Book Notes: The Paradox of Choice”

Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy. — Louis C.K.

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz explores why people are so unhappy during a time of seemingly infinite choice. He splits the book into four parts:

  1. When We Choose
  2. How We Choose
  3. Why We Suffer
  4. What We Can Do

I have been making an effort to read more. A problem I have is I will really enjoy a book, take notes or highlight passages, then forget all the great insights or lessons a week later. These notes are here to help me remember key learning points. Additionally, by reviewing my notes and thinking about them some time after I’m done reading, I hope it will help me take these ideas and insights and formulate actionable steps to improve my life.

Key Takeaway

I recently finished reading The Power of Habit and I’m currently reading How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. A key lesson I’ve taken away from these books is to be aware of our cognitive biases.

The easiest person to fool is ourself. After reading this book, you’ll see that our choices and the decision making process are not as straightforward as you think. Also, how we feel about our choices—how content or disappointed we are—afterwards is also affected by these biases and how we rationalize our choices.

When We Choose

Habits and routine help preserve the limited willpower and decision making reservoir we have:

Each and every part of this boring morning ritual is a matter of choice. You don’t have to brush your teeth; you don’t have to take a shower. When you dress, you don’t have to wear underwear. So even before your eyes are more than half open—long before you’ve had your first cup of coffee—you’ve made a dozen choices or more. But they don’t count, really, as choices. You could have done otherwise, but you never gave it a thought. So deeply ingrained, so habitual, so automatic, are these morning activities that you don’t really contemplate the alternatives. So though it is logically true that you could have done otherwise, there is little psychological reality to this freedom of choice. On the weekend, perhaps, things are different. You might lie in bed asking whether you’ll bother to shower now or wait till later. You might consider passing up your morning routine shave as well. But during the week, you’re an automaton.

This is a very good thing. The burden of having every activity be a matter of deliberate and conscious choice would be too much for any of us to bear.

How We Choose

We may not actually know what we want:

Thus, you might, in retrospect, remember a one-week vacation that had some great moments and finished with a bang as more pleasurable than a three-week vacation that also had some great moments, but finished only with a whimper.[…]

The discrepancy between logic and memory suggests that we don’t always know what we want.

Availability heuristic:

The availability heuristic says that we assume that the more available some piece of information is to memory, the more frequently we must have encountered it in the past.[…] In general, the frequency of experience is not the only thing that affects availability to memory. Salience or vividness matters as well. Because starting letters of words are much more salient than third letters, they are much more useful as cues for retrieving words from memory. So it’s the salience of starting letters that makes t-words come easily to mind, while people mistakenly think it’s the frequency of starting letters that makes them come easily to mind. In addition to affecting the ease with which we retrieve information from memory, salience or vividness will influence the weight we give any particular piece of information.

Other examples of availability heuristic: we put more weight from a personal review of a product than a review from a publication which may cover a broader population.

When you hear the same story everywhere you look and listen, you assume it must be true. And the more people believe it’s true, the more likely they are to repeat it, and thus the more likely you are to hear it. This is how inaccurate information can create a bandwagon effect, leading quickly to a broad, but mistaken, consensus.

Frames and prospects:

And, as prospect theory tells us, because losses are more bad than gains are good, the mug or pen which you have been endowed” is worth more to you than it is to a potential trading parter. And losing” (giving up) the pen will hurt worse than gaining” (trading for) the mug will give pleasure.

Information Gathering in a World With Too Many Options:

Thus the growth of options and opportunities for choice has three, related, unfortunate effects.

  • It means that decisions require more effort.
  • It makes mistakes more likely.
  • It makes the psychological consequences of mistakes more severe.

When Only the Best Will Do:

To a maximizer, satisfiers appear to be willing to settle for mediocrity, but that is not the case. A satisfier may be just as discriminating as a maximizer. The difference between the two types is that the satisfier is content with the merely excellent as opposed to the absolute best.

