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  • 05.27.11

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

People believe that keeping your options open is the best way to ensure happiness and success. But people, as it turns out, are wrong.

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.

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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 … )

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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.

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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 www.heidigranthalvorson.com.

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