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Why Keeping Your Options Open Is A Really, Really Bad Idea

Given the choice, would you prefer to make an iron-clad, no-turning-back decision, or one you could back out of if you needed to? Does that seem like a stupid question? I understand why it might, but bear with me—because it isn't.

People overwhelmingly prefer reversible decisions to irreversible ones. They believe it's better to "keep your options open," whenever possible. They wait years before declaring a major, date someone for years before getting married, favor stores with a guaranteed return policy (think Zappos), and hire employees on a temporary basis (or use probationary periods), all in order to avoid commitments that can be difficult, or nearly impossible, to un-do.

People believe that this is the best way to ensure their own happiness and success. But people, as it turns out, are wrong.

Let's start with the happiness part. Research by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, shows that reversible, keep-your-options-open decisions reliably lead to lower levels of satisfaction than irreversible ones. In other words, we are significantly less happy with our choices when we can back out of them.

(For example, in one of Gilbert's studies, people were asked to choose an art poster that they could keep. Those who were told that they could change their mind and return it for a different poster in the next 30 days reported being less happy with their poster than those who had to pick a poster and stick with it.)

Why does keeping our options open make us less happy? Because once we make a final, no-turning-back decision, the psychological immune system kicks in. This is how psychologists like Gilbert refer to the mind's uncanny ability to make us feel good about our decisions. Once we've committed to a course of action, we stop thinking about alternatives. Or, if we do bother to think about them, we think about how lousy they are compared to our clearly superior and awesome choice.

Most of us have had to make a choice between two colleges, or job offers, or apartments. You may have had to choose which candidate to hire for a job, or which vendor your company would engage for a project. When you were making your decision, it was probably a tough one—every option had significant pros and cons. But after you made that decision, did you ever wonder how you could have even considered the now obviously inferior alternative? "Wow, I can't believe I even thought about going to Yale, when Harvard is better in every way." (That's just an example—I am neutral when it comes to Harvard vs. Yale. I went to Penn, which incidentally was way better than those schools, but I digress ... )

Human beings are particularly good at rearranging and restructuring our thoughts to create the most positive experience possible in any situation. The psychological immune system protects us, to some extent, from the negative consequences of our choices—because after all, almost every choice has a downside. The key to happiness is to dwell as little as possible on that downside.

When you keep your options open, however, you can't stop thinking about the downside—because you're still trying to figure out if you made the right choice. The psychological immune system doesn't kick in, and you're left feeling less happy about whatever choice you end up making.

This brings us to the other problem with reversible decisions—new research shows that they don't just rob you of happiness, they also lead to poorer performance.

Once again, it's because thoughts related to making the right decision stay active in your mind when your options are open. This places a rather hefty burden on your working memory, and it's distracting. When you're still deciding what you should do, you don't have the cognitive resources to devote yourself fully to what you're actually doing. Your attention wanders. And as a result, your performance suffers. (For instance, in one study, people who made a reversible decision were able to recall fewer correct answers on a subsequent task then those who made a choice they had to stick with.)

So keeping your options open leads to less happiness and success, not more. Ironically, people don't actually change their minds and revise decisions very often. We just prefer having the option to do so, and that preference is costing us.

I'm not, for the record, saying reversible decisions are never beneficial. Obviously if you have no real basis for making a good choice in the first place and you're just guessing, or if the consequences of your choice might end up killing someone, the option of a do-over is probably a good thing.

But assuming that your choice is carefully considered and you've weighed your options, you will be both happier and more successful if you make a decision, and don't look back.

To learn more about reaching your career goals, check out Heidi's new book is Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. Follow her on Twitter @hghalvorson. Her website is

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  • Spectorm75

    interesting philosophy! I respect her intellectual and professional opinion,and it goes against the grain and of what Ive been told before.  Good stuff. thanks Heidi!

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    This is doubly true when it comes to committing to something it ill take time to get. Choosing a particular marketing strategy, or set of target firms, or an ideal job, then pursuing it whole-heartedly is more likely to pay out than dabbling here and there. When drilling for oil, you don't dig a unch of ten foot deep wells and move on, you choose one or two spots and go down a mile or two. Also, your commitment to a certain outcome is noticeable to others, which can make it more likely you get it.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Time Management Coach to Authentic Leaders


  • David Molden

    Interesting article, and for some people I expect this will be the case. NLP Practitioners learn all about the OPTIONS / PROCEDURE pattern, and how this affects results. They also know that there are many other meta programs working, and an options pattern can be balanced by any number of others, such as a strong DOING or TOWARDS pattern. The problem with only looking at the options pattern is that you end up generalising, and I know many Options type of people who are very happy indeed. NLP helps you to maximise and balance your patterns, including options.

    Here's a link to our online profiling tool if you want to find out if you have an options or procedures pattern.


  • Vince Skolny

    "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." -- Rush

    Keeping your options open is circumlocution for failure to act.

  • The Philadelphia Web Design Co

    "Once we've committed to a course of action, we stop thinking about alternatives."

    Well... I have to admit... there are things I think I commit to which I really haven't committed to (or perhaps I'm still committed to them but the passion waxes and wanes)... regardless, lets not mince words... I am re-committing to my healthy change, my work-ethic change, and my socializing change. I know they won't happen quickly, and I must be as diligent in my self-love when the inevitable breakdowns occur, but there are some things I simply don't want to have not done by the time I'm too old to do them.