Managing Decision Overload
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There's a natural progression in how we frame choices or “options” as I tend to call them (it’s the finance guy in me).
When we’re young - college and early career - we often think we have few choices, so we take the first good option that comes along.
Then all of a sudden we’re 10 years into a career and finally realize “holy shit! I’ve got way more choices in what to do with my life.”
When people realize this one of two things tends to happen:
You get a rush of creativity. Make a list of 30 things you could do. Go down the rabbit hole on all of them. Get overwhelmed. Do nothing. Keep on the same path of inertia your career has created. Get bitter. “Quiet Quit”.
You quit your job, because, you know, YOLO! Then furiously go from idea to idea. Taking small steps that don’t move the needle until your runway runs out.
Welcome to decision overload, or what I call option overload.
In the context of any change, option overload is a killer zapping your mental energy, motivation and limited willpower.
The ones who make it through option overload, and successfully navigate a BREAK from traditional work learn how to manage the Paradox of Options.
Paradox of Options
With a financial option, you pay a small amount to secure the RIGHT, but not the obligation to do something in the future (buy a stock at a below market price, or secure a piece of land in the future). You’re hands aren’t tied. You can back out, which gives the option some value, and you don’t need to put up an enormous amount of capital.
But options have some cost.
If you bought an option on every single stock in the S&P 500, you’d probably lose all your capital - death by 1000 cuts as we used to say on the trading floor.
In life, options give you flexibility and upside, but they too have a cost.
Every option is a decision.
Every decision is an investment.
It might not be money.
The cost comes in:
So the paradox of options is that to do something new, you need options, but too many divides your time and bankrupts your attention.
Sources of Overload
There are several sources of overload that all stem from where we are on the uncertainty spectrum.
When things are uncertain, we need options to guard against us being wrong about the future since it is unknowable.
AS we progress toward certainty through signal acquisition, we need to reduce our options.
This is a defining principle of human centered design, where the process has us DIVERGE and ideate on potential solutions, then gather feedback (signal) to ultimately CONVERGE on the best option. This is done in iterative cycles.
Overload comes from mis-interpreting where we are on the uncertainty spectrum.
Lack of focus - is simply the inability to stack rank choices and assign importance to given alternatives. You think you have to be doing all things because you are CERTAIN that if you don’t you will fail. Or you are so UNCERTAIN about what will work that you assign equal weight to every possibility.
Over-planning - is simply making choices today that should be delegated to your future self. When you over-plan you think about every possible item that must be accomplished and fail to sequence properly. The act creates too many choices in your short term memory and your brain ceases to function properly. Over-planners have a need to feel more CERTAIN about their path, and add to their stress by pulling forward decisions that don’t need to be made yet.
Over-optimizing - When we optimize we have certainty about some repetitive task that we need to make as streamlined as possible. Over-optimizers tend to leap to the right answer and make 100 more decisions about how to optimize that outcome, but in reality there is still more uncertainty and risk that needs to be reduced in the process.
Managing Options and Decision Overload
There are several approaches to dealing with option overload. The path you choose will depend on the source of your overload and what you are trying to accomplish.
Mike’s Rule of 3
Basically three or less options is the sweet spot. It’s very hard to handle more than three projects at any one time, but having 3 choices play out on a single decision allows comparative selection, which I’ve found more informative than exploring a path in isolation. So, give yourself no more than 3 options for any given decision or project.
Start Where You are
In my philosophy on Investing In Yourself, I lay out how you have certain assets and you can apply leverage on those assets to grow smartly. But if you’re looking at options and decisions that are far outside of your circle of competence, you are making 1,000 future micro decisions to acquire new skills and abilities in pursuit of that option - that may not work out. By understanding your circle of competence and eliminating options far outside of that, you save time worrying about problems that you can’t solve in reality.
The example here is the corporate communications executive that quits to become a yoga instructor. Sure, she may be following a passion, but that person needs to then decide to 1) learn yoga, 2) learn to teach yoga, 3) learn to acquire customers, 4) learn to find studio space 5) what to charge and on and on. Alternatively, he or she could freelance her communications skills on the side while figuring out her creative outlet.
The Warren Buffett Rule
Warren Buffett, the famed investor’s advice on options is to write down a huge list of priorities that you may have in your life. This is your “Priorities” list. Circle your top 5. Make a new list called your “Avoid At All Costs” list. Move everything that you did not circle onto the Avoid At All Costs list and only concentrate on your top 5 (Hmmmmmm, sounds a lot like Mike’s Rule of #!).
Delegate. Including To Your Future Self.
We all need to delegate tasks that need to get done, but that we are not the best person to execute. I use a VA for administrative tasks as an example. Understand your circle of competence, and make decisions there. Delegate everything else to free up time and energy for you to use your best leverage.
As I explained, Over-Planners tend to make decisions now, that they could make in the future. Realize that you are an extremely capable learning machine. When you get the itch to over-plan and pull lots of decisions forward, instead think about delegating all those decisions to your future, highly capable self and free up your mental space for today’s decisions.
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What’s happening on the pod?
A little throwback! In this episode, I chat with my friend Jeff Rose. Jeff is what we call “career inventors.” He is a devoted husband and father of four. He's made millions as an internet entrepreneur and YouTuber with a following of over 378,000, but it wasn't always like that. Jeff didn't know what he wanted to do with his career when he was young. In fact, he never received much in the way of career direction, but a key to Jeff's evolution is he's always followed his curiosity. He figured out how to find the next move by running experiments when he was unsure of the next step and he was humble enough to seek help along the way.
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