What Works: Freedom From Choice


I was on a retreat this weekend, and do you know what one of the little pleasures was for me? Coming to the dining room at mealtimes and being presented with a single option — simply accepting what is offered. Why is this lack of choice a comforting treat rather than an annoying limitation? Because having to choose from dozens of options — having to decide what to do every minute of the day — can be exhausting, and stressful. And, like the dinner menu, many of the decisions we face every day are entirely unimportant.

I live in New York City. More than any other single place on this planet, perhaps, it offers lots of options. This can be exhilarating, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. On any given night, there are a dozen amazing events I could attend. On any given day, there are a dozen things I could do to advance toward my goals.

Now, though, thanks to technologies that open up the entire world to us through our cell phone, cable TV and laptop, this characteristic of New York City is becoming more prevalent for everyone, everywhere.

Getting things done

Task management guru David Allen devotes a lot of his attention to the issue of choice. As he sees it, one of the biggest obstacles to getting things done occurs in that moment when we have to decide what to do next. Allen says that often it’s much more efficient to just do something reasonable rather than spend time deciding what to do. His approach, dubbed “Getting Things Done” or GTD, can be overly fussy, but it has a lot of useful techniques.

To oversimplify, its key feature is preparing in advance so you know what needs to be done and can be done in different settings and at different times; then, depending on where you are or what you’re working on, it’s easy to identify what you could be doing, and you just do the next thing on that list. You don’t waste time deciding what to do. You don’t even complicate your lists with the kind of priority coding used in most task management systems. You just do one of the things that needs to be done. Over time, you get everything done and you don’t waste a lot of time deciding the order.

People who don’t fret so much over unimportant choices are more confident and productive. I can’t help remembering an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when Captain Picard and Beverly Crusher have temporarily gained the ability to see each other’s thoughts. When they come to a fork in the path, and the captain picks a route, Crusher discovers that her leader often makes choices without really knowing which is better. If they stopped and debated which way to go, they would have gained little if anything and wasted potentially precious time. So he just picked a direction.

Even if you don’t become a GTD zealot with software and file cabinets and labelers, this one nugget can change your whole relationship to deciding what to do: If you find yourself trying to choose between several comparably useful things to do, just pick one and do it.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about rushing through decisions here. In my last column, I talked about the value and importance of discernment. Here, I’m referring to things you’ve already decided to do. The question is which, and when. And the answer, often, is any of them, and now.

Set it and forget it

The problem, according to Allen, is that the modern connected person has tons of what he calls “open loops” — uncompleted tasks and undecided priorities — that their brain must keep track of, or experience anxiety over the risk of losing track of. Many of his techniques involve removing unimportant choices, or making them once and moving on, so that our lives become simpler.

My favorite example of Allen’s simple genius is his story of how, if we need to remember to bring a file to work tomorrow, we might prop the file up against the front door. If you see the logic behind this “trick,” his systems are just fancier methods to the same end. But many of us, and I count myself in this camp, would tend to think the file-at-door trick is stupid, go to bed planning to remember the file in the morning, forget it, and then be furious with ourselves for forgetting. We insist on doing everything without any help — even from systems we create. It is a point of pride to manage our insanely complex life — it can even feed into our sense of self-importance that we have such a complex life.

Managing your calendar

Back to all those wonderful New York events. When I switched from my Filofax to an iPhone a few years ago, I relished the calendar’s ability to keep track of all my options. Before I knew it I had 12 calendar categories, from work appointments to friends’ concerts, from brunch dates to options for Mass. Every time I learned of an event I had any interest in, I’d add it.

As an example, let’s take an actual night from last week. With last year’s method, I’d be looking at four overlapping vertical blocks — red for a friend’s dinner party; green for a usual weekly group event; orange for a friend’s show at a local club; and blue for an optional work-related conference call. I would have reviewed this mess several times in the preceding days, reminding myself of my priorities and redeciding whether to stick with them or change them.

Rereading Allen’s Getting Things Done last year, I got to a part about calendars. People want to add things they’d “really like to” do but which are not essential, says Allen:

Resist this temptation. You need to trust your calendar as sacred territory, reflecting the exact hard edges of your day’s commitments, which should be noticeable at a glance while you’re on the run. That’ll be much easier if the only things in there are those that you absolutely have to get done on that day.”

And as I read this passage I realized my error — with all my categories I was missing the key one: Is this something I am committed to doing? On the run, that’s the only categorization that matters.

Simplify and streamline

So I added a “definite” category in a solid dark color and got rid of all others but two: events and stuff with friends. If I glance at my calendar and there’s something definite, my decision is already made. Done. Go do it. If not, then I can choose, free of anxiety, to do nothing or to pick something from the optional stuff. I know there’s no right or wrong answer.

For that night last week, the dinner party was “definite.” I knew that when I made the date a month ago, and coded it that way. (See also, in my column on honesty, about the value of honoring commitments.) So, looking at my calendar, I knew at a glance what to do and I was free from anxiety.

Look for opportunities in work projects, your appointment calendar, bill payment, and anything else that needs keeping track of, to simplify and to make decisions once and forget them. The nagging unfinished processes can feel overwhelming and add a lot of anxiety to your life, making it harder to maintain a sense of acceptance and peace.

Have you worked with GTD or another task management approach, struggled with managing your tasks and appointments, experienced the strain of an over-committed life? Leave a comment below or email me at phil AT bustedhalo.com.