Get Unstuck

Narrow Down Choices

When my daughter was a senior in high school, she faced a variety of hard choices: where should she apply to college? what should she study? did she want to take Driver’s Ed? Did she want to look for a summer job? When faced with a large number of options, how do you start narrowing them down?

How to Start Narrowing Down

What if you have a number of things you want to change? If you want to improve your diet, start a different job, move forward in an important relationship, grab some new travel opportunities, expand your friendship circle, interact more with family members, and improve your physical health, where do you start?

If you tried tackling everything at once, you would fail at all of them. What do you do if you want to change everything? It might help to first pick THE MOST IMPORTANT GOAL (whatever is weighing most heavily on your mind) and to provide yourself with a structure to explore it.

Whenever I face a blank page, it is easier to write if I’m given a prompt, an idea, or a structure within which to write. Take blogging: I limit myself to eight photos, keep my word count between 800-1200 words, and stick to the same format I’ve used during the past fifteen months. I also tie whatever I write to the broad topic of moving forward and getting unstuck. Such scaffolding provides me with structure and coherence, and it provides my readers with continuity from post to post.




On Having Too Many Choices

In the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Kathleen Vohs (“Too many choices – good or bad – can be mentally exhausting”) discusses how making decisions, even about fun tasks like what movie to see or where to hike, can deplete our brain. “Simply the act of choosing can cause mental fatigue,” she says. “Making choices can be difficult and taxing, and there is a personal price to choosing.”

In a study According to new research, Colin Camerar (professor of behavioral economics at Caltech and author of a study discussed in the article “Why you find it hard to pick your lunch or a Netflix show”) said the “ideal number [of choices] is probably somewhere between 8 and 15, depending on the reward, and your personality.”

When “Good Enough” is Good Enough

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, says the one strategy for dealing with too many choices is to become comfortable with the idea of “good enough.”

In coaching our daughter through making a college choice, we didn’t want her to think she has to make a “perfect” choice because according to Schwartz, a Swarthmore professor, doing so “is a recipe for misery.” If we can get past the illusion that there is a “perfect choice” and choose what is “good enough,” we will save ourselves pondering and reflection time, worry, and angst.


The next time you’re debating about what to choose, try imposing some restrictions on your choices. If you’re experiencing writer’s block, set a timer for five minutes and allow yourself to play with words. Let your pen move nonstop across the page, or let your fingers fly over the keyboard.

If you have the whole state of Washington available to hike in, try narrowing it down to a single target area, with a possible elevation gain and range that fits your ability and mood. Washington Trails Association’s Hike Finder is a great resource. I use Ajax’s ability to help me narrow down. What criteria could you use?

When I stumbled across the guideline of limiting choices to 8-15, I realized that encouraging my daughter to narrow down to a list of her top 10-12 choices was a reasonable place to start. What’s more, I realized we intuitively already know how to do this.