The Paradox of Choice and the dangers of perfection

As important as I believe National Save for Retirement Week is, I have to confess that after four days (five, if you count Sunday), I’m bored of it. My short attention span has dwindled. (Imagine the difficulties I’m having as I try to concentrate on writing a book for three months solid!)

Instead, I want to shift gears for a moment and talk about a subject with immediate real-life implications: the dangers of perfection.

Good vs. Perfect

While doing research for my book (Your Money: The Missing Manual), I re-read The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. The Paradox of Choice is about how we think that choice will make us happy — but it doesn’t. In fact, too much choice just might turn you into a basket case, especially if you’re a certain type of person.

Schwartz describes his research into two groups of people, Maximizers and Satisficers:

  • Maximizers are those who only accept the best. Every time they make a purchase (or do anything else, for that matter), they need to be sure they’ve made the best decision possible. When shopping for shoes, for example, a Maximizer wants to look at all of the options. She wants to compare of the prices. And even after she’s made her purchase, she worries that maybe she missed a better shoe or a better price at another store.
  • Satisficers, on the other hand, have learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, good enough often is. Satisficers have learned to settle for something other than the best. A Satisficer still has expectations and standards, but once she’s found something that meets those standards, she buys it. When shopping for shoes, a Satisficer makes do with a pair that meets her needs at a price she can afford.

Many Maximizers believe that Satisficers are comfortable with mediocrity. That’s not necessarily true. Satisficers are just as interested in quality as Maximizers — but they’re not willing to spend the extra time moving from “excellent” to “best”.

The Problem With Perfect

As you might guess, Maximizers are not as happy as Satisficers. In his research, Schwartz has found that:

  • Maximizers are more likely to regret their purchases despite the fact that they have (in theory, at least) come closer than Satisficers to making the best decision.
  • On the flip side, Satisficers generally feel more positive about their purchases. They know they’ve made a choice that met their expectations.
  • Maximizers enjoy positive events less than Satisficers, and they don’t cope as well with negative events.

Maximizing and satisficing have important implications in the world of personal finance. Researchers have found, for example, that when an employer increases the number of options for retirement savings, the likelihood that employees will actually save for retirement goes down. Similarly, you could spend a lot of time searching for the bank with the best CD rates or the mutual fund with the best returns. Soon, though, something better would come along and you’d be unhappy. For most people, it makes more sense to make a good choice and stick with it.

Maximizing in Real Life

I like to think that I’m a Satisficer (and in many ways, I am), but the reality is I’m a Maximizer. Too much choice paralyzes me. Let me give you an example I’ve been saving for months.

Last spring, I got a haircut I really liked. As we were finishing, the stylist offered to sell me some “product”. But when I saw the prices, I balked. I could walk next door to the supermarket to buy “product” for much much less. So I did. But when I got to the hair care aisle, I was greeted by this intimidating sight:

The Paradox of Choice
I count at least 49 different options in this photo (and there were more!)

And that’s just a small portion of the hair gels, creams, and mousses available to me. I spent fifteen minutes looking at all of the options (no joke) while Kris did the grocery shopping. And you know what? I still wasn’t able to pick one. I went home without any “product”, and just combed my hair with water, as I always have.

Too much choice is no choice at all. Researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that if you give a consumer a handful of options, he’s happy. He feels in control of his life. But when there are dozens of choices available, he’s all at sea. (This is one reason I’m happier picking from six dinner options at our local Italian place than 120+ options at Claim Jumper.)

Less Than Perfect

The Paradox of Choice is a fascinating book. Schwartz offers plenty of data and real-world examples (some pulled from his own life) to illustrate how too much choice actually makes us unhappy. In the end, he offers almost a dozen tips for Maximizers that would like to be a little less stressed. Among them are these:

  • Don’t sweat unimportant decisions. Did it really matter which hair gel I selected? Of course not. I should have just picked one in the first ten seconds and called it good enough.
  • Limit your options. If you’re faced with overwhelming choices, arbitrarily reduce the field. When shopping for a new bicycle, for example, restrict yourself to a certain store or a certain brand.
  • Learn to accept “good enough”. If you’re a Maximizer like me, it can be tough to make the leap to the land of Satisficing. But remember: The perfect is the enemy of the good. You’ll be happier if you accept a good option and stop looking for perfection.
  • Stick with what you know. Schwartz argues that unless you’re dissatisfied with a product, you should stick with what you always buy. Don’t be tempted by “new and improved” options. Habits make people happy. (My research shows that this last fact is true in many ways.)
  • Don’t second guess yourself. Once you’ve made a decision, stick with it. Buyer’s remorse can nag at your heart. Ignore it. Be decisive.
  • Embrace restraints. Schwartz argues that it’s possible to learn to love limitations. Limits give us boundaries. They eliminate uncertainty. When we know our boundaries, we can focus on thriving within them.

While it’s true that some choice is a good thing, too much is not. It’s easy to pick the best option from a pool of three, but it’s difficult to find the perfect choice in a pool of thirty. The truth is “perfect” is a moving target. It’s nearly impossible to hit. It’s better to make a solid decision today than a perfect decision next week.

