How Can I Turn Big, Complex Decisions Into Binary Decisions, Just Like the Cool Kids? Decision Binarization In Action: A Real Life Example

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series The First World Problem is Choice

So, one time, I had to make an appointment with the vet, for my cats, to get special shots for them so I could take them overseas, by plane, and thus have them hang out with me…overseas, as one does, and then also safely and expeditiously return to Japan.

Now, I had ten choices for an appointment time.

No…wait, that’s not what it was. It was a massage place. I think. They actually come over to your house and do, like, sports massage (roll with it) and…anyway, yeah, I had, like, ten options. And too many commas.

  1. 16:30 Today
  2. 17:30 Today
  3. 18:30 Today
  4. 19:30 Today
  5. 20:30 Today
  6. 21:30 Today
  7. 22:30 Today
  8. 23:30 Today
  9. 24:30 Today/Tomorrow
  10. 25:30 Today/Tomorrow

As you can see, my evening was wide open. And I kind of wanted to keep it that way; I didn’t want to pick a time that I might end up hating. Plus, what if some of my friends wanted to hang out suddenly? So what was I to do? It was a classic Barry Schwartz, more-is-less situation — so many choices, so much abundance, so much freedom, so much goodness that it actually makes you feel, well, bad, right?


All decisions are binary. And all the decisions that aren’t binary can be made binary. Here’s how I did it:

  1. I realized that what I had was a sequence of binary decisions to make. So I did a “reverse” binary fission — a weird, binary fusion-fission mix (there’s probably already a name for this and I just don’t know it; if you know, please tell me, so I can actually learn something for once!).
  2. First I chose between
    1. option 1: timeslots #1~#5 and
    2. option 2: timeslots #6~#10.
  3. I picked option 1: timeslots #1~#5
  4. Then, since that left an odd number of choices — five — I simply picked the middle one, #3.
  5. End of story.

Choosing between ten options thus turned into choosing between only two options, two or three times in a row. The same would have applied even if I had started with a number of choices that is a power of two (and were thus always dealing with an even number of choices). So, sixteen options turns into two options of eight, turns into two options of four, turns into two options period.

Eleven options is odd, so it’s a straightforward “pick the middle” (#6) situation.

Put more generally, then, when faced with dozens of choices, you simply group them up (fusion) and then start choosing between increasingly smaller groups (fission) until you’re down to your one choice. In so doing, you keep your fish in a barrel, that you may shoot them then and there; you don’t let them out all over the lake. I imagine this process could even work when making biggish life choices, like what city to live in next. The group you keep probably contains your true top favorite. Will your results always be perfect? No, but they were never going to be anyway ;) . It’s more important to make decisions well than it is to make good decisions; you can always re-decide — even tattoos can be surgically removed — but you can’t unwaste your time and energy, the very stuff of life itself.

Have you ever had a dream where you had fun, but you also wished you had acted crazier in it instead of spending three quarters of the dream time picking cereal and/or tortilla chips in the supermarket? I literally have dreams like that all the time. In a way, real life is that dream (yeah…it just got weird in here; I’m getting Matrixy on you; don’t be shy — you know you love it). You’re weighing options instead of living them. You’re picking books instead of reading them. You’re picking movies instead of watching them. You’re thinking about girls instead of making out with them. You’re reading game reviews instead of playing them. That doesn’t seem like it’s how life is supposed to work.

Motivationwise, if I were to overanalyze it, I’d say that I probably have some kind of guilt-driven need to weigh every choice in detail just because I have the choice. Does that make sense? There’s this feeling that the fact that I have an option means I must do “due diligence” on it, in order to find out whether or not it’s the best, otherwise I’d be wasting a “perfectly good” option; I’d be “missing out” and/or “messing up” somehow. It’s sort of like sampling every single kind of ice-cream at an ice-cream parlour just because they say you can. Yeah, you sucked up all the “value” you could, but so what? You just get all full and don’t really enjoy yourself. 1

This kind of trying-to-be-optimal “choice hoarding” actually turns out to be the most suboptimal thing you could possibly do; it produces the most fatigue and the least happiness. If you really want to be happy, it seems like the trick is to throw out some of your choices ASAP. Take them out of the Reeves-Hopper equation (there’s a Sandra Bullock joke in there for the diligent). Kind of like how if you really want to live happy, you don’t fill your house with stuff even if you have tons of space.

Binary decision-making — decision binarization — gives you the feeling of having considered a choice, and thus exercised your freedom to the fullest, without the temporally and cognitively wasteful burden of actually running through a full mental simulation for it. It is absurd to attempt to actually weigh every choice you have, just as it would be absurd to even consider opening every page that Google sends you back in search results; as it is, you probably don’t even open all of the first ten. So apply some googolic wisdom to your real life and stop overthinking everything — because you can’t and even if you could, it would not be a good thing. Remember, there will be a next time; you will get another shot. This is not a movie; in real life, the chances keep coming, and when they go, new ones fire right on up and take their place. Make your “best bad” decision now and run with it.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed that decision binarization is really just a highly specific form of satisficing: “Aiming to achieve only satisfactory results because the satisfactory position is…hassle-free, and secure, whereas aiming for the best-achievable result would call for costs, effort…”. A satisficing algorithm, if you will.

In the end, then, Barry Schwartz and I are pretty much on the same page…I’ve never actually read his work in detail, though. My impression, unsullied by actual research, is that he wants choices reduced for us by default? I like to be the one doing the reduction, though. There’s a world of difference between being forced to live healthily and choosing to do so. It’s only discipline if you choose to do it, anything else is just oppression. Like, I choose what English words to use, but I don’t want English to actually have fewer words just because some apparatchik decided so. I choose what to buy; I don’t want there to actually be fewer options period *cough* rhymes with Bamazon Banada *cough*. Having said that, I’d appreciate less crud out of the box on Android phones and Windows computers; imitate Apple’s core genius, not just its surfaces.

P.S: The massage itself was really good. Massage, for me, is always one of those things I fuss about whether or not to get beforehand (latent miserliness — it feels so decadent), but never regret after the fact. I mean, there was that one time in 2006/2007 where the guy was, like, cuh-lueless — almost as bad as a massage chair…no, worse: it was like being bullied by a legally registered bullier – but other than that every single time has been super good. As a matter of fact…


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  1. The big butter popcorn at the movie theater concession stand (WTF are they conceding?!) may be only a dollar extra, but there’s so much of it that no longer even feels good, so you’re simply paying an extra dollar for the dubious privilege of feeling bloated and greasy. Nice one.

  4 comments for “How Can I Turn Big, Complex Decisions Into Binary Decisions, Just Like the Cool Kids? Decision Binarization In Action: A Real Life Example

  1. Anita
    October 7, 2014 at 10:02

    I feel the same way! I just don’t like having too many options, cause I spend 99% of the time choosing and after that I’m actually bored to do what I chose to do!

  2. 魔法少女☆かなたんが勝負をしかけてきた!
    October 10, 2014 at 15:08

    A new post! I am happy~
    Barry Schwartz’s book is worth reading, though it might be a little dry for some people, so just watch the videos if you want a summary.

  3. 雷撃
    October 10, 2014 at 19:11

    “Having said that, I’d appreciate less crud out of the box on Android phones and Windows computers; imitate Apple’s core genius, not just its surfaces.”

    Wow really…. no. That’s like stealing an orange, calling it an apple and pretend the orange wasn’t an orange before the apple ever existed…

    Other than that though, spot on.

    • Nate
      October 12, 2014 at 14:08

      I think you missed the point there, bud.

      Good to have you back btw, Khatz.

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