Maximizing and the Quality of Decisions:

So while objective experience clearly matters, subjective experience has a great deal to do with the quality of that objective experience. […]

But remember, I’m not saying that satisfiers do not have standards. Satisfiers may have very high standards. It’s just that they allow themselves to be satisfied once experiences meet those standards.

Maximizing and Perfectionism:

While maximizers and perfectionists both have very high standards, I think that perfectionists have very high standards that they don’t expect to meet, whereas maximizers have very high standards that they do expect to meet.

Which may explain why we found that those who score high on perfectionism, unlike maximizers, are not depressed, regretful, or unhappy.

Just because you are a maximizer, it does not necessarily mean you are a maximizer in all aspects:

The truth is that maximizing and satisfying orientations tend to be domain specific”. Nobody is maximizing in every decision, and probably everybody is in some.

Why We Suffer

The Point of Choice:

To avoid the escalation of such burdens, we must learn to be selective in exercising our choices. We must decide, individually, when choice really matters and focus our energies there, even if it means letting many other opportunities pass us by.

Second-Order Decisions: make decisions about when to make decisions (a way of easing the burden that freedom of choice imposes).

  • Rules (e.g. always wearing your seatbelt)

    … following rules eliminates troublesome choices in your daily life, each time you

  • Presumptions

    … are less stringent than rules. Presumptions are like the default setting on computer applications. … 99.9 percent of the time, my decision is made for me.

  • Standards

    … are even less rigorous than rules or presumptions. When we establish standards, we are essentially dividing the world of options into two categories: options that meet the standard and options that don’t. Then, when we have to make a choice, we need only investigate the options within category number one.

So by using rules, presumptions, standards, and tour tine to constrain ourselves and limit the decisions we face, we can make life more manageable, which gives us more time to devote ourselves to other people and to the decisions that we can’t or don’t want to avoid.

Opportunity Cost and Avoiding Decisions:

When people are presented with options involving trade-offs that create conflict, all choices begin to look unappealing.

Scenario: you are serving on a jury of an only-child sole custody case. People were asked to select which parent, Parent A or Parent B, to award custody based solely on a few observations. Respondents answered differently based on the question they were asked. One group was asked to select which parent to award sole custody and the other group was asked to select which parent to deny sole custody

Difficult choices like this one set people off on a chase for reasons to justify their decisions.

Reversible Decisions: An Illusory Solution to the Choice Problem

… keeping options open seems to extract a psychological price.

Postdecision regret:

And once again, the more options you have, the more likely it is that you will experience regret, either in anticipation of decisions or after them.

Near misses:

When you miss your objective by a lot, it is hard to imagine that small differences would have led to a successful result. But when you miss by a little, ouch.

An example he gives is missing your flight by an hour versus arriving at the gate just minutes after the doors were closed. You start to wonder: what if the taxi driver had picked me up just a second earlier? Or taken a different route? Then you also start to think how those smaller decisions affected you: if the taxi hadn’t slowed down at that one light, then the rest of the route would have been clear. It’s an assumption we make, but we don’t really know that things would have worked out for the better.

Another example he gives is the happiness of Olympic silver medalists versus bronze medalists. We would think silver medalists would be happier than bronze medalists (they came in second), but bronze medalists were generally happier when interviewed later. Why? Silver medalists just missed a gold medal. Bronze medalists were happy to be on the podium.

There is also an important distinction to be made between upward” and downward” counterfactuals. Upward counterfactuals are imagined states that are better than what actually happened and downward counterfactuals are imagined states that are worse. The Olympic silver medalist who imagines tripping, falling, and not finishing the race at all is engaging id downward counterfactual thinking, and doing so should unhand her feelings about winning silver. It’s only the upward counterfactual—imagining winning the gold—that will diminish her sense of achievement. […] What studies have shown, however, is that people rarely produce downward counterfactuals unless asked specifically to do so.

There is an important lesson to be taken from this research on counterfactual thinking, and it’s not that we should stop doing it; counterfactual thinking is a powerful intellectual tool. The lesson is that we should try to do more downward counterfactual thinking.

