Thursday, February 13, 2014

Limit Your Options, Expand Your Wallet

Hi there, Done by Forty readers. My wife and I are still in Hawaii and loving it. Though, sadly, our time here is coming to a close this weekend. On the plus side, that means I'll have time to read the posts you've written while we were away. 

Today, we have a cool guest post from The FIREStarter. He's a UK blogger who writes about reaching Financial Independence & Early Retirement on that side of the pond. Today, his post is on the pitfalls of having too many options, and the paradox of choice.

Us humans tend to do a spectacular job of over-complicating what should be fairly simple tasks. One of my favourite examples of this is running. All you actually need to go for a run is a decent pair of running shoes, a t-shirt and shorts or lightweight jumper and jogging trousers, depending on the weather. Yet if you look at the multi-million dollar industry that has popped up around this most basic and primal of human activities - the ridiculous high-tech gadgets and gizmos, futuristic gels and isotonic sports drinks that have come straight out of a scientific laboratory, and multi-man-made-fabric-mesh-lined-hi-air-flow sweat tops and pants - you would be hard pressed to believe the process was as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.
And so it goes with pretty much everything else in our modern western lives. Of course, you can't blame the companies, they are just trying to make a buck, and no doubt that most of their employees fully endorse and believe in the products being sold. And no doubt that yea, some of these products may give you that edge they are advertising. But unless you are Mo Farah or Usain Bolt, it probably ain't worth the hassle.

Analysis Paralysis Crisis

You see one hidden cost of all of the unnecessary paraphernalia that surrounds any given subject is that it can be a great cause of stress. We've all been there: trying to absorb all the information from advertorials, reviews, and technical specification sheets, navigating your way through the minefield of what is bullshit and what is legitimate, then having to narrow it down to choosing just the one thing out of the myriad of options that are shoved down your throat. This can cause both analysis paralysis, where you just can't seem to make your mind up, or decision fatigue, where you end up making non-optimal choices due to mental tiredness, which results from the huge number of small decisions you have to make every day. I'm sure you've all experienced both of these stressful effects very recently in your hectic lives.

Given that this stress is caused directly by the bewildering array of choices you could potentially make, the argument I am making here is to deliberately limit your options to eliminate this stress from your life. You will consequently feel happier, and have more decision making energy to spend on things that are actually important.

Here are some examples of where and how you can use this technique when dealing with some common daily decisions that can often be a cause of stress:

  • What breakfast cereal shall I have today? - Only stock Porridge/Oatmeal in your cupboard.
  • What shall I Invest in this month? What stocks are hot? - Use one broad based index fund (i.e. Vanguard). Ignore the markets daily/monthly ups and downs
  • I want to start running to exercise but not sure what gear to buy? - Buy some decent trainers. Start running!
  • What shall I watch on the TV tonight, there are hundreds of channels!? - Cancel your Cable subscription, there are plenty of good enough TV shows to watch on the free channel (failing that, read a book!)
  • What social media app shall I view and update first this morning? - Delete all of those apps, no one cares!
  • What shall I wear today? - Check this awesome lady out who wore the same thing, every day, for a year!
When you think through some of the above examples you will also notice that in addition to the already much more chilled out vibe you'll be rocking due to being free of those annoying details you used to obsess over, the following positive side-effects will also magically appear in your life:
  • You will have more time on your hands
  • You will have more money in your bank account
  • You will have more mental energy to focus on things that really do matter
Yes… that's right folks! You will of course be much richer in both time, money and mental energy, arguably our three greatest assets, by purposely eliminating options from your life. Now who wouldn't want that?

Destroying Decision Fatigue

Ok so I am guessing I've won you over by now, what with all those grandiose promises of a better, more peaceful life, more time to spend doing things that are actually important to you, and oodles more cash to invest in your FIRE fund, but as with most things, it can be easier said than done. Here are some tips on how to put it all into practice.

Work out what is truly important to you. This advice is dished out all the time on personal finance sites but it is almost always in terms of working out where to spend your cash. You should also forgo the wasting of time and mental energy of weighing up options in areas of your life that are not so important to you. Going back to the running example, if you decide that running is the main focus of your life right now, then by all means, you can get into the specialized gear and read magazines about technique, if you so wish. There is nothing wrong with that per se! You just need to be conscious that it is hard if not impossible to research every area of your life in such fine detail.

As a rough guide, anything that remotely resembles what we'd call a consumer choice are the ones not to focus on.

Make a list. Be brutal - Much like a minimalist chucking out old stuff to get their home into a state of balance and calm, you can't be sentimental about things when making your list of what is important. There shouldn't be much on the list that is so important to you it can be truly untouched by the option zapping techniques described below. I couldn't think of one single thing anyway!

