All choices are evil. The most evil choices are those that require denying short term gratification, and unfortunately they are everywhere. Put down the garlic and crucifixes and battle those zombies by changing your environment.

Long before the days of ‘Supersize Me’, when I was a starving university student, I hatched a cunning plan. I would get MacDonalds to sponsor me to visit all of their restaurants in the world and have a hamburger at all of them. This would combine my two loves - travel and food. I was briefly taken aback when I found out that were around 30,000 MacDonald restaurants. Then I learned they were opening new ones at the rate of about one to two thousand a year. That’s five or so every working day.

I have had the same feeling of overwhelm these last few weeks as I try to choose a new laptop. There are more makes and models on the market then Lotto powerball combinations and every day another dozen are launched or updated. I have spent several weeks browsing geek internet sites, long into the night, obsessing over the details. Every laptop marketing department takes it upon themselves to concoct some fiendishly subtle technical differentiation from their competition and I have chased all those rabbit holes down to their fake rabbits. I could bamboozle you about bus speeds, have you salivating about Sandy Bridge processors or hyperventilating about hard disk drive capacity. I have woken up at 4am and checked my iPhone to see if the incredibly cool Lenovo X220 has been released yet.

You may think that I have gone over the deep end. And it is true that when it comes to decision making this is an extreme example, but two points.

a) My new laptop will be able to pull your laptop’s panties down.

b) What is true for laptops is also true for jam.

In a recent study a researcher set up a booth of samples of jams at a local market. Every few hours, they cycled between offering a selection of 24 jams or a group of 6 jams. As you might expect when more jams were out  more people stopped to look – but only 3% purchased any. When there were only six jams on display it jumped to a whopping 30%. The more the shopper was required to choose the less buying they did. The phenomenon even has a name, ‘Choice Overload.’

Which brings me to my point – choices are evil.

Choices confuse us, overload the brain, slow us down. Choices mean options and options require heavy brain taxing assessment. Scenarios need to be run, needs and requirements determined, weighted and prioritised. It gets worse. The information that you need is seldom at hand. It has to be found, filtered and sifted. If it’s missing then assumptions have to be made. Then it all comes down to a slightly more educated guess.

It’s not just mentally taxing it’s emotionally draining. It hurts to choose in two ways. Firstly, appealing options are eliminated. The latin root of ‘decide’ literally means to cut off from. Every decision made means options are extinguished. As each alternative is imagined, brought to life and then discarded there is a feeling of loss. If I get an overpriced Macbook pro I will probably not own a Lenovo X220 with its silky keyboard and 24 hour battery life. Sigh. To marry Beyoncé is to deny Britney. Sorry Britney.

But the worst pain comes from continually having to make the tradeoff between short term gratification and long term gain. Unfortunately these sorts of decisions are ubiquitous. Our environment soaks us in temptation and distraction. We fight a constant and vital battle to resist.  You open the fridge and there is that piece of cake – do you have it now or stick to your weight loss plan? Should you stay in bed where it’s warm, or go for a cold painful jog through the dark streets to reduce your risk of heart disease a tenth of one percent? Do you go to sleep now and feel better tomorrow or watch a little more TV and have a laugh? Do I keep pounding away at this work or peek at my emails? Ok I’m back now. This is not to mention the constant hectoring from radio, newspaper and tv ads. If choices are zombies then the zombie apocalypse is upon us. What are we to do?

Most often our first and only line of defense is will-power. How’s that been working out for you? If not well then we are not alone. Psychologists are now twigging onto what most torture victims and all alcoholics have always known – that there is a limit to self-control. Many researchers now argue that will power is like a reservoir, or perhaps a muscle. It can be drained or overused to the point of exhaustion. Interestingly it looks like there is a common pool of self control. If you use it up on one task you will be less able to resist other temptations. In other words if I put a big bowl of smarties on your desk then you’re going to fight the urge the first two hundred times, but after five minutes you will be in it – snout deep - while browsing Sport Illustrated’s swimsuit edition on the internet. Nagging works, and your environment can nag you until you give in.

There is a better way.

In 210 BC, Xiang Yu led an army against the Ch'in Dynasty.  While his troops slept, he burned his ships and smashed all the cooking pots. In the morning he explained to his (presumably dismayed) men that they now had to either fight their way to victory or die.  They went on to win nine consecutive battles.  Similarly, the conquistador Cortez ordered his boats burned when he arrived in the New World, to stiffen the resolve of his tiny army before it took on the mighty Aztec empire.

Does this mean you set your Toyota corolla alight in the company carpark? Stay in the office until you’ve earned enough to buy a Lexus? Well yes. Cutting yourself off from options is a great idea.

The most effective way of dealing with the corrosive power of temptation is to make the decision once and then set up your environment so that you don’t have to make the decision again. In my own experience the hardest thing about rowing the ocean or trekking to the south pole wasn’t getting out of bed and hitting the oars or the skis. That was because the decision had already largely been made. When you are in a tent in the middle of the Antarctic plateau you might as well get up and walk. In theory it is possible to do nothing, but the lack of other options made the getting out of bed much more straightforward. The choosing is harder than the doing. Rowing an ocean is easy. Doing the vacuum cleaning while Top Gear is on is hard.

You can put intelligence into your habitat. You can set up your surroundings to do your ‘thinking’ for you. If you want to lose weight then take the junk food out of the fridge. In fact, why not start buying food that you don’t like?

If something is distracting you – remove it. My productivity increased enormously when I hid the task bar that shows the other applications open on my screen. The wall behind the desk in my new apartment has nothing on it. It’s completely blank and very soothing and not distracting at all. I’m going to leave it that way. I may only have limited bullets to kill the zombies, but I get to choose how many I have to face.

It’s not just about eliminating the negative, you can add positive role models as well. Some great advice I got when training for the trans-Atlantic row is to find a group of high performance athletes and go live with them. By the power of the herd you will start doing what they do to succeed. You will eat the right food, go to bed at the right time and have their knowledge and experience on tap. Getting up to go training at 5:30am is normal, because everyone is doing it. I lived with Mum instead.

Let me leave you with a thought. Imagine that your powers of self-control were greatly reduced. So that you could only resist temptation say five times a day. What changes would you need to make so that you could still function?

P.S Written in a café with no internet connection (on a brand new Macbook Pro!)



Can There Ever Be Too Many Options? A Meta‐Analytic Review of Choice Overload

Benjamin Scheibehenne, Rainer Greifeneder and Peter M. Todd
The Journal of Consumer ResearchVol. 37, No. 3 (October 2010), pp. 409-425
Published by: The University of Chicago Press DOI: 10.1086/651235

‘Too Many Choices: A Problem That Can Paralyze’ By ALINA TUGEND Published: February 26, 2010

Psychol Bull. 2010 Jul;136(4):495-525. Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: a meta-analysis. Hagger MS, Wood C, Stiff C, Chatzisarantis NL.