Making Decisions When You Have Choice Overload and Cognitive Biases

In a world of endless choices, decision-making can be daunting. A decision can be so tough that you avoid it for as long as possible, instead of approach it head-on.

We have small decisions too, which we hardly need to think about. Like what to have at breakfast. Do you have oatmeal with banana? Sunny-side up eggs with toast? Or a cup of green tea?

We can get worn out by the sheer number of choices we make daily.

The toughest are the life-changing decisions with two or more viable options. Each option has pros and cons. Each take you on different paths.

We might need to take time to reframe the problem, collect data, and evaluate options before we choose. Or we might need to stop overthinking and worrying about what could happen once we choose.

It helps to know the pitfalls that make us impulsive, indecisive, or anxious when making choices. And apply strategies to navigate them.

Welcome to The Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach in making big changes with small steps.

The first pitfall in decision-making is fatigue from choice overload.

You get stress, emotional drain, and mental fatigue when you have too many decisions to make.
Shane Parrish, author of The Great Mental Models, recommends we triage our decisions and prioritize the important ones. His Decision Matrix includes four types of decision making:

Irreversible and inconsequential
Irreversible and consequential
Reversible and inconsequential
Reversible and consequential

Inconsequential decisions, whether reversible or irreversible, have predictable outcomes or harmless results. You can delegate these decisions to others, which will train them to develop judgment. You can also turn them into habits or automated processes.

Reversible and consequential decisions are tricky because they seem to be big and important. But you can still reverse course after you gather evidence, run experiments, and test things out.

Irreversible and consequential decisions are where you really need to spend time deciding. This is where you focus your energy and attention. Make these decisions carefully and strategically. Do the analysis and asses the rewards and risks. When possible, sleep on it. Take restorative breaks and mindful walks before you decide. Then commit to the chosen path and stay open to what unfolds.

To make better decisions, you define your priorities, clarify your goals, determine your hierarchy of values, and resolve competing commitments.

The word “decide” comes from the Latin word, decidere, which basically means to cut. You cut off your options, at least in this situation at this time. You fully commit to one thing instead of split your commitment between different things.

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Dr. Barry Schwartz writes that having more options does not equal better decisions or greater satisfaction. Choice overload can trigger anxiety, stress, fear, and dissatisfaction.

If you aim to choose the absolute best, you’re a maximizer. If you choose what is good enough, you’re a satisficer.

“Whereas maximizers might do better objectively than satisficers, they tend to do worse subjectively, “writes Schwartz.

Maximizers have very high standards they expect to meet. They tend to regret their decisions, even when the results exceeded their target, because they think there were other, better options.

Schwartz argues that our subjective experience (how we feel about the decisions we make) matters more than the objective results of the decision.

Being a satisficer doesn’t mean you have low standards. Satisficers can have high standards just like maximizers. But unlike maximizers, they are less burdened by options. They are satisfied when their choice meets acceptable standards. They make the most out of seized opportunities rather than worry about the ones they missed.

To avoid decision fatigue, you select the most important areas to maximize. Let go of needing to make the best choice in less important areas.

At the same time, beware of narrow framing, writes Chip and Dan Heath in their book, Decisive. This is the tendency to define our choices too narrowly, in binary terms. We focus on just one alternative, when there might be better alternatives. Should I fire this person or not? How about you train the person or move her to a different position? Tallying up the pros and cons of a binary choice is narrow framing.

When you find yourself framing the decision as whether or not, this or that, or yes or no, examine whether you’re thinking too narrowly.

Use the Vanishing Options test when you have choices that seem to be on par. Do a thought experiment in which the options vanish and you cannot choose any of them. Reflect on how you would act, respond or live with what’s left. This gives you mental space and creative agility to explore other alternatives.

The Heath brothers found that about 80% of the time, people come up with a better alternative within three minutes of using the Vanishing Options Test. Or you might find the decision isn’t so consequential or irreversible after all. Or you might develop a stronger commitment to one of the original options.

Consider the opportunity cost. What will you give up when you make this decision? Do you buy or not buy the new smartphone, new car, or new house? You could instead invest the money for future needs or save the money for something else.

Multitracking is another way to avoid narrow framing. This is where you consider more than 1 option simultaneously. Go for this AND that, not this OR that. If you find it hard to choose a paint color for your room, order peel & stick paint samples to test things out. If you have the resources, you could have one wall painted with color A, and the other with color B. Get feedback on the different options before you choose.

Find someone who has solved your problem. Look internally, like within your own team and among your own colleagues, for bright spots. These are action steps, processes, efforts and solutions that worked and that you could emulate and modify.

If there are no obvious bright spots, look externally for competitors and best practices. Expand your view of the problem and benchmark practices outside your circle, like other teams and any organization or industry.