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There are 81 comments to "The Paradox of Choice and the dangers of perfection".

  1. Chett says 22 October 2009 at 10:39

    Here is a video of Barry talking about this topic at a TED conference.

    Here is another video from Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychologist, discussing how choice affects happiness.
    Good stuff!

  2. Tristan Lee says 22 October 2009 at 10:53

    I think the reason many people are unhappy with being perfect is because they are always wondering if they are perfect or not. The truth is there is no such thing as perfection.

    One person’s perfect can be another person’s imperfect and vice versa. That’s why I liked it when you reminded us not to second guess ourselves and not to sweat the small stuff in life. This helps us become a lot more “chill” and “chill” is good.

  3. Theory says 22 October 2009 at 10:54

    I’ve stated this to my friends as, “The first 10% of your effort will give you 90% of your results.”

    So why bother going the extra mile in anything you aren’t very passionate about? Only then will the extra 10% of results be worth all the extra effort.

    And I don’t think too many of us are that passionate about hair care 😀

  4. Tyler Karaszewski says 22 October 2009 at 10:57

    I’ve found myself falling into your hair gel trap many times with different choices. Of your given tips, “limit your options” has been the most helpful for me. Simply rattle off a list of criteria that the choice you’re making *absolutely* must have. Eliminate everything that doesn’t fit all of those criteria. If there’s still more than five or so choices on the list, add more criteria.

    Generally, I’ll also allow brand loyalty to limit my choices. If I was happy with the last product I bought from company X, but need a new one, I’ll only look at the options offered by company X.

    Also, it helps to be able to determine when the difference between “best” and “good” even matters. I’m a programmer. I’m going to be picky about computers. On the other hand, I can buy pretty much any kitchen knife that looks decent and not know the difference. It’s helpful to pick your battles.

    Some decisions are extra hard though. Try ordering a custom built surfboard. There are literally an infinite number of options. How long do you want it? To the nearest inch, in sizes from 5’6″ to 11′ or so depending on what kind of board it is. How many fins? Boards come with anywhere from 1 to five. Tail shape? There are four or five commonly used one and a few more less common ones. Thickness and width are normally specified down to 1/8″. Then paint can be anything. You can literally draw a picture and bring it into the shop and say “paint it like this”. And of course, if you’re ordering a custom surfboard, it’s not hair gel, it’s something you care about, you’re obviously quite invested in surfing as a sport. You can spend weeks trying to come up with all the right numbers for this.

  5. Josh Wheeler says 22 October 2009 at 11:09

    Wow! This is one of the things I’ve been working on / thinking about personally for the past few months. It never occurred to me that there have been studies done on it.

    I’m definitely a “Maximizer” or “perfectionist”, even with purchases I make. I’m a musician and music teacher after all… it comes with the territory. However, I’ve been trying to become more of a “Saticficer”. I’m getting better. Now I can finally pick which burger I want at the drive through in a few seconds instead of sitting there until someone finally pulls up behind me!

  6. David C says 22 October 2009 at 11:10

    Wasn’t it DEVO who said “Freedom from choice is what you want, Freedom of choice is what you’ve got”?

    I have moved from being a Maximizer to a Satisficer over the last few years and my happiness has increased substantially. I do find myself over-analyzing from time to time, but not nearly as much as I used to. Sometimes good enough is good enough!

  7. E says 22 October 2009 at 11:23

    hah! I totally agree with this. I am a firm believer in “good enough”. Perfect is not worth my time.

    A friend of mine needed a new mattress. She spent days driving around, visited at least 10 stores, lay on dozens of mattresses, agonized for weeks and when she finally bought one, she wasn’t happy with it. Still she was surprised that I wouldn’t take her advice when I needed a mattress. Instead I went to 2 stores, tried maybe 5 mattresses, and bought one the same day. Still have it, and it’s still comfy. 😀

    I did the same thing with my IRA. Some people spend hours, days researching all the different funds and options available. I went to 3 websites recommended here, and picked the one I found easiest to use. I picked a fund recommended for my risk level, with minimal fees and lots of variety. I opened my IRA. My money is growing now, instead of next month or next year. Maybe it’s the wrong fund and I’ll regret it, but more likely it’s good enough for me. 😉

  8. mdp says 22 October 2009 at 11:25

    I found so much freedom in this concept when I first heard of it – I think I was a born Satisficer who’d been trained into thinking Maximizer behavior was the way you’re “supposed to” do things.

  9. Eric F. says 22 October 2009 at 11:48

    Someone should convert Schwartz research and apply to a handy handbook for post-grads. The title should be: ‘Your research won’t be concluding, there will be methodological flaws, chances are slim that it will be read by more than 5 people (including you), so stop perfecting and start writing.’

    Now, let me apply this to myself and continue working on my Masters…

  10. RMS says 22 October 2009 at 11:48

    Great article. I was a Maximizer as a kid, especially when it comes to school. Similar to David C, as I got older, the specifics become less important and as long as it is in the general ballpark, I am relatively satisfied. I think I am easier to work with because of being a Satisficer.

