You get one marshmallow now or two in an hour. I remember this test, which proved a valuable point about emotional intelligence: that our temperament can forecast future success. Delaying immediate gratification paid more dividends—even more than IQ—to one’s success.
This seems a quaint notion now, a quarter-century later, as we experience an abundance of information and daily inundation of content with a profusion of choices.
Perhaps the most important capacity today is the capacity to choose wisely.
Choosing requires the judgment to sort priorities. Without it, everything appears the same and becomes an emergency to do now (lacking priority).
Coaches and consultants often observe “busyness” as lacking time, boundaries (or balance), and focus on time management, self-care, or prioritizing. But at the heart of this issue is something more fundamental and confusing: choices.
What, how, and why we choose are often unclear to us unless and until we reflect on our relationship to “choice” with a clear mind.
The Paradox of Choice
In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the diminishing returns of additional choices paralyze rather than liberate us.
While Schwartz posits that freedom of choice is critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy, he also argues that eliminating choices in certain situations can greatly reduce anxiety.
Schwartz points to how the act of choosing intersects with our notions of free will, power, and responsibility. The sense of control we often get from choosing can be overwhelmed by the number of choices we cannot absorb, evaluate, or fully understand. We also often focus on the freedom of choice while dismissing the responsibility that we must take for our choices.
If we are unclear about what matters to us, beyond others’ expectations of us, we are more likely to choose from scarcity, from not (being) enough. Choosing from scarcity can cause greater regret, guilt, anxiety, and insecurity, without ever realizing satisfaction and the possibility of freedom.
If this sounds abstract, consider the frustration expressed in the tweet below.
How is this possible? What can we do about it?
Paralyzing or Liberating?
Capitalistic logic might indicate that more choices mean more competition, which increases quality. We have more news media outlets today than ever before, with more choices for consumption: broadcast, print, blogs, apps, streaming services, etc. With the abundance of time and cyberspace, what have we produced?
Economics suggests that a rarity of space, time, and intellectual resources—once governed by square inches, barrels of ink, and broadcast minutes, providing fewer choices with greater deliberation—yields a more thoughtful product.
Today, the abundance of space and time has offered more choices and greater access, without any threshold. The result is a system that churns out information and misinformation that has drained our intellectual resources to absorb, evaluate, and be informed. Sure, we have some better products, but we also have many more inferior products. Most do not have the literacy, time, or energy to discern the difference. Instead of more choices liberating us, we become paralyzed by choices or numb to weighing the differences.
Maximizer or Satisfier?
According to Schwartz, how we view choices characterizes us as either a Maximizer or Satisfier.
The Maximizer has no standards. They operate from an ideal of “the best” rather than the idea of “good enough.” They engage in exhaustive research to seek out the best, becoming drained. When they decide, they are left wondering if another, better option might exist and are unsatisfied.
For this mindset, an abundance of choices is met with a fear of missing out (FOMO) and the possibility of never having enough. Applied to news, without standards we consume endlessly for fear that we will miss out on the latest. We become confused and drained.
The Satisfier operates from a predetermined standard for what is good enough. They apply that standard to any option before them. When the product or service (or toothbrush) meets their standard, they are satisfied and stop searching.
For this mindset, an abundance of choices is met with the recognition that “enough” is possible. Applied to news, we might read and view from a diet that informs us. Then we stop.
The satisfier also comes away with another lesson: some choice is necessary, but more choice is not always better.
FOMO or JOMO
Choosing often means being confronted with “choice shock,” claims Schwartz, who told Pacific Standard Magazine, “My suspicion is that [social media], and dating sites have created just the thing I talk about in connection with consumer goods: Nobody’s good enough, and you’re always worried you’re missing out.”
Many of us have become maximizers. The level of dissatisfaction manifests in daily life; each choice becomes an epic battle of confusion, research, and analysis to seek out the best. Our mantra: never settle for second best.
How can we shift our internal compass from FOMO to JOMO?
JOMO, or Joy of Missing Out, is about understanding yourself, your needs, and your desires, and choosing to live in a way that energizes you. To embrace JOMO, we need to practice reflecting on our choices to understand better what’s driving our FOMO. This piece on the shift from FOMO to JOMO offers some tips, from slowing down and disconnecting to reflecting, reconnecting, and testing.
Practice Choosing Well
In addition to these ideas, I have found four frames that support intentional choosing.
1 – Choosing Principle: Important or Urgent
I offer you this temporal grid, originated by President Eisenhower and popularized by Stephen Covey, to observe your choices.
Q1- PRESENT – We manage deadline-driven projects, pressing issues, and tasks.
Q2- FUTURE – We manage important items that are not urgent but reflect our values. We live by our principles, not by others’ deadlines.
