Choice kills. Okay, that's a bit dramatic. But as Bob Pozen (chairman emeritus of MFS Investment Management, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and board member of Medtronics and Nielsen) demonstrates, eliminating complexity and making choices simpler can go a long way towards keeping you focused on your strategic goals.
In a recent HBR blog piece, Pozen explains how he makes he reduces the number of choices he has to make.
On a daily basis, I try to keep the material aspects of life as simple as possible. I get up every morning around 7 a.m., shave, shower and dress by 7:15 a.m. Then I read two newspapers while having breakfast and leave around 7:30 a.m. The night before I set out what I'm going to wear. I have five winter outfits and five summer outfits to simplify my life. I get up, take a shower the same way, and sit in the same place to tie my shoes. I basically eat the same thing for breakfast every morning in the same place at our kitchen table. I'm very boring in the morning.
This is a common theme among prolific people. I've written before about the way Stephen King gets himself ready for work:
There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places.
Sheena Iyengar, Columbia University professor and author of The Art of Choosing, designed a famous study in which she demonstrated that too much choice is paralyzing: after we hit about seven items, it's too difficult for our brains to sift through the competing options. As a result, we default to the easiest choice: doing nothing. And since doing nothing at the office is usually frowned upon by your boss, the default choice usually ends up being email, instead of real work. (Incidentally, this is another reason why I'm not a big fan of the infinite to-do list: too many options makes it difficult to settle upon the things you really need to do.)
Mark Graban once wrote that
I've heard Toyota people say you want to eliminate the hundreds of LITTLE repetitive decisions so that the person involved can focus on the FEW major decisions with a fresh mind that's not fatigued from constant decision making.
You may not want to go to Pozen's extremes -- you may want to have more options in the morning than Cheerios or Life cereal -- but it's worth thinking about what you can do to reduce choice, routinize what can be routinized, and free yourself up to make complex decisions.