  11. GRC says 22 October 2009 at 12:18

    This article is excellent, and has me think about my current relationship. I am engaged to the perfect example of a Maximizer. On the other hand I am a complete Minimizer. It is incredible how well this article has helped me understand her. I hope that as time goes we get a little more in the middle of the road, as both extremes do lead to big trouble.

    Great Article..

  12. ZFarls says 22 October 2009 at 12:20

    Absolutely one of the top posts I have read in months. The fact that I purchased shoes two hours ago is creepy. I had a nice 50 dollar pair that were fine…”Should I go next door and check for more” “Should I go to amazon”?

    Im also getting a computer soon and the same situation is nagging at me, too many options. On most items I just buy whatever and go but ESPECIALLY now that its my own money that im spending and not parents, can make you become more of a maxamizer.

    Great stuff!
    Also, we will talk about where we want to eat for 2-3 hours and eventually just settle on the first one.
    Liquor store, look at every beer for 45 minutes and always get a 12 pack of the same thing.

    Great Physc there. I want to read more books like freakonomics and somthing called “Fly at noon” of sorts, anybody dive into those topics?

  13. Shane says 22 October 2009 at 12:42

    This is a nice change of pace, and something I think many of us can relate to. It’s a different perspective of “Keeping Up With The Jones'”.

    Retailers love maximizers because the maximizers always need the latest and greatest product. The satisficers are contempt with the television they bought ten years ago.

    I find that sometimes I am a maximizer, while other times I’m a satisficer. After reading this article though, my awareness of the issue has jumped, and I can work on becoming less of a maximizer, and more of a satisficer!

  14. olga says 22 October 2009 at 12:46

    I claim this is exactly why folks from less-than-developed countries are in general happier. They are satisfied. Back in USSR we had little to no choices. If you get an appartment – awesome! Likely, you live with your parents till they die. You practically never dream about a car, unless you are an “important boss”, and even then it’s some 20 years down the road. Laundry machine was an excess. Supermarket? Be happy with 3 choices of cheese, but boy, how delicious were those, nothing compares here!
    Whether it’s because of my background, or defensive/survival mechanism due to life’s troubles I had been through, I choose to be happy, spend less time dwelling over stuff, move on quickly past problems I can’t solve and jump into a ‘fire” of a problem I can, and I am surely never dreading a decision over a hair product – or even a hair cut itself. It’s just hair, it grows!

  15. Kevin M says 22 October 2009 at 12:52

    I think I’m a hybrid – a maximizer with big, infrequent purchases and a satisficer with everyday stuff. I comparison shop for hours on end (like now – I’m looking for a new, inexpensive laptop) and read tons of reviews for the former. For everyday stuff, I’m more willing to try new things or make quick decisions.

    Like Tyler, I’m pretty brand loyal (or disloyal if a brand has given me a bad experience).

    Maybe you should just ask your hair stylist what brand she recommends and buy that from a cheaper source? Or see if she recommends a “store brand” that might work as well. When it’s something we don’t fully understand or isn’t our expertise, I am willing to take a professional’s advice.

  16. Lesley says 22 October 2009 at 13:00

    I see this so much in my life… I’ve been trying to be a Satisficer for a long time now, but I’m married to a Maximizer and he DRIVES ME CRAZY every time he has a decision to make. And even afterward, because if I bought something, I do NOT spend any more time thinking about it. He, however, continues to watch sales and read up on it and of course eventually either the product we bought comes on for cheaper or something newer and better comes out, and ARGGGHHHHH!!!!!

  17. Christie says 22 October 2009 at 13:09

    I think I’ve been becoming a Satisficer for a while now. I hate to shop and the feeling I’ve been left with after doing a bunch of research and hunting down the best price is that all that work did’t really matter and I just wasted my time.

    I find that sometimes it means I end up paying more than if I had put more work into the purchase, but when I think I the time and aggravation I’ve saved, I am pretty sure I’m really ahead.

    What also works well is for me to decide what I’m going to buy before I buy it, then in the waiting period (usually the saving up time) cheaper prices come along or new information that I didn’t have to dig up will fall into my lap. I like that.

  18. Dave says 22 October 2009 at 13:14

    As a 41 year-old person one would think by now I’d have figured out what my thoughts are doing to me! I over-analyze to the point that I struggle with even simple decisions. Buyer’s remorse is common for me. Other times I expect perfection from others, and am disappointed when it doesn’t happen. It’s a behavior that really causes problems, and you’ve given me insight into something to try to understand better. I’m reminded of something a manager said to me years ago when I was working on a project. I was perfecting my work on a document & he simply stated there was no sense in polishing a turd – just call it good.

    Thanks very much for enlightening me, and for triggering the reminder to stop polishing.

  19. Dan says 22 October 2009 at 13:19

    Ya know… this advice is really good when it comes to another area of personal finance — picking mutual funds. Today’s 4&5 star funds aren’t guaranteed to be that way tomorrow, so how do we at least avoid the poor ones? Pick the ones with lowest expenses?

