You’d think having a lot of choices would be the optimal situation. Living in the Washington, DC area, there are hundreds of restaurants to choose from. For a recent date night out, my husband and I struggled to narrow down all the options in our area to settle on one. After several days of scrolling through the choices, we finally decided to just go to a restaurant we usually go to. While having so many choices can be a luxury, it can also cause mental fatigue and result in wasted time and energy.
A research study was conducted by psychologists from Stanford and Columbia Universities in which a tasting display of jams was set up in an upscale food market. The purpose of the study was to determine if the number of choices impacted consumer purchasing behavior. On one day, the display offered six types of jams to taste test. On another day, the display offered 24 choices of jam flavors to taste. Although more people visited the display with 24 choices of jam, those who encountered the display with only six choices of jams were 10 times more likely to purchase jam after the taste test. The researchers concluded that when faced with extensive choices, people lose motivation to buy. This is called choice paralysis. We often become so overwhelmed by all the options, that we avoid making a choice altogether.
If you’ve ever eaten in a diner, you are familiar with this experience—flipping through a menu where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are always available—pages and pages of choices (not to mention the dessert counter with every cake you can imagine!). Replacing an appliance can take more time than doing your taxes as you grapple with narrowing down the hundreds of options to the one that best fit your needs. Or perhaps every morning when you look at your to-do list, you are so overwhelmed by what you have on your plate, that you avoid getting started (and instead find yourself piddling the time away by scrolling through email or checking your bank account). Even getting dressed in the morning can take a lot of energy. Some successful leaders like Richard Branson wear the same thing every day to reduce decision fatigue and make their mornings easier and less stressful.
I recently started researching different credit card reward programs so I could get the best rewards for my business card. Even just comparing the myriad options from my current credit card company was so overwhelming and time consuming, that I chose to keep my current card, even though I’m sure I could be getting higher rewards elsewhere. While it’s great to have so many options, sometimes less choice makes things easier and allows us to decide faster.
Every day, leaders are faced with countless decisions and choices, and our inability to focus our energy and attention not only increases anxiety and stress, but can keep us from accomplishing goals and getting results. There are several simple habits that can dramatically increase your clarity and focus, and reduce overwhelm and fatigue.
Simple is powerful. Whether it’s the credit union’s strategic goals or your department initiatives, simplicity creates clarity which drives focus. Having too many goals spreads everyone’s attention and decreases performance. Many organizational challenges can be tied directly to a lack of clarity or confusion on where to best focus time and energy.
Narrow your to-do list. Writing down what you need to do is a great way to get things out of your head, but most people get overwhelmed by a long list of things to complete. At the end of each day, review your list and pick the top two most important tasks or projects to work on the next day. This narrows your focus so you can jump right into your first task without hesitating. This simple exercise can be a powerful way to accomplish more in less time.
Ask a focusing question. Anytime you feel overwhelmed, it’s often a sign that you lack clarity. A great strategy is to ask yourself a focusing question: What is the most important thing I should be working on right now? This question directs your mind to filter through all your obligations and distills it down to the most important. A lack of clarity often causes leaders to put off important tasks and projects and instead spend time on low value items.
Schedule Productivity Sprints. Productivity sprints are blocks of time where you eliminate as many distractions as possible and focus solely on one task. While writing this article, I closed my email, left my office, and went to a quiet room in my house without any of my other work to pull my attention away. This very powerful practice will force you to focus on what is in front of you so you will make significant progress on a project and feel a great sense of accomplishment.
By intentionally reducing the choices you have in each moment, you can save wasted time and get more done faster. Gaining clarity is the first step to help you narrow your focus so you can be purposeful about how you are spending your energy and time. In my experience, these principles sound so simple, that most people underestimate their power and just don’t implement them. By consistently practicing these habits, you will gain more clarity, reduce overwhelm, and dramatically increase your productivity.