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Limiting Choice for Better Decision Making and Productivity

By | 3 comments

Thought Police

Ever had one of those days where you wake up and your task list looks a little something like this?

Home Task List

This isn't actually that bad.

Kind of makes it difficult to get things going, doesn’t it?

No matter how many anti-procrastination tips and tricks you know, or how much mental discipline or self-control you have, when you’re faced with too many projects and tasks on your plate, it’s hard to tell what’s important, and what you’re supposed to be working on next.

When we’re overwhelmed with options, we experience analysis-paralysis – the feeling that we’re overwhelmed and unable to act. This is why it’s often important to limit the choices we’re able to make. And no, I’m not referring to the establishment of the Orwellian thought police, but rather a self-imposed limitation of choices in what we allow ourselves to do next.

The closer you can get to having to make a decision between your next action being one specific task, or doing nothing at all, the easier it is to do that one thing. This is not to say that choices are bad – as an example, creative procrastination can be extremely useful at times – but when we only have one thing to focus on, we pretty much know if we’re being productive (by doing it), or making excuses (by not).

Choice Psychology

I’m sure some of you have heard of Sheena Iyenagar’s jam experiment. It goes a little something like this:

A research assistant sets out different samples of jam at a stall in a supermarket. One stall has 6 choices of jam, the other has 24 choices. They then track the purchase behavior of those shoppers, and whether they end up buying jam or not in their final grocery basket. Iyenagar found that those that visited the table with the smaller sampling (6 choices) were far more likely to buy jam than those who didn’t.

What does this tell us? Well, it tells us that consumers (i.e., people) make decisions easier when faced with fewer choices. In the case of the jam experiment, it provided a consumer behaviour model for companies to limit the number of choices available to consumers on say a supermarket shelf. In the case of productivity, it tells us that by limiting the number of tasks immediately available to us, we are more likely to take action on one of those tasks (in “purchasing” the task as we would jam).

As with all things, there are variations from person-to-person and this is not to be taken to the extreme. Some people work better when given options, and some people work better with restricted options – it’s up to you to find out which you are. But everyone who has a busy and overflowing task list can definitely benefit from restricting what is immediately available to them.

If you’ve read our OmniFocus series, you may remember that I mentioned the $25,000 piece of advice that Ivy Lee gave to Charles Schwab: write down the six most important things you have to do, and start at number one. In essence, what Lee was recommending was a limitation of choice – start with one action, and don’t progress to anything else until that action is complete.

Practically Limiting Choice

So now we come to the how – how do we limit choice when we have dozens if not hundreds of things to get done? We do what Ivy Lee did: pick 6 things (we actually recommend 3), and start and number one. Then keep going. Once number 3 is done, pick another 3 things.

Here are some other ways to limit choice:

  • Do not multitask. Multitasking kills your productivity, no matter which way you look at it. It also distracts you from the focus and concentration you need to effectively complete tasks, especially ones you don’t want to do.
  • Time tracking. If you’re time tracking properly, you’re only measuring one task at a time, and therefore only have one timer running at a time. If you can only do one thing during that timeslot, well, you either do it or you don’t!
  • Clear to Neutral. This may seem contradictory to most productivity advice, but if you are overwhelmed with dozens of small 1-2 minute tasks, try clearing away all of them first, before you start on your most important tasks. Essentially, you are limiting choice by removing options (by getting them done). This frees up the mental energy you need to focus on important tasks.
  • Change your Environment. If you are someone who works from home, you will be all-too-familiar with the effect that having options does to your work. As you sit there working away, you see things and wonder – is it time for lunch, should I play PS3 for an hour, is it time to go check my mail and so on. If you shift to say an office environment, you’ll find that those distractions are reduced – the only choices you have left are to work on what you’ve got in front of you, or well, not work. The environmental pressure of seeing others around you hard at work is usually enough to make you focus on what you need to get done. (Note: if you do work from home, you can achieve this same effect by working from a coffee shop – you’ll feel really silly surfing Facebook when you know you should be getting things done).

Next Actions

  • Read AE Thanh’s article on Clearing to Neutral if you haven’t yet – this is the hidden first step that most people miss when limiting choice.
  • Look at your task list and pick 3 things – start at the first, and don’t do anything else until you’ve completed it. Rinse and repeat.

Photos by exquisitur and mccready.

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Posted by Peter Keen  | October 4, 2012 at 5:53PM | Reply

Good article guys.
I agree whole heartedly. It can be a nightmare when you have over 100 tasks on your to do list. The simple process of just getting a clean piece of paper and writing 3 main tasks really targets your focus.
As a huge procrastinator I find this one of the best methods of getting things done – that is if I don’t procrastinate about doing it!!


Posted by Thanh Pham  | October 4, 2012 at 10:09PM

Yeah paralysis by analysis is a common problem and this would help with that. Thanks for stopping by Peter!

Posted by Timo Kiander  | September 9, 2011 at 1:39PM | Reply


I agree. The less choices there are, the more productive we get.

I think that this is something we ask ourselves on a daily basis: how can I improve my current processes and systems and streamline them even further.


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