  20. Shara says 22 October 2009 at 14:10

    I agree with ‘Theory’ (though not exactly his numbers ;)). Hubby and I often refer to the 80% solution. The 80% solution takes 20% of the effort and is typically good enough. I have found less than this often results in sub-par results.

    I have found the alternative approaches are true in relationships as well. Satisficers are likely to take the annoying habits of their significant other in stride (if I didn’t turn a conscious blind eye to some things I would have killed my hubby a long time ago). Maximizers are more likely to be the people who won’t commit in case someone or something better comes along.

  21. Beth says 22 October 2009 at 14:17

    This reminded me of a quote I learned this summer after my husband and I were complaining about a co-worker of ours:

    “If that co-worker was a little better in this area and more like you in that area, he wouldn’t be your co-worker he would be your competition!” That really opened my eyes up to being a Satisficer not only when it comes to buying things, but how I perceive my relationships now.

  22. Rex Huston says 22 October 2009 at 14:19

    Certain companies have made a living off of the “Paradox of Choice”. In N Out Burger in Southern California for example. They offer 3 burgers: hamburger, cheeseburger, and double double. With very little offerings, they have a huge devoted fan base. It is even a hot spot for tourists. People want to come and try In N Out burger.

  23. Gary says 22 October 2009 at 14:20

    Excellent post. I’m one of those Maximizers who has had many attacks of analysis-paralysis and has walked away as a result with no action taken. I’m trying to become a Satisficer, with mixed results so far; thankfully it’s worked out OK for regular monthly investments, but I still spend way too much time planning for vacations or booking hotels etc. In the end, I’m not happy with the results. I’ll get there one day, I think.

  24. Foxie | CarsxGirl says 22 October 2009 at 14:28

    I think I fall into the “Satisficer” category, but I’m sure there are times when I’m a “Maximizer.”

    I have a few examples that really land me as a Satisficer, which I’m glad to be! One is the tote bag I recently bought, after deciding I wanted a large, neutral colored tote bag. I had my eye on one for $148 and had yet to pull the trigger, when one came along for $100. I got the $100 one and have been enjoying it ever since. (Looking forward to getting a dSLR now that I have a bag to fit it in!!)

    The second is a bunch of examples of when I buy car parts. I do research, figure out what I want, and do a quick google search to make sure I get a competitive price. There may be a better deal out there, but I don’t really care to spend all the effort to track it down! I’d rather get what I decided on and start enjoying it. 🙂

    JD, I really like all your discussions on perfect. I really do think that I’m making huge break-throughs in not being so much of a perfectionist anymore. It’s very liberating to know something is good enough, and it doesn’t have to be any better than that!

  25. Jane says 22 October 2009 at 14:37

    I really liked this article. The bit about the hair-products made me laugh.

    I think I’m a maximizer about shoes. As a result, I only have one pair apart from my sneakers that I can actually wear. The rest are all broken. I keep going to look at the shops and never buy a pair. It’s been six months now, but none ever seem quite right! 🙂

  26. Tyler@Frugally Green says 22 October 2009 at 14:47

    I think I’m somewhat of a hybrid. When I need to make a decision, I analyze every minute detail and pour over it until I feel like I’ve invested the maximum amount of time I can afford to spend for whatever the severity of the decision is.

    Then, once I make my choice, that’s that. I don’t suffer from buyer’s remorse and I don’t worry about what else might be out there that I missed out on.

    I think this comes from setting myself up with a limit for how long I’m going to spend thinking about something and using criteria to limit my choices. This all happens fairly subconsciously.

    The most important thing might just be to make sure you’re keeping the big picture in mind. How much time do you really want to spend picking out a bottle of shampoo, right?

  27. Tyler@Frugally Green says 22 October 2009 at 14:50

    @ Rex (#22)

    Funny thing about In n Out is that they actually probably have more choices than almost any other fast food place out there, they just don’t publish all the options on the menu.

    I think that’s actually the draw. You have to do your research and know the lingo in order to get something besides the basic burger.

  28. Rex Huston says 22 October 2009 at 14:56

    @Tyler 26

    Yes they do have a “secret menu” and I could see how that also adds to the draw. You feel like you belong to a exclusive club or something.

    I don’t have any statistics but I would assume that more often than not one of the three burger choices from the menu is chosen. I think people like the fact that they focus on a small number of great tasting items instead of a large number of mediocre items.

  29. Broke MBA says 22 October 2009 at 15:58

    Wow, great article. I’m not really sure what to say, but I feel like I was just sucker punched in the groin (in a good way…)

    I’ve often been paralyzed when trying to take action, because I’m obviously a maximizer. I’ve known this to be true, I just didn’t realize their was a scientific label for me. Looking forward to picking up this book.

  30. chacha1 says 22 October 2009 at 16:50

    Great post and discussion. I am 100% Satisficer now and soooo glad. Had to make a conscious change, though. And what a difference it has made, especially with job satisfaction.

