Freedom is essential to being human, and it is measured by having a high number of choices.

Everywhere in life, we have a lot of choices available to us. This means we have freedom, however this does not always correlate with better experiences or a greater degree of happiness.

Have you ever spent 10 minutes (perhaps more) flicking through Netflix, or scrolling down the TV guide, not being able to choose anything?

The seemingly endless number of choices makes it very hard to stick with a decision and be happy with it. How do you know you aren’t going to find something better if you just keep going?

Compare this to when TV was just three channels. People had lower expectations about the experience so they were likely happier with the choices they made.

When you have an endless number of choices, you subconsciously expect to experience something better. If there’s 300 programs to watch (or 120 dishes on the menu), one of them MUST be the perfect one.

The Paradox of Choice

Overwhelming choice produces paralysis rather than liberation. The number of choices and the difficulty of making a decision are directly correlated.

Making decisions actually uses up mental energy – the more difficult the choice, the more energy is used.

This is why people like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg buy multiples of the same outfit, and then wear them every day. They eliminate mental energy and time wasting on the buying decision, and completely remove the daily decision of what to wear.

Choice = Freedom. Choice = Happiness?

Any choice you make comes with certain benefits – pleasure, improving health, improving personal relationships etc. and certain costs or risks.

Putting time and effort into one of these areas may be detrimental to another area of your life. While you’re doing one of those things, you’re not doing one of the others. It’s a balancing act, and neglecting one area can create guilt and stress. No matter what we choose to do, it is harder for us to be happy with our decisions because we’re saying no to something else.

Work is now also added into that mix as we can choose to do work any minute of the day, not just when we’re in the office.

To do lists and choice

To do lists should never introduce too much choice as it makes it harder to get started on anything, and harder to work on the right things. You should never keep yesterday’s to-do list, and you should never have more than 5 things on it for a single day.

A to-do list with 10, 15 or more items makes it difficult to figure out your most important task.

You will waste time and mental energy just deciding what to do, and there will be a high likelihood you’ll focus on the quick wins as they allow you to shorten the list.

After you’ve wasted time working on these less important tasks, you have less energy and you don’t feel like tackling the big items – the things that you’ve already procrastinated on the most. These are the things that will create the most impact that you need to be working on!

With more tasks to choose from you will have a higher expectation of how productive you should be and how good you should feel about getting work done.

It’s harder to take satisfaction from the day’s work if you know there were other tasks you should have worked on that would have been a better use of your time.

The art of writing task lists

You should write one item at the top, and this should be the one thing that would make you satisfied with your day if it was the only thing you got done.

If this is a big, vague goal that you can’t complete in one day then you should break it down into its smaller parts.

Only after this task is done do you move on to the other items on the list.

Re-write the list the next day. As you’re limited to 5 items per day, you may find things falling off the list that don’t get picked up. This is ok. These are the “noise” items that make it harder for you to see what you really need to be doing.

Choice and Emails

If you work with your emails open all the time, every time an email arrives you have a choice to ignore it and continue working, or stop working and read/reply to the email.

The likelihood is that whatever you were working on is of greater importance and you shouldn’t choose email over it.

Schedule set times in the day to process emails.

Don’t let your inbox get cluttered. You should clear it down to zero at your scheduled processing times. Emails often have tasks linked to them – so they just become a big to-do list with other noise also mixed in. This makes it hard to see what you need to do and requires you to re-touch each item several times during its stay in your inbox, choosing what to focus your attention on each time.
If it will take less than 2 minutes, do it there and then. If it will take longer, schedule yourself some time to do it, then make sure you do it in that time you set aside.