to buy something simple, like next year’s diary or planner

There’s the first decision right there. Is it a diary — or a planner you want? Turns out they’re completely different stationery!

You decide you want one-day-per-page and space for appointments. You find quite a few that meet this benchmark, but then you also notice one that has a monthly overview. You realise how useful that would be, so you search for others that also have a monthly overview.

Your criteria have now changed

You reject anything without a monthly overview.

You soon find more diaries with the monthly overview feature.

As you’re searching, you find a diary with a pen loop. You’re always losing your pen, so you think this would be an excellent way to make sure your pen is always handy.

You add this new diary feature to your list of must-haves

By this stage, you’re no longer comparing apples with apples, so to speak. If someone then suggests buying an app or using the diary on your phone, you’re likely to become so overwhelmed you’ll leave the entire decision for another day! That’s what happened to me.

diary and planner choices

It might not be such a bad thing

Because of my indecision, I’ve been researching decision-making when there are many options.

Here’s a synopsis of what I discovered about making decisions

    1. It’s challenging to decide when you’re tired. And evaluating all plausible options can make you even more fatigued. You might also feel exhausted by having already made an average of 70 decisions at work that day.
    2. Think about it, you’re probably making hundreds of decisions of smaller or greater magnitude every day; simple choices, such as what to have for lunch or far more complex work decisions.
    3. When you get tired, you’re more likely to take a default option — and regret it later.
    4. There’s a distinct probability you’ll make impulse buys, or instant choices when you’re tired — like buying that Mars bar at the checkout. (there’s a reason they put them at the checkout, you know!)
    5. Limiting your options can help you arrive at a more creative answer.
    6. Getting the choices out of your head can help.


  • Listing (or spreadsheeting) the features you want and which products have those features.
  • Simply list the pros and cons of each.
  • Where possible, make one choice at a time. For example, if you’re shopping for black boots, don’t even peek at other colours. If you need them to be flat, don’t look at those with heels, etc. In this way, you limit your choices and decisions sequentially.

And the best (and probably oldest) advice of all?

You’re better off deciding in the morning when you’re fresh. So if you’re undecided — sleep on it.

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Tags: Conflict, Motivation and taking action, Self-awareness


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