    One thing that I hear a lot of complaints about is travel and vacations. Boy, people just love to bitch about their vacation nightmares! Invariably they have tried to micromanage the whole experience. Being a Satisficer in that area makes life a LOT more fun.

  31. Sara says 22 October 2009 at 17:02

    I’ve read some other reviews (and excerpts) of this book, and I think there’s a lot of truth in it. I’m definitely a maximizer. I agonize over every decision, and I know I suffer because of it. For example, I looked forward to buying a house in part because I could paint it however I wanted, but I’ve owned my house for over a year and haven’t been able to decide on paint colors (there are literally thousands of choices!), so I still have boring white walls. I still have temporary paper window shades in my bedroom because I haven’t been able to find the perfect curtains.

    But I think there are some benefits of being a maximizer. Take the example of the hair product: you couldn’t decide what to buy, so you just went home and combed your hair with water. Your indecision stopped you from making an unnecessary purchase. A lot of personal finance writers suggest using some kind of waiting period for making purchases (usually anywhere from 10 seconds to 30 days). Well, if you’re a maximizer, you’re probably going to wait a while before making any purchase, and there’s a chance that in that time, you’ll realize you don’t really need it after all.

  32. Patty - Why Not Start Now? says 22 October 2009 at 17:11

    Great topic. I’ve been a maximizer but as I’ve gotten older I’ve moved toward being a satisficer. I simply don’t want to spend so much precious time fretting over every decision. So I wonder if one’s perception of time has anything to do with it. I also wonder if personality type is involved. According to the MBTI, perceivers may agonize over coming to a conclusion, while judgers often make the quick decision and get on with it.

  33. Charlotte says 22 October 2009 at 17:20

    This is why I shop at Trader Joe’s. They are mostly all TJ’s brand that I alrady like.

    I also only shop at 3 different clothing stores. Shoes – I am loyal to Merrell.

    I love restaurants with a small menu. That also usually means the food will be well prepared.

    I have learned to be a satisficer (is that even a word ,JD? I think it should have been satisfier?) since I started my journey to a simple life.

  34. Lisa says 22 October 2009 at 17:46

    I’m so proud of the fact that I do this most of the time. Large purchases still paralyze me, but when it comes to small everyday decisions, it’s best to do SOMETHING and move on. My friends laugh when I look at something critically and say, “That is SO good enough!”. Makes me happy, like I’ve given them something to take home.

  35. Penny says 22 October 2009 at 17:47

    I have heard of the concept of ‘GEMO’, which stands for ‘Good Enough Move On’.

  36. frugalscholar says 22 October 2009 at 17:58

    I think I often use the frugal choice as default as a way to minimize choices.

    As for hair gel and other such products, check out Paula Begoun’s reviews: she finds many cheap quality products. No need to buy what the stylist is pushing.

  37. Financial Samurai says 22 October 2009 at 18:11

    I think it’s all just a matter of time if you hvae the right PROCESS.

    We will all be comfortable rich when we retire. It just takes time.


  38. Marcella says 22 October 2009 at 18:52

    Oh wow, this one really hits home for me. I’m had terrible maximizer tendancies for some big purchases in the past, that’s for sure, though the more I spend money on big items, the more I realize I need to be more of a satisficer.

    I don’t find my maximizer ways detrimental for small purchases. Don’t you think maximizer and frugal/thrifty are kind of interlinked? I always investigate and consider the best value for all of my purchases and am always happy that I have not wasted my money. As long as I’m not paralyzed by choice and regretful of my decisions because these were not perfect (I am personally not), then I’m being frugal, not a maximizer.

    When it comes to larger items I have learnt over the last few years to reign in my maximizer ways. As a student, I made very few large purchases and the first few times I was not good at making the decision quickly and realizing I was being an awful maximizer. It took me 8 months to decide what sort of bike (mountain bike or racing, then what model?) I wanted to buy. In the end I do have some regrets about my final decision on the bike. But then I did an easier job on my snowboard. I learnt to make it quicker and not have such high expectations. I certainly had to learn my lesson before I spent $500,000 on my first home – that would be some serious buyers remorse there otherwise. 🙂

    I think the trick is to remember that you will never get it 100% perfect. If there were a “perfect’ choice, then you wouldn’t have problem deciding, would you? The very idea that you need to decide between options logically leads to you the conclusion that each of these options much be of relatively equal merit, so work the 80/20 rule – get the big ticket things that add up to 80% of the things you want and forget the other 20%.

  39. Maharani says 22 October 2009 at 19:59

    Im a Satisficer and always have been. Many years ago I had a roommate who was a perfectionist-a Maximizer. She drove me nuts. It is an exceedingly irritating and timewasting trait. Her mantra was “If a job is worth doing, its worth doing WELL”. WELL-SORRY-there are multitudes of tasks that are worth doing but not worth doing WELL-just get the job done and move on. Nothing was good enough for her, she was always fussing and picking, dissatisfied, returning stuff to stores, comparison shopping and in particular an overly houseproud neat freak. I moved out in the end. Living with her taught me that there simply isnt enough time in the world to do EVERY task perfectly.