Whether you’re a satisficer or maximizer, you need to avoid narrow framing. You focus and reduce choice overload to evaluate options, but not to spot them. Before deciding between two options, try to identify up to one or three more. If you find there are no alternatives or opportunity costs worth considering, you can be more confident in your decision-making.

The second pitfall in decision-making is cognitive biases.

Human beings have emotions, feelings and survival instincts. We experience joy and pain. We have biases, which help us decide and act quickly, but not always correctly.

Even robots and Artificial Intelligence have biases when they receive inputs from their human creators and consumers. Every decision is based on certain beliefs, assumptions, and data points.

Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, says we use two thinking systems to make decisions.

System One is Fast Thinking. It is intuitive, unconscious, and automatic. Your quick and instinctive actions involve System One thinking.

System Two is Slow Reasoning. It is logical, conscious, and analytical. Your well-reasoned and carefully thought-out actions involve System Two thinking.

We naturally use System One more than System Two. But we often make bad decisions when we apply it to complex problems. We need to activate slow reasoning to keep cognitive biases in check.

Anchoring bias is when you give too much weight to the first piece of information and use this as a reference point, or anchor, to make judgments.

Availability bias is when you rely on information that is most recent, prevalent, and easily recalled.

Confirmation bias is when you form a quick belief about a situation and then seek information to confirm this belief. You look only for information that confirms preexisting attitudes, assumptions and actions.

Commitment bias is when you stand by past decisions despite new evidence showing this isn’t the best action. The Sunk Cost Fallacy means we prefer to continue the action if we already put time, effort, and money into it, even if the current costs outweigh the benefits.

To overcome biases and make better decisions, you could apply a broad array of Mental Models. A mental model is a thought process, a representation or explanation of how things work.

Mental models help us chunk down complex realities into simpler, organizable, and understandable data. Then we integrate relevant information to make sense of the world. Here are some of the best mental models:

Use first principles thinking. Simplify complex problems and separate facts from assumptions based on facts. Think from the bottom up, get to the root cause, drill down to basic components, and build on what you know to be true to make informed decisions.

Invert problems by thinking about them in reverse, not just think them through forward. When you reflect on the end goal or the opposite end of the starting point, you can avoid trouble, define action steps and create fresh solutions.

Engage in second-order thinking. Think not just about the immediate, first-order consequences of your actions, but also about the subsequent, second-order effects of your actions. Keep asking, “And then what?” Consider the long-term consequences of the immediate consequences.

The Map is just a representation, not the real territory. An abstraction is not the abstracted. You can use a map to guide you, but don’t stop discovering new territory or updating the existing map.

Stay within your circle of competence -- the subject area that matches your skills or expertise – to make tough decisions, quickly. Make decisions more slowly in areas where you are developing your circle of competence.

Besides using Mental Models, you should get distance before you decide. Short-term emotions can tempt us to make the wrong decisions. Due to loss aversion and status quo bias, we might stay in our comfort zone, even when it no longer serves us. Losses are more painful than gains are pleasant. It’s easier to stick with what’s comfortable and familiar, rather than bear the risk of change that we want.

When making a tough, emotional decision, use the 10-10-10 analysis. How will you feel about it 10 minutes, 10 months or 10 years from now? If you act on your decision, what benefits will your future self gain and what costs will your future self incur?

In sum, decision making includes four basic steps:
1. You encounter a choice
2. You analyze your options
3. You make a choice
4. Then you live with it.

The Heath Brothers say there’s a villain at each step:

When you encounter a choice, narrow framing makes you miss options.

When you analyze your options, confirmation bias makes you gather self-serving information.

When you make a choice, short-term emotions tempt you to choose unwisely.

In this video, I’ve talked about the first three steps of decision making. Not only is narrow framing a problem, but choice overload also creates decision fatigue. So, we need to balance the two. In addition, we have not just confirmation bias, but many other biases that lead to mediocre decisions. And while emotions and feelings are natural and necessary, they often make it harder to make tough decisions.

In an upcoming video, I’ll talk more about steps 3 and 4 of the decision-making process, which is making a choice and living with it. I will cover ways to deal with uncertainty, decision avoidance, and overconfidence when making decisions.

For more on how to make decisions and take actions based on your priorities and goals, check out my book, The Incrementalist. You can find it at The link is in the show notes.

To dive deeper on the incrementalist approach to productive living, you may contact me for coaching or speaking events.

If you have feedback or topic ideas, drop them in the comments section of the YouTube channel or send me an email at

If you found value in this episode, click the like and share buttons. This will help the show grow and reach you and others. And if you want to keep learning how to make big changes in small steps, be sure to subscribe. This will help the show grown and reach you and others. Thank you for being with me and join me again on The Incrementalist.

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