Perhaps one of these scenarios feels familiar: Wasting an hour swiping through Tinder, only to emerge with nothing but a tired thumb. Working your way through endless offerings on Netflix (and Amazon Prime, Hulu, and HBO On Demand) and eventually falling asleep after failing to watch anything. Taking so long to decide on an Uber Eats order that by the time you actually land on a meal, you’re too hungry to wait for it to arrive and make yourself a sandwich instead.
We have more choice than ever in our daily lives — but while choice is supposed to feel liberating, it can often feel exhausting instead. Research has shown that we aren’t wired to handle an abundance of decisions: In one recent study, researchers using an MRI to monitor participants’ brains noticed more activity when the subjects had to choose one option out of 12 than when the pool of choices was six or 24. When faced with too many choices, people became as disengaged as when they had too few.
There are a few different names for this sort of paralyzing fatigue. Psychologist Barry Schwartz highlighted what he called “the paradox of choice” in his 2004 book of the same name. Some experts call it “choice overload” or “overchoice.” And some call it, simply, FOBO: the fear of better options.
It’s a catchy term for something that can have a real, detrimental effect on our lives. FOBO “paralyzes choice and can make you feel bad about even a good choice, with a grass-is-greener effect,” explains Colin Camerer, a co-author of the MRI study and a professor of behavioral economics at Caltech. “[Another] outcome is that we can postpone important choices — like picking a company 401(k) or getting serious about a relationship — because there are too many options and the process seems overwhelming.”
Some people will naturally be more susceptible to this type of thinking than others.
A branch of psychology research divides people into two categories: minimizers, also known as “satisficers”, who search until they find an option that’s good enough to meet all their criteria, and then stop; and maximizers, who want to find the very best option available.
Those in the latter group tend to be FOBO-prone. “Maximizers can end up potentially having lots of regret and a negative emotion that comes from a comparison of the things they didn’t choose,” says psychologist Ellen Peters, a professor at Ohio State University and director of the school’s Decision Sciences Collaborative. Anyone who’s ever lamented their restaurant order while eyeing a friend’s plate will know this feeling well.
Regardless of your decision-making personality, there are strategies that can ease the pain of choosing. “I absolutely believe it’s a skill that can be developed,” says Michelle Florendo, who studied decision engineering at Stanford and now works as an executive coach.
“Once you can see things written out in front of you, you start to see patterns: What am I concerned about and what am I really excited about?”
To get over FOBO, Florendo says the first step is to put a given choice in greater context. “People are afraid of making the wrong decision, and at the base of that is a fallacy of what a good decision even is,” she says. “A lot of people think it’s one that produces a good outcome, but that fails to take into account that, while an outcome can be partially driven by our decision, it’s also driven by a piece we cannot control.” The movie that turns out to be terrible, the new apartment with neighbors from hell, the vacation where it rained for six solid days — when something goes wrong, remind yourself that you couldn’t have known the full picture ahead of time.
It also helps to think through potential worst-case scenarios. “Some people get stuck on, ‘What if something bad happens?’ Okay, yes, something bad might happen, but what’s the decision that you will make then?” Florendo says. “It’s thinking it through to the next decision point so you’re not just focusing on the uncertainty.” She says people often attribute too much finality to a choice, forgetting there will be opportunities to make new decisions after this one has played out.
Another common mistake is not figuring out what you want before you look at your options. Once those choices are in front of you, it’s easy to be blinded by one that seems appealing — the apartment in the cooler neighborhood, the $90 face serum that’s all over your Instagram feed — regardless of whether it’s actually what you want or need. Defining what matters to you up front, then measuring each option against that definition, allows you to go into the process with more direction.
If you’re truly stuck, Florendo suggests mapping out a decision on paper. “When we’re in our head, it’s easy to just think in circles,” she says. “But once you can see things written out in front of you, [you] start to see what patterns are arising: What am I concerned about and what am I really excited about? What information do I have on how these options will get me what I want?” If you can, decide ahead of time which decisions are worth agonizing over. For the smaller, less consequential ones, Peters suggests choosing randomly. “Sometimes your best option is to flip a coin,” she says.
If that’s too daunting, try developing a system for narrowing down your options. You could eliminate all the least attractive options from the pool, for example, and then pick randomly. One study found that an effective way of making decisions is to treat the process like a sports tournament: divide the options into groups, pick the winner from each group, then pick a new winner from a group of finalists.
If you’re unhappy with the outcome, that’s a helpful data point, too. “We often agonize over choices that are really close together,” Peters says, like choosing between two jobs when you think you’d be happy with either. When reasoning isn’t getting you anywhere, gut instinct can sometimes be the deciding factor. “If a coin flip came down on option A, and I thought ‘urgh,’ then I might choose option B,” she says.
One of the most helpful things you can do is ask yourself if the decision will matter five years from now, Peters adds. Relationships, houses, jobs — probably. But in five years, will you care that you chose the steak over the chicken, or picked the blue sweater over the red one? Honestly, you’ll probably be too busy deciding what to watch on TV to remember.