    She was a cheapskate too-I think the traits go together. She made everyone’s life miserable with her unrealistically high standards. Cleaning products were her favorite topic of conversation.

  40. seawallrunner says 22 October 2009 at 20:55

    Maximizer and Satisficer come from Gallup research. If you would like to learn what are your dominant types, look no further than here

    The book is called “StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths”

    I took the test online and discovered – some years ago – that I was a Maximizer (among other traits). A very helpful profiling book, with recommendations for careers that one can be successful in, given one’s strengths. Highly recommended reading.

  41. Jan says 22 October 2009 at 21:07

    Too many choices in life in the US. I relate this article to my nephew. He got his degree in “university”. He had so many credits-it was time to graduate. Unfortuantely, he had so few credits in one area-there was no major. He (and 500 others) simply graduated with a degree in “college” with several minors….too many choices! You can maximize yourself to indecision.

  42. Will says 22 October 2009 at 21:23

    Such paralysis has literally kept me away from buying a new car for many years. I have a 9 year old pickup truck that is great shape. Whenever I would think about replacing it, I would immediately be swamped with “should i get another truck or maybe a car this time” “I should look at all the brands, but wait this toyota has ran great but oh look lately (2005) they were having quality of paint issues” and “well toyota is kind of ugly, let’s look at other brands”. Then if you actually narrow it down some, go to the dealer and the look at the bazillion options for a given.

    Definite paralysis so I always end up, “myeh I’m happy enough with my current vehicle.”

  43. The Arabic Student says 22 October 2009 at 22:58

    This post really covers a principle that applies everywhere in life. When starting a website or a blog to make some extra money you may want to tweak the site to make it look perfect or think about what your first blog post should be about, but in reality you would get more visitors and make more money if you just chose a topic and published it. The quest to make something perfect has definitely cost people throughout history so much.

  44. Shang Lee says 22 October 2009 at 23:29

    Love this book! and I’ll take your cue and re-read this again.

  45. Charity says 22 October 2009 at 23:57

    Good stuff! I have thought a lot about this since I moved from a smallish town to a mid-sized city four years ago. In the small town I had fewer options for entertainment, so I made a point of enjoying as many of them as I could and really appreciating what was in front of me. In the city I have so many options that all seem worthwhile. So what do I do now that I live in the city? Sometimes I do fun touristy things, but mostly I’m overwhelmed by choices and I end up just sticking with what I know.

  46. Karen says 23 October 2009 at 03:53

    Interesting psychology! And true to life, also.

    My sister is a classic Maximizer and I’m a classic Sasfactioner. She researched over a year once before buying a couch, while last year I decided everything about my kitchen remodel in only 2 days (in time to take advantage of a 20% cabinet discount)!

    On the other hand, I’ve been married & divorced twice, while she’s been married >20 years to the same guy. So maybe there are advantages to being a Maximizer after all?

  47. Rob Bennett says 23 October 2009 at 05:29

    The point being made is a good one. Human inertia is a powerful force. Considering too many choices often causes us not to act at all We need to be looking for ways to overcome inertia and considering too many choices often cuts the other way.

    However, there are circumstances in which “good enough” choices cause real harm. There are two that spring to mind. I think it is worth keeping a budget. I don’t think you should become a slave to it. But I think you learn so much from knowing the numbers of your financial life that this is one case where the “perfect” choice really pays off over the “good enough” choice (no budget but a good saving rate). Another one is re the dreaded Passive Investing matter. Many view is as “good enough” to stay with a single stock allocation at all times. I’ve run the numbers and they tell me something different.

    In nine cases out of ten, it’s probably true that spending hours looking for just the perfect shoes is time that could have been better spent doing something else. But for an important presentation where you want to be confident that you are looking and feeling your best, it might make sense to get the shoe thing just right despite the fact that it takes some extra effort.


  48. Liz says 23 October 2009 at 05:38

    I tend to be a maximizer if the item is more expensive. I’ve been looking to replace our home computer and have searched for MONTHS with nothing seeming “perfect.” I think our computer will die before I make a purchase – which really isn’t ideal! (I’m struggling with the Windows / Mac thing right now.) The same thing happened when I purchased my car…Edmunds, Consumer Reports, internet searches. It took several months. I will admit that it is time consuming and a bit exhausting to be a maximizer – but I guess that is how I am programmed.

  49. Little House says 23 October 2009 at 06:11

    This is the “Keep it Simple” philosophy just reworded. I couldn’t agree with you more on the limiting of choices.Think of children (I work with them daily, so this is an easy analogy for me,and the first thing that popped into my head). If you give a child too many choices, they become baffled and can’t make a decision. If you limit it to two or three at the most, they easily choose one and move on.

    thanks for the post!