Regret Aversion:

Studies like this show that not only is regret an important consequence of many decisions, but that the prospect of regret is an important cause of many decisions. […]

Another effect that the desire to avoid regret can have is to induce people not to act at all, what is called inaction inertia.

An example of how regret aversion can affect our decision making:

Having failed to sign up for a frequent-flyer program and then made a 5,000-mile roundtrip flight, we are reluctant to sign up when given the opportunity again. If we do sign up, we can no longer tell ourselves that we don’t fly enough and it isn’t worth the trouble; instead, we can only regret not having signed up earlier.

Regret and sunk costs:

This is thinking in terms of the past, not the future

Why Decisions Disappoint: The Problem of Adaptation

Factoring in adaptation to the decision-making process may make differences that seem large at the moment of choice feel much smaller. Factoring in adaptation may help us be satisfied with choices that are good enough rather than the best”, and this in turn will reduce the time and effort we devote to making choices. […] But individuals who regularly experience and express gratitude are physically healthier, more optimistic about the future, and feel better about their lives than those who do not. […]

And unlike adaptation, the experience of gratitude is something we can affect directly. Experiencing and expressing gratitude actually get easier with practice.

Why Everything Suffers in Comparison:

When people evaluate an experience, they perform the following comparisons:

  1. Comparing the experience to what they hoped it would be
  2. Comparing the experience to what they expected it to be
  3. Comparing the experience to other experiences they have had in the recent past
  4. Comparing the experience to experiences that others have had

Barry Schwartz goes through an example discussing comparing an experience at a restaurant:

And by and large, we are unlikely to realize that our evaluations are as much a commentary on what we bring to the meal as they are on the meal itself.

The Curse of High Expectations:

The challenge is to find a way to keep expectations modest, even as actual experiences keep getting better.

One way of achieving this goal is by keeping wonderful experiences rare. […] What’s the point of great meals, great wines, and great blouses if they don’t make you feel great?

Status, Social Comparison, and Choice:

This essentially universal and unrealistically high standard of comparison decreases the satisfaction of those of use who are in the middle, or below, even as the actual circumstances of our lives improve.

With the social media we have today, we have constant access and reminders of people who have it better”. So, even though we may be doing well, we are not satisfied because we constantly compare ourselves with others. We need to keep in mind that what people share online is only a glimpse into their actual lives. For example, we probably know someone who isn’t doing great financially but posts pictures of themselves with expensive new clothes or shoes.

Positional Comparison:

It’s like being in a crowded football stadium, watching the crucial play. A spectator several rows in front stands up to get a better view, and a chain reaction follows. Soon everyone is standing, just to be able to see as well as before. Everyone is on their feet rather than sitting, but no one’s position has improved. […] When people pursue goods that are positional, they can’t help being in the rat race.

Who’s Fault Is It? Choice, Disappointment, and Depression:

The different reactions of the two groups caused researchers to conclude that it is not the dancing toy animals that are an endless source of delight for infant, but rather having control. Infants kept smiling and cooing at the display because they seemed to know that they made it happen. I did this. Isn’t it great. And I can do it again whenever I want.” The other infants, those who got the display for free”, did not have this exhilarating experience of control.

Emphasis on freedom of choice, together with the proliferation of possibilities that modern life affords, has, I believe, contributed to these unrealistic expectations.

What We Can Do

In this section of the book, Barry Schwartz gives us actions we can do. He presents 11 to address all the problems that choice give us that he presented in the book. Rather than list them all here, I’ve just selected the ones where I highlighted notes.

  1. Choose when to choose

    To manage the problem of excessive choice, we must decide which choices in our lives really matter and focus our time and energy there, letting many other opportunities pass us by. But by restricting our options, we will be able to choose less and feel better.

  2. Make your decisions nonreversible

    Knowing that you’ve made a choice that you will not reverse allows you to pour your energy into improving the relationship that you have rather than constantly second-guessing it.

  3. Regret less

    It also pays to remember just how complex life is and to realize how rare it is that any single decision, in and of itself, has the life transforming power we something think.

  4. Learn to love constraints

    As the number of choices we face increases, freedom of choice eventually becomes a tyranny of choice. Routine decisions take so much time and attention that it becomes difficult to get through the day.


