The Paradox of Choice: Exploring the Relationship Between Willpower & Routine

the paradox of choice factor 75

All the gurus agree: You gotta have a routine.

Tim Ferriss only drinks yerba mate. Obama only wears black or blue suits. Because when tasks are on autopilot, you set it and forget it. It’s like cruise control for your brain.

But wait, only blue suits? That sounds boring, right?

Well, strangely enough, psychology finds routine actually inspires creativity. So how does this relate to your fitness and nutrition? Read on, padawan.

Good routines make things automatic.

Do you think about which shoe you tie first? Which direction you brush your teeth?

Of course not.

You don’t waste brain bandwidth thinking about that. This allows you to conserve energy for decisions that need complete focus. We’ve heard a lot recently about the psychology of decision fatigue.

Turns out we only have a finite reserve of “decision power” – thus the blue and black suits. If Obama spent too much time fussing over pinstripes and paisley, he wouldn’t be as sharp for his daily U.N. conference call. And the same thing goes for us laymen.

Save your creative energy

4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss says willpower is overrated:

[Tweet “Defining routines and systems is more effective than relying on self-discipline.”]

Instead of wasting valuable willpower energy on routine decisions, “I encourage people to develop routines so that their decision-making is only applied to the most creative aspects of their lives.”

What are his routines?

He has a strict 90-minute email ritual, only drinks Cruz de Malta yerba mate, and blocks social media with RescueTime.

Instead of dedicating decision-power resources to routine decisions, Ferriss conserves creative energy for more important things – like writing best-selling books.

The paradox of choice

Routine not only saves you time and energy. It frees you from “choice paralysis” – a phenomenon of the late 21st century.

Barry Schwartz, the author of the Paradox of Choice, explained in his Ted Talk, too many choices “actually make us worse off.” What happens when there’s too many? We freeze.

“Paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices. You really want to get the decision right if it’s for all eternity, right? You don’t want to pick the wrong mutual fund, or even the wrong salad dressing.”

The strange paradox, he says, is that fewer choices give you more freedom.


“Everybody needs a fishbowl”

Schwartz uses a great analogy: A fishbowl. If our “fishbowl” is too big, we can feel lost.

Schwartz says, “If you shatter the fishbowl so that everything is possible, you don’t have freedom. You have paralysis. If you shatter this fishbowl so that everything is possible, you decrease satisfaction. You increase paralysis, and you decrease satisfaction.”

Fewer choices = more willpower

The fewer choices you make, the more decision-power you have on reserve. You won’t risk paralysis or willpower depletion.

Instead, you’ll save that energy for that new yoga pose, honing your jump-shot, or coaching your kids’ soccer practice. That means you’ll be less likely to give in to General Tso’s, or skip the gym. Conserving brain bandwidth makes you withstand temptation and follow through with your fitness and nutrition goals with greater control and focus.

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