  50. sandy says 23 October 2009 at 06:57

    Whe my husband and I were first married we lived in Germany for 3 years (on the economy, not military). In stores, even big stores, thre were only a few choices offered on almost every product line, foods, cosmetics,pet, etc… I found my favorites of each after a while, and as a result, shopping took only a few minutes per week.
    I remember when I returned stateside for a vacation after 1 1/2 years of being away, and went shopping at a normal American store. I was shocked! I remember standing in the cereal aisle, absolutely dumbfounded…how on earth can someone make up their minds, I thought. 100’s of items available. I found it ridiculous. You could spend hours just deciding on an item that will have very little impact on your life, other than the fact that it has just taken away an hour or so of your life.
    We live stateside now, and I know exactly the items I want and that my family likes, and I try really hard to get in and out of each and every store I go to. Life decisions are hard enough…cereal decisions shouldn’t be so tough!

  51. elena says 23 October 2009 at 07:10

    Thanks for the almost full week on retirement. I needed a chance to think about what to do the rest of the year and start planning for next.

  52. Kandace says 23 October 2009 at 07:44

    I find I am a maximizer in the kitchen. I am always “tweaking” or experimenting recipes to see if I can make it taste better. Sometimes it works, but not always. It drives my husband crazy. According to him, if the recipe is good, it should be left alone.

  53. Tracy says 23 October 2009 at 07:44

    I know exactly what Sandy is talking about! While in Germany shopping was easy and there were only a few products to fit each need, and they were all decent-good. Here in the states, there are 50+ types of everything you could ever want. I end up in the toilet paper aisle and have no clue what to buy because I can’t remember out of all of the brands what I like most. I do know there have been times when I did discover I liked a certain brand above the others, but I can’t remember which one. I just grab whatever is closest and cheapest. Sad.

  54. HaloBlu says 23 October 2009 at 07:55

    Very insightful. I’m an all-out Maximizer, but it works for me because I do the research, I make my choice, and I’m done. After that, I know the best brand for that item, so, as time passes, I don’t have to do as much research.

  55. Oleg Mokhov says 23 October 2009 at 08:09

    Hey J.D.,

    When presented with too many choices, we don’t make one at all.

    Great tips for just choosing something and being done with it. I find the focusing on only the important stuff to be ridiculously useful. It’s 80-20’ing it: focus on the 20% of things and choices that’ll bring you 80% results, then ruthlessly ignore the rest.

    I’d like to add to the list:

    Before choosing (or even looking at) something, write out your requirements first. What characteristics or functions the item has to fulfill, or how the opportunity has to benefit you.

    Only THEN go out and look for stuff. Immediately filter things to your requirements. Choice is greatly reduced right away, so you’re only looking at a few choices while not even being tempted by the rest.

    It’s like shopping online and reducing results by the filters on the sidebar.

    Thanks for the reminder about the importance of REDUCING choice rather than getting more of it,

    PS. I read a story on the reason Jimmy John’s succeeded so quickly is because of the lack of choice. Just one size and one type of bread (eliminating choices there) and only a large handful of different sandwich types.

  56. bethh says 23 October 2009 at 08:13

    I agree with the person who linked this to our Myers-Briggs personality types. I always come out very strong on the Judging end of the judging-perceiving scale, and decision-making is easy for me (and I am so grateful). It makes me crazy to be around someone who needs to spend a long time deciding, but at least I can try to remember it is an inborn trait (for many) – it’s not being done JUST to annoy me.

    I noticed that when I shopped with a friend who was a BIG-TIME maximizer (ditherer, from my possibly self-righteous judging perspective), I would often buy a lot more than I would ordinarily. I think I was trying to model decisive behavior, but it cost me a lot of money!

    Looking at it from a Myers-Briggs perspsective, I have a lot of discomfort in the pre-decision time frame, and so I try to make it as short as possible (just decide and move on). Perceivers really need a long decision-making time frame. I think it’s possible to recognize and modify our behaviors, but I don’t know fully we can change our spots.

  57. ctreit says 23 October 2009 at 09:37

    Traditional economic theory has us believe that we always make the best choice. And we are kind of conditioned to think that we have to make the best choice. But we really make the second best choice (which also comes from economic theory). That second best choice is the one that is good enough. Why bother getting the best one if our requirements are already met when we make any choice? Sometimes it is not even worth it to gather the required information to make the best choice – whatever that means anyway.

  58. JimmyV says 23 October 2009 at 09:45

    I have been reading “Simplicity Marketing” which covers exactly this topic, called ‘overchoice’ in marketing lingo. It is eye-opening.

    I suppose I am a maximizer, but since I bring time into the equation, I often make choices like a satisficer. That is, I appreciate that more time will probably lead to a better result, but usually I say, “Good enough, now I’m going to play on my Wii.”

  59. DC Portland says 23 October 2009 at 09:45

    JD – I just LOVE the fact that you cover psychological concepts in your blog. I spent a semester with Barry Schwartz last year during my graduate program in positive psychology at Penn. His ideas and research-supported conclusions about the over-abundance of choice in our society have real staying power. In these days when the book of the month loses its punch in say..a month, the real substantive books like Paradox of Choice are very rare indeed.