In a hurried world that forces you to make decision after decision, each involving almost unlimited options, it’s hard to find the time. You may not always be conscious of this, but your efforts to get the best car will interfere with our desire to be a good friend. Your effort to get the best job will intrude on your duty to be the best parent.

Other Random Passages

These didn’t quite fit with certain themes of the other notes, but I just like them as a nice to know”:

A century ago, a college curriculum entailed a largely fixed course of study, with a principal goal of educating people in their ethical and civic tradition. Education was not just about learning a discipline—it was a way of raising citizens with common values and aspirations. Often the capstone of a college education was a course taught by the college president, a course that integrated the various fields of knowledge to which the students had been exposed. But more important, this course was intended to teach students how to use their college education to live a good and an ethical life, both as individuals and as members of society.

Apparently we always think we want choice, but when we actually get it, we may not like it.

… this suggests that whenever we are forced to make decisions involving trade-offs, we will feel less good about the option we choose than we would have if the alternatives hadn’t been there.

Even decisions as trivial as renting a video become important if we believe that these decisions are revealing something significants about ourselves.

Add Custom Spellings to OS X

While writing about web development, OS X continually changes several words that are valid code. Tired of typing package.json and having OS X change it to package.son?

In Finder go to ~/Library/Spelling/ and open LocalDictionary in your favorite text editor. Add any words that you want OS X to stop autocorrecting.

Strive for Boring

Be boring and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
–Gustave Flaubert

My productivity and GTD journey began with a lifehack” from Merlin Mann on an episode of Back to Work: he used Omnifocus for a recurring reminder every week to take out the trash. It worked wonderfully and that was the extent of my Omnifocus use and pretty much my productivity system. Despite hearing several references to Getting Things Done” on Back to Work, I never read the book.

A few months ago I decided to get a handle on my productivity system. I had taken up meditation and this made me realize there was a lot in my head. I fired up iBooks and began reading on my iPad, as I waited for my paperback copy to arrive from Amazon (because I’m one of those weirdos that likes physical books).

The principles and methods immediately resonated with me. I did my first collection” and realized how much was actually on my mind. After a mind-sweep, I saw it all there on paper and it wasn’t just to-dos. David Allen defines stuff” as anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is”. So yeah, there can be a lot on a person’s mind.

I took a few days and went all in. I setup up the infrastructure and used it for a couple weeks. When anything came up, I knew exactly where it needed to go. It made so much sense and I finally understood why Merlin couldn’t stop talking about it. My mind felt so much lighter and I never worried I was missing or forgetting something. It was incredible. While GTD is for productivity, I recognized that its principles could apply to a system or mindset for organizing other aspects of life. Wouldn’t it be great to know where everything in your life belonged?

More Than To-do Lists

Tim Ferriss had a in-between-a-sode” for his podcast on The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle”. It’s a great episode and is actually an audio essay on a post which you can find here. There are six rules but two of them really stuck out to me (emphasis mine):

  • Set rules for yourself so you can automate as much decision-making as possible.
  • Don’t strive for variation—and thus increase option consideration—when it’s not needed. Routine enables innovation where it’s most valuable.

Hearing the podcast and rereading the essay really drove home the point of the quote1 at the beginning of this post: by minimizing choices, we save ourselves the energy and brain power for things that actually matter, which allows us to be more creative.

I thought about where else I could apply these ideas and principles. Ryan Holiday has a great post titled The Importance of Having Your Things’” where he discusses the concept of the inner citadel”:

It was a protected core that could be depended on, counted on for protection and strength. For a philosophy, that meant a series of robust principles that provided guidance in every situation. I try to expand this metaphor in my daily life. Our routine, our choices about what we do and what we own, can be pared down and turned into a source of strength. […]

When you stock your life with things you can depend on and things you can trust, it frees up precious resources.

At the end of the post he has a list of his things” like what he has for breakfast every morning, the shirts and pants he wears, and where he buys his books. It’s all boring stuff and that’s precisely the point. He doesn’t have to waste any energy on deciding what to eat or wear. Instead, he gets to use his focus and energy on creative output.

