Too Many Options? Try Closing Some Doors



I have become increasingly aware that one of the stumbling blocks to my recovery from depression is my inability to make decisions, and my disdain for closing options. And yet closing doors is good for your sanity.

Even in writing this post, I have saved the word file in five stages, so that if the material I cut out in version one seems important later on, I can go to file A and retrieve it. The horror of losing a precious sentence in penning this thing!

My grieving over each decision–i.e. letting go of the options I didn’t pick–is precisely why I loathe grocery shopping and every other kind of shopping. Especially in America when you get to choose between eight kinds of apples: Washington local, organic, Pink Lady, Braeburn, Red Delicious, yada yada yada. I get overwhelmed. Very overwhelmed.

“What is the Pink Ladies are crispier this week than the Braeburns??? Then I’m the big loser!” And so on goes the logic all the way to the check-out line, where I keep switching lines, staring down the clerks, trying to determine which is more efficient. If each has a bagger, the process is even more complicated.

So, obviously, John Tierney’s article in the New York Times, “The Advantage of Closing a Few Doors,” taught me a few short cuts out of this torture: have Eric do the grocery shopping, and write one dang draft of this post, even if I risk losing FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER whatever material I decide to cut, because chances are if I cut it out once it shouldn’t be in the piece.

I was fascinated by his story of the Chinese general in the third century B.C., Xiang Yu, who conducted an experiment in decision-making by crushing his troops’ cooking pots and burning their ships. The logic? To motivate them and focus them on moving forward.

Recent studies in social science tell us that this general may have been on to something. According to Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at MIT and author of “Predictably Irrational,” there is wisdom in closing a few doors, even if doing so feels counter-intuitive.

Following are a few excerpts from the New York Times article that you can read in entirety by clicking here:

Most people can’t make such a painful choice, not even the students at a bastion of rationality like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Dr. Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics. In a series of experiments, hundreds of students could not bear to let their options vanish, even though it was obviously a dumb strategy (and they weren’t even asked to burn anything).

“Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss,” Dr. Ariely says. In the experiment, the price was easy to measure in lost cash. In life, the costs are less obvious — wasted time, missed opportunities. If you are afraid to drop any project at the office, you pay for it at home.

“We may work more hours at our jobs,” Dr. Ariely writes in his book, “without realizing that the childhood of our sons and daughters is slipping away. Sometimes these doors close too slowly for us to see them vanishing.”

Dr. Ariely, one of the most prolific authors in his field, does not pretend that he is above this problem himself. When he was trying to decide between job offers from M.I.T. and Stanford, he recalls, within a week or two it was clear that he and his family would be more or less equally happy in either place. But he dragged out the process for months because he became so obsessed with weighing the options.

“I’m just as workaholic and prone to errors as anyone else,” he says.. “I have way too many projects, and it would probably be better for me and the academic community if I focused my efforts. But every time I have an idea or someone offers me a chance to collaborate, I hate to give it up.”
So what can be done? One answer, Dr. Ariely said, is to develop more social checks on overbooking. He points to marriage as an example: “In marriage, we create a situation where we promise ourselves not to keep options open. We close doors and announce to others we’ve closed doors.”

Or we can just try to do it on our own. Since conducting the door experiments, Dr. Ariely says, he has made a conscious effort to cancel projects and give away his ideas to colleagues. He urges the rest of us to resign from committees, prune holiday card lists, rethink hobbies and remember the lessons of door closers like Xiang Yu.

If the general’s tactics seem too crude, Dr. Ariely recommends another role model, Rhett Butler, for his supreme moment of unpredictable rationality at the end of his marriage. Scarlett, like the rest of us, can’t bear the pain of giving up an option, but Rhett recognizes the marriage’s futility and closes the door with astonishing elan. Frankly, he doesn’t give a damn.

Originally published on Beyond Blue at

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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