Why we get Less Done with More Time

( 3.5 min read)

Today is February 29th, 2016.

It’s an extra day that we’re gifted with once every four years.

“A whole extra day! There’s so much I can do with that time!” you might say.

“So what will you do?” I ask.

“Well, I have a lot of options. Things I need to do. Things I want to do. Perhaps, a bit of both. Maybe I’ll make it a day of relaxation — self-care. Yes! I’ll do the things I’ve been wanting to do for such a long time. Maybe I’ll take a bath, read a book, work in the garden, bake some muffins, watch my favourite movie, go to the gym…”

“Wow, the choices are endless!” I respond.

“Yes, they are. Maybe I’ll do a bit of everything!”

According to psychologist and author Barry Schwartz (Schwartz, 2005), while having choice might seem quite appealing on the surface (and, of course, having options in life certainly is positive in many ways), having too many options is actually a recipe for getting less done.

We’ve probably all had this experience at some point, maybe even on a regular basis. You have a whole day ahead of you to get a lot done and you end up getting nothing done at all. Even with an early start to the day, you look at the clock and before you know it, it’s already 4:00pm.

Why is this? Why do we get less done when we have more time?

According to Schwartz, when we have too many options, we often fail to choose anything. This is due to a phenomenon that he calls paralysis, which is demonstrated quite well in a study conducted by Iyengar & Lepper (2000). In this study, shoppers at a grocery store encountered a tasting stand with either 6 types of gourmet jam or 24 types of gourmet jam. Although the stand with 24 types of jam attracted more samplers, only 3% of these individuals actually purchased a jar to take home. On the other hand, of the fewer samplers who were attracted to the smaller selection of jams, as many as 30% purchased a jar to take home. What this suggests is that, although it may seem attractive on the surface to have more options, having such extensive choice actually turns out to be debilitating.

What this also means is that if you have an extra day this calendar year and you have a million things you’d like to do with the time, you’re probably not going to do much.

That’s kind of discouraging, isn’t it?

But, it gets worse.

In the chance that you do move beyond paralysis and decide on one thing, Schwartz proposes, you’re actually not very likely to feel satisfied with your decision.

First, having so many options raises your expectation of how satisfied you’ll be with any of them.

“With so many ways in which I can have a nice relaxing day, one of these options must provide me with a maximum level of relaxation!”

With the bar raised, there’s already quite a bit of room for disappointment.

Second, when you have a wide array of options, you’re faced with a wide range of potentially positive experiences. By choosing only one or two of these things, it means you’re knowingly missing out on others. When you knowingly miss out, you spend time dwelling on what you’re missing rather than devoting your entire attention to the task at hand (which, by the way, is usually just as rewarding as any of the others).

Third, when you choose an activity and find that it doesn’t go perfectly smooth (and when does anything go perfectly smooth?), you believe that one of the other options would have been a better decision.

“I sat down to read my book and I just couldn’t concentrate! … it wasn’t as good as I thought it would be! … maybe if I had chosen to do that other thing instead, I would be feeling more content now … that’s it! I chose the wrong relaxing thing to do!”

Finally, when you feel that you’ve made the wrong decision, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

“You had so many options! How could you possibly go wrong?!”

In the end, if you beat yourself up for the decisions you make, you’ll become more nervous about making future decisions, thereby putting more pressure on yourself not to mess up again, thereby making you more paralyzed when it comes to choosing.

So, long story short:

Having a lot of choice isn’t always a good thing. If you have extra time and you’ve got too many things you could do, you’re probably not going to do anything, and if you do do something, you’re probably not going to be very happy with it.

Now, here comes the good news…

If you set the bar low, there’s nowhere to go but up!

When you find yourself with extra time, don’t set out to do a million and one things. Try giving yourself two or three options only. With fewer choices, you’ll be more likely to actually get these things done.

“Okay, so I will either read my book, or go to the gym. Both of these options are perfectly fine. I don’t need any more.”

Schwartz also proposes that sometimes it’s best not to have choice at all! If you’re told what to do by someone you trust, you’re more likely to do it without questioning whether it was the right thing to do or not.

Why do you think we like getting recommendations before buying a new phone? Going to a new restaurant? Travelling to a new place? Because it takes some level of pressure off ourselves to make the “right” decision. If someone tells us a particular option is good, we won’t doubt whether it’s as good as the others as much, and we’ll be less accountable should the option turn out to be disappointing.

So, if you’re really stuck, ask your partner, a friend, or colleague to choose something for you! What would you do if you were me? Of course, this might have the opposite effect (you said option A, so now I want option B), but you get the point.

At the end of the day, just remember that less is more, fewer is often better, and simple is underrated.

And, when it comes to feeling happy about how you spend your extra time, low expectations are, indeed, the key to ultimate satisfaction.

***


Iyengar, S. S. & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995-1006.

Schwartz, B. (2005, July). The paradox of choice [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice?language=en.

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