Make a list of things that are not so important - This is obviously just "everything else" that isn't on your list from above, and so could be as long as your arm, but the point is you have to pick a few things and focus on them. It would also be rather ironic to end up with a huge list of options of where to start, when the whole point of this exercise it to reduce them. Just write a few things down get started. You can always add some more to the list when you get good at this.

Think of some variables to limit your choices - This is actually pretty easy when you get going. Some examples to get you started:

  • Food shopping: Don't buy any processed stuff and/or only buy organic. This should cut out about 80% of most supermarket aisles and chop your shopping time in half. Alternatively, don't shop in big supermarkets, instantly reducing the number of products and shelves you have to walk past.
  • Eating out: Don't go to a chain restaurant
  • Buying a car: Don't buy a car newer than 2005, only pay in cash, make sure MPG figures are over a certain efficiency threshold

When limiting variables are hard to think of, fall back on price as your limiting factor - It's best if you can tag your limiting variable to a philosophical kind of argument, something that you believe in, such as in the examples above. This way you are more likely to be happy with the remaining options available to you and consequently stick with it long term. But if you are struggling to think of a variable in any given subject area then you can just fall back on price as your limiting factor. For example, if you decide that you won't pay more than $2000 for your main holiday this year, then for the most part you have instantly knocked out any kind of air travel. You are now free of the stress of choosing from the literally thousands of destinations around the world and can look more locally. Why not organise a grand old road or rail trip around your own neck of the woods!*

Practice the low information diet - By limiting your exposure to mainstream media, you will naturally have less options to consider, as many of our options are shoved down our throat through commercial TV, radio, and other media outlets. Read more on the benefits of the low info diet here.

Acknowledge and overcome your FOMO - One not insignificant nuance of the human psyche which could rear it's ugly head when you are going around brutally hacking the options of your day to day life is our Fear Of Missing Out. When you hear about the latest unmissable mini series on premium cable or some side splitingly funny status update from a friend on Facebook, you may well get this feeling. You may well even feel the FOMO at it's strongest when you don't actually get any reports on what is happening, suspecting that there is a secret pact to block you out from all the amazing happenings on the other side of the paywall or log in screen. It is normal to feel like this when chopping out your options, but you must acknowledge that really, you are in fact being a bit of a silly sausage and that your life was and will be perfectly fine before Facebook, that mini series, or any other new thing others are telling you about that are all of a sudden essential to their existence, was around. You already have plenty of other options for high quality entertainment and communication, so focus on those instead.

Pat yourself on the back for doing the right thing - It has surely not gone unnoticed by the astute readers of this fine blog that by limiting your options you are also generally going to end up consuming less. Some people may see this as a sacrifice, or feel like they are depriving themselves. It is obviously a balancing act for each individual but if you find yourself feeling a little down in the dumps about any of it, then you can always console yourself with the fact that you are doing the right thing for your world and it's environment! Taking holiday example above, on the face of it we are using a quite selfish sounding limiting factor of price, which saves you some cash, but you are also saving bucket loads of carbon going into the air by not taking a flight.

Variety is the spice of life?

The famous old saying was coined in 1785 and to my mind, it hasn't dated very well. There are many studies backing up the fact that we are far more contended if we limit our options and focus on the things that make us happy. It's well documented that minimalism in terms of stuff you own is a great stress reliever, and it's clear that parallels can be drawn to the other areas of our lives where we overload ourselves with information, choices, and activities to do.

To me it is clear that nowadays variety is not the spice of life. We have so many decision making balls up in the air it's hard to pick one to catch. By ignoring 90% of the balls that are fairly irrelevant to our lives in the first place, you free up your hands to deftly swipe those important ones out of the air.

What do you think? Have you successfully cut out any options from an area of your life, and did it make you happier or less stressed?

Finally I would just like to thank DoneByForty for letting me write a guest post for his excellent blog. I've been a big fan for a long time now and it is an honour to appear on these pages. Cheers DBF!

Editor's note: Thanks for writing this thought-provoking post and the kind words. I hope some more readers will put you in their blog rotation.

*We know a couple that wait for a chain of hotels/motels to do their yearly £10 room sale, book some up for a week that are all roughly in the same area and then plan a route between them for an off the cuff road trip. I think that is a fantastic idea, you are at the whim of where the offers happen to pop up! Anyone who has read and enjoyed "The Dice Man" by Luke Rhinehart would probably agree that this sounds like a right old hoot.


  1. Thanks again for having me and enjoy the rest of your time in Hawaii!


    1. Of course! It was such a great read -- I was happy to share it here. Thank you for contributing.

  2. From the moment I started creating monthly budgets, I automatically started to cut out on things. I can't really say that I am happier, but certainly I'm not sadder. Probably some of the stress caused by choice has gone away (I remember checking out and analyzing destinations and hotels for over a months a couple of years ago, now the budget part does most of the eliminations), probably it is better to have more time for myself and my family and focus on what's important. Nice article!