Everything in its place

Coming back to GTD, this system minimizes choices. When I get an idea, or email, or think of a to-do”, I know exactly where it needs to go. It goes to my inbox for collection and follows the GTD workflow from there. If something needs to be filed for reference, I know exactly where in my reference system it needs to go. I don’t have to think about any of this.

Drawing inspiration from the concepts of being boring, the Choice-Minimal Lifestyle, and the inner citadel, I thought about other areas in my life where I could minimize decision making:

  • Morning routine — Run through a checklist of my typical morning routine: weighing myself, taking probiotics, making coffee, meditating, pull-ups, and reading.
  • Diet — Try intermittent fasting and limiting my eating window between 12-8pm, which means I don’t have to think about what to eat until noon. Eat the same meals repeatedly and save enjoyable” meals for special occasions.
  • Fitness — Separate the concept of fitness and recreation. Focus training on squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and sprints.
  • Finance — Automate as many bills as I can. Maintain two checking accounts: one for bills and the other for conscious free spending”. This way any money that gets deposited into my Personal” account I can freely spend and not worry if I need it to pay bills.

All of these examples limit, or even remove, decisions I need to make. I encourage you to explore ways to be more boring in your life so that you can preserve mental energy for your creative endeavors.

  1. Other translations of Gustave Flaubert’s quote are: Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” and Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”

Understanding Through Writing

Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking.
— John Gruber

I’ve always struggled with writing. Growing up, I rationalized with myself saying I was more of a math person” — whatever that means. If I had a paper to write, I approached it like math, applying the same formula: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. This worked well enough, even getting me through my graduate thesis, though I must admit it had a pretty defined structure.

With my job, I’ve found myself writing more things outside the field of technical writing such as letters of recommendation or performance evaluations. As I struggled to start each project, I recognized that my writing skills were lacking. This was driven further home when my parents asked me for some advice and guidance regarding their diet. I’ve read several books and academic papers on low carbohydrate diets and intermittent fasting. I can understand rather into the weeds” concepts; yet, I struggled to explain the simple concepts of macronutrients and how carbohydrates affected insulin production in our bodies.

I used to view writing as something for the creative types”; you didn’t need it if you were in a technical field. I think this is because when I thought of writers I thought of poets and authors of fiction. While there is that aspect, writing is, at its essence, simply a way to communicate. I’m reminded of Roger Angell’s foreward in Elements of Style:

But we are all writers and readers as well as communicators, with the need at times to please and satisfy ourselves with clear and almost perfect thought.

I’ve been a long time reader of Daring Fireball. A theme that consistently comes up with John Gruber, especially when he’s discussing a company’s ability to communicate, is that clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. I would also add that clear writing demonstrates a clear understanding of a concept or idea.

The Feynman Technique

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist. In Feynman’s Lost Lecture, David Goodstein, a fellow Caltech professor, recounts a story about Feynman:

Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

I came across this video from Scott Young one day as I was going down the Google/YouTube rabbit hole. It is a method for learning that pays homage to Richard Feynman. The technique promotes learning by trying to teach an idea yourself and has four steps:

  1. Choose the concept you want to learn or understand.

    While it’s introduced using technical examples, the technique can be used for any concept or idea you would like to understand better.

  2. Explain the concept you want to learn like you were teaching it to somebody else.

    By doing this and trying to explain the whole concept, even the portions you don’t fully understand, you’ll be able to pinpoint the exact parts that you need to try to understand better yourself.

  3. If you get stuck, go back to the reference material.

    Continue to do this and re-read the reference material until you can explain it in your own words.

  4. Simplify your explanation.

    If you find yourself using complicated words, try to simplify your language. If you can, try to use analogies to drive points home.

Going forward this blog will serve a few purposes. First, I hope by writing more I will improve my writing. Second, it will be a place for me to think out loud and keep notes on different subjects I’m interested in. Finally, through writing, I hope to gain a better understanding of things I’m trying to learn.