Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How failing to decide between options leads to a loss of focus

There's a new book out titled Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, a behavioral economics professor at Duke. I came across this past weekend at the bookstore. Essentially, the book examines why we behave as we do.

According to Dr. Ariely:

"We have an irrational compulsion to keep doors open. It's just the way we're wired. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to close them. It's the emphatic closing of a door that gives it widespread appeal. And it should be a reminder to all of us that we have doors -- little and big ones -- which we ought to shut."

He uses a story to illustrate his point, describing a donkey who comes across two identical stacks of hay on either side of a barn. The donkey stands there, between the two stacks, unable to decide which to eat. He stands there for hours, then days. Eventually, unable to make a decision, he dies of starvation.

The author's point is this: When focusing on two similar things, we fail to "take into account the consequences of not deciding." In other words, we fail to "take into consideration the relatively minor differences that would have come with either one of the decisions."

We like keeping our options open. But, as Dr. Ariely points out:

"In every case, we give something up for those options. It's a fool's game, and one that we are remarkably adept at playing. What is it about options that is so difficult for us? Why do we feel compelled to keep as many doors open as possible, even at great expense? Why can't we simply commit to ourselves."

From a personal perspective, have you ever noticed how someone with only one option behaves? They often put all of their energy and focus into the one option they have -- they move full-force toward the one door that's open.

I remember reading a story a couple of years ago about a pro soccer player who had come from the poor town in Mexico. When asked what drove him to become such a great player he answered: "I didn't have any other options. Soccer was all I had."

In the words of Dr. Ariely from Duke:

"In running back and forth among the things that might be important, we forget to spend enough time on what really is important."