Q3- PAST – We use distractions to cope: to feel good and ignore items that are urgent or important.
Q4- PAST – We use distractions to neglect items, often becoming obsessed and fixated by disruptions.
A full life can exist in all four quadrants by choice. The issue becomes problematic when any single quadrant dominates our life or becomes habitual.
Living our potential requires choosing to make time for our future (Q2) daily; otherwise, urgent demands (Q1) dominates life. Navigating these quadrants will help us learn when to choose to choose.
2 – Choosing for What: Criteria for Thinking
Here, we choose which 25% of our choices deserve greater investigation and thinking while applying predetermined or well-considered criteria to the remainder. We prioritize our thinking by letting these criteria manage the bulk of our choices.
In 2012, President Obama explained to Vanity Fair why he only wears gray or blue suits: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Similarly, I simplify my choices. My breakfast consists of a protein shake six days a week. It’s healthy, with fruit and 20g of non-animal protein to fuel my day. I may choose something different on the seventh day.
My wardrobe consists of a closet of heavier short- and long-sleeve black tee-shirts. to place my energy elsewhere when I wake up.
Such thinking criteria also factor into my computing devices. I’ve used Apple for 35 years and developed these criteria: 1) excellent service after the sale, 2) user-friendly interface, and 3) high quality, long-lasting products. A bonus is an ease of integrating these devices.
As a brand, Apple meets my criteria or standards, as reliable for products and after-sale service, so I rely on them for my tablets, laptops, phones, and watches.
I establish similar criteria for airplane tickets, lodging, travel locations, and other larger choices. My two or three criteria usually include reliability or service.
Of course, I reexamine these “criteria” and these brands every so often to avoid getting lulled into unwitting habits.
Establishing criteria prepares us for daily choices.
3 – Considering Reserves: Yes, No, Not Yet!
Choices that arrive quickly often evoke an automatic response. For most, that response is yes. Answering yes automatically can mean overpromising or becoming overcommitted or overwhelmed (see this blog). But the solution to a habitual yes isn’t just to automatically say no.
If you’ve explored items 1 and 2 on this list—defining what’s important and knowing when to choose—you can apply another standard for saying yes.
Here, we consider three reserves: Do I have a reserve of a) time, b) energy, or b) finances? Considering these reserves discerns whether we have the time, energy, or finances to expend. Paradoxically, building these reserves requires saying no to other choices that may deplete our reserves.
Also, consider that some choices are clearly no right now, while others may be a yes later. This is where we employ not yet: choosing two marshmallows later rather than one now.
I use not yet for two reasons: first, to evaluate any yes I want to consider. I examine my reserves and choose either yes or no. Second, I choose not yet if the merit of an idea arrives before it is timely. Not yet offers me the freedom to hold off on an item until it ripens, perhaps next month, quarter, or year.
Signing up for a new learning program may be a good choice, but it may not be for me right now. A wiser choice comes from examining my reserves to guide me in choosing not yet.
Adding not yet to your toolkit will support you in becoming a discerning “chooser” to a more effective yes. It also allows you to manage reserves that strengthen your self-care and cultivate sustainable practices that evolve beyond reflexive whims or scarcity.
4 – Binary vs. Alternatives
Finally, as we examine our “choosing,” — our view of choices. Most of us experience choices from a binary view: today, I will go to a movie or I will not. The choice is simple: to go or not to go.
When we view alternatives, however, we see a range of choices that can cultivate possibility.
For instance, my choice is not merely whether I go to see a movie—rather, any choice discloses an anticipated future. We can go to the movie or go on a date, read a book, or play Words with Friends.
This world of alternatives reminds us of our original challenge. Inviting alternatives without structures, standards, or reserves to guide us can be confusing and overwhelming. Choosing any alternative discloses the guilt of not choosing options from other possible futures. We choose and yet ponder what might have been.
Still, with structures for evaluating what’s important, standards for knowing when to choose, and reserves to guide us, we can allow alternatives to expand our imagination and open our mind to possibilities beyond a binary view of life.
Our Temporal Character
Understanding our most fundamental power of choice requires close inspection to examine how our thinking and actions appear in time. We are all afforded the same 24 hours, which reveals our choices and priorities about what matters most.
This last item considers using time as a guide to observe our choices, or, our temporal character: who we are “in time.”
This inquiry challenges us to explore time beyond mere time management. Here we are interested in what time reveals, discerning what matters most. Our choices and priorities reveal our interests, concerns, and what we care about. All of this is reflected in where we spend our time.
Do your choices reflect your principles and commitments?
Examining our choices—what, how, and why we choose—can get us closer to revealing our authentic nature. At the very least, our choices reveal whether we’d select one marshmallow now or two later.