    1. Thanks! I agree that maybe the biggest benefit of adopting such a strategy is getting back a lot of wasted time you might have spent procrastinating over decisions that are pretty much meaningless in the bigger picture of your life.

  3. I really like the ideas behind simplifying life. Things were much easier decades ago when we weren't being bombarded with advertising and technology. I'm not a huge fan of TV or the radio and I try to limit my exposure there. I don't really feel pressured to buy things - I always research and make sure things are really worth it. It helps that I don't like clutter too.

    1. Yes it must have been much easier 30 years ago to not get the dreaded decision fatigue (although I am sure there were other maybe even harder choices to make back then!)

      We seem to be constantly decluttering over the last year. We are slowly getting there... just got to make sure we don't buy more rubbish to fill up the space we are finally creating!

  4. Great post buddy! Gotta agree and say that running just ain't that complicated. I'll run in anything, even my work shoes... and that does happen from time to time since I only own like three pairs of shoes...

    I had a big problem with fear of missing out when I was in high school and college. These days, I'm so out of touch with what's considered "hip" that I can't fear missing "it" because I don't even know what "it" was to begin with. Kind of prefer things that way as well. Eventually, I kind of just want to sell away most of my possessions and further uncomplicate my life. The less stress, the better!

    1. Thanks FI! Ha ha, I run to the station in my work gear nearly every day nowadays... (Luckily I get to wear trainers/sneakers to work though)

      I think FOMO gets smaller and smaller as you get older, you finally realise that there isn't really that much new or Earth shatteringly good information out there any more, and if there was, you could just look at it later on on the internet anyway. I haven't seen anything remotely original on TV or film for the last few years for example, despite everyone and the media telling me that I'd be crazy not watch it. My current FOMO is on reading up about FI stuff on blogs... my blog reading list is far to large to get through each day! Hoping I will get to the point where I reach information saturation soon so I can pick and choose what I am reading a bit easier.

      Cheers for reading as always buddy!

  5. Nice work Firestarter! I agree with much of what you say. It's very overwhelming to have so many decisions in the consumer world. The best option is indeed to ignore most of them. I think people are waking up to the idea that perhaps being in debt and having lots of stress from constant consumption is not worth it in the long run.

    1. Cheers John! Yea I agree... although we are still far outnumbered by consumer culture, I can see things are moving in the right direction. I just hope this isn't a temporary shift due to the economic downturn. People have short memories and now things seem to be nearly back at boom status, I wonder if it will shift back the other way again. Will be an interesting few years to observe that we have coming up!

  6. This is a great "life-hacking" article and I can unfortunately say I do get decision fatigue because there are SO many variables you can analyze for what should be simple decisions. I like your example of "what should I have for breakfast?" as I have cereal every single morning and keep only a couple boxes upstairs so that there really is no thinking involved. I need to do this with more decisions I over-complicate.

    1. Yep the small decisions are definitely the best ones to start out with. I like keeping clothing decisions to a minimal, but it helps that I have absolutely no interest in keeping up with fashion (any more anyway) and it doesn't really matter what I wear to work within reason. My decision for that is generally limited to whatever is at the top of my drawer in the morning, which is great!

  7. Good article. Another way of looking at life simplification is "don't try to keep up with the Joneses." This means don't get caught up by advertising that says a product is something that everyone needs. Just look at and purchase the things that work for you. Who cares what others are doing or buying.

    1. Thanks Bryce! Always good advice to ignore the old Joneses... I agree!

  8. Definitely true. Limiting your choices can save you time and energy in everyday life, from deciding what to where to what to eat to what to do. It's insane how many choices so many people have to make each and every day that mean nothing.

  9. Thanks for commenting Ryan! Also saw you included this on your weekly round up... so thanks again for that.

  10. Great article! I always used to find shopping stressful because apart from having to sift through a minefield of options, quite often the reason for shopping was the feeling that what I had wasn't good enough, which is a key advertising technique to get people to buy more. The thing is in my mind it often translated to I'm not good enough unless I make the right shopping choices. Now I don't buy stuff for myself other than food and don't have that problem. I also have a set of rules to live by that simplifies most choices - I ask myself if it is eco and if it is thrifty. That often knocks out a lot of options quite quickly! Apart from reducing stress, I think a lack of options also encourages creativity as you have to work with what you have!

    1. Thanks! Absolutely, living a limited options and an eco/thrifty lifestyle is more fun anyway as you get to craft solutions out of what you already have!

  11. This is so hard to do when everything culture is throwing at us tells us to do otherwise.

    1. Lee, I agree in that it's not easy-peasy and takes a bit of thought and self-control, but when you put it into perspective of all the problems that life could end up throwing at you, all you really have to do is be concious and make sure to ignore some stuff. Which really isn't all that hard, I don't think!

      I am quite contrarian by nature though so if mainstream culture does things, I can do the opposite quite easily, which I understand not everyone can do.