Making Choices and Trade-offs

You might call it an embarrassment of riches. In the information technology world where I work we refer to it as “a find problem to have”. I refer to the problem set that arises when you have too many good things happening to you. Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project recently posted about her experience with such a problem which was the inspiration for this article.

Having too many opportunities can be really oppressive. Furthermore having too many things you would like to commit to is, mentally speaking, the same as living in a cluttered house. David Allen in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity makes a very good case for organization as tool to help you focus on the task at hand. In order to devote your whole self and creativity to your interests, you need to be able to free yourself of the baggage of all of the things you’re worrying about. When you choose to focus on one particular project/problem/interest your creativity and presence is boosted by the ability to know what you’re choosing not to be doing. Otherwise, you subconscious will keep worrying about all of those other things and rob you of the resources you should be using.

When you reduce all of that to practice, the result is that your brain works better at what you want it to after you’ve looked at your reliable to do list and made an affirmative choice not to do the things on it. Not doing things on your to do list is just fine, as long as you’re choosing and not forgetting.

In my life, I’ve been faced with situations similar to Gretchen’s. A friend recommended reading Having It All … And Making It Work: Six Steps for Putting Both Your Career and Your Family First . The most important takeaway for me had to do with making tradeoffs. The way I think about it, under heavy influence from the authors, is that making choices is easy. Do I want to eat pie, or be scalded by hot water? The choice is easy here. A trade off is what you make when you have to choose between two things and you want both: Do you want a piece of pie, or a milkshake?

In this way of thinking, making choices is easy (pie is much nicer than scalding) but trade-offs are hard (milkshake and pie are both good choices). I find that being mindful of the fact that I want both things makes it easier to select only one. To select one option over another does not have to mean you’re giving up on a goal or no longer want the option you did not select. Knowing that you don’t have to give up on the thing you’re not selecting makes the decision easier to live with.

I truly believe that framing decisions in a way that acknowledges that you want both things but can only choose one of makes me happier and more productive. Remember, it is a luxury to be in a situation where you’re only have good options to pick from.