    For anyone interested in pursuing Schwartz’ ideas at a deeper level, I recommend checking out his website for some of his more radical essays regarding choice, over-consumption, super-Capitalism, and the importance of social capital. Ultimately, Schwartz, like others working in the positive psychology realm, is simply trying to discover ways of increasing human well-being. I can tell you from personal experience that he truly cares about making the world a better place for all.

  60. Amy says 23 October 2009 at 11:20

    Funny that you mentioned taking too long to pick a bicycle. I’m having a terrible time replacing the one I agonized over buying last year that was hit by a car two months ago. It’s gotten so bad I wonder if I should just ride the broken bike I loved, at risk! I figure if I’m replacing it anyway, it better be ‘better’ than the last one in all aspects.

    All this time waiting for insurance money led me to too many choices and the inability to just order what I want online (bikes must be bought in bike shops due to distributor rules, but bike shops may not stock anything you want) plus the choices on Craigslist and ebay complicating it all….well, I haven’t been on a bike in two months. Argh.

  61. Brad says 23 October 2009 at 12:32

    I work with a Maximizer that drives me nuts on “my” purchases. We bought a LCD TV a while back and he still shows me every place the TV is on sale for less than I bought it AND how if I had waited, I could have gotten this NEW feature on the newer model . . . I did my research and bought the best tv at the price I was willing to pay.

  62. Will says 23 October 2009 at 16:18

    Heh, Brad, that’s funny because I’ve been through similar things. One related if slightly off topic, once I was going to Wal Mart with some friends and I knew one of them was a “drive around until you find a really close spot person” and the other was a “just park fast wherever it is” and I knew I would get yelled at whichever option I took, and I did 😉

  63. Aleks says 23 October 2009 at 16:45

    I guess I’m a satisficer, but I prefer to think of myself as a min/maxer. Spend enough to get quality but stay below the level of diminishing returns. When I was buying a new computer, there was an obvious point where the increased performance was far less than the increased cost. A 3GHz processor was $250 while a 2.5GHz was only $100. The videocard I picked was $20 more than the next lower model and half the price of the next one up.

    I did the same thing buying a car–I bought a two-year old Toyota Yaris because it is a good, reliable car and most of what I’d be paying for beyond that is stuff I don’t need. I could’ve saved money getting an older car or a different brand, but it likely would’ve required more repairs.

    Where I really min/max is on household stuff. I don’t buy anything kind-of-good, it’s either really good or really cheap. So I have one really good knife and a set of crappy ones I got free for sitting through a vaccuum sales pitch. I have a Henkels cheese slicer and a second-hand bread knife. My bed cost some major money but my couch was free.

    I don’t really think of it as sticking with what’s good enough, because I fully intend to get an HDTV, a new couch, a set of Henkels knives…. Just not yet.

  64. JoeTaxpayer says 23 October 2009 at 19:08

    In hindsight, this is what happened when I bought my first car (in my 40’s, I had company cars until then.)
    Three people I trust all happened to have the same car. I’d ridden in it, and driven it. Decided to buy one. Never looked at another or drove another. Googled a bit, them made a few phone calls, took the best price, drove to the dealer and bought it. The idea of spending weekends going from one dealer to another just didn’t appeal to me. 40K miles later and I had two complaints/oversights. My favorite coffee mug is too big for the holder. Got a new mug. Car doesn’t take a roof rack. I take Jane’s car to Home Depot when I need big things, her car has one as original equipment.
    Too much choice is right.

  65. David/Yourfinances101 says 23 October 2009 at 20:00

    Unless its life-threatening, I try not to spend too much time on decisions at all. Go with your gut reaction, and live with it and try to learn from it if need be.

    But you’re also right–too much choice usually sends me home with nothing

  66. S says 24 October 2009 at 13:47

    Second on Paula Begoun and her Cosmetic Cop website – excellent reviews!

  67. Holly says 24 October 2009 at 17:37

    I am a true maximizer, which drives my husband crazy. I have him re-paint rooms, return mattresses, and give him grief over every purchase. Sad thing is that I like being one, and I enjoy having bragging rights about how I found the BEST deal. I guess it’s time I ‘got a life’. LOL

  68. Kelly says 25 October 2009 at 15:23

    Long time reader…first time blogger.

    I’m in the throes of undergoing a financial transformation and reading this article made me really happy that I’m learning self control.

    I recently had to purchase a new pair of glasses, which is a horrendous experience – you try 50 pairs on and still can’t decide which pair enlarges your eyes while creating a perfect jawline (yes, I’m a maximiser).

    However, to control the urge to shop around, I allowed myself one (1) shop to buy glasses from, thereby limiting a) the amount of hassle I was going to experience and b) getting sight back quicker.

    I’m not sure it was the greatest lesson – I still bought practically the most expensive pair in the shop – but at least it wasn’t the most expensive pair in the most expensive store in town.

  69. mikey says 25 October 2009 at 22:19

    haircut? stylist? product? i shaved my head for medical school. no haircut for 4 years.

    i maximize as well by doing the most with stuff i already have on hand and i don’t but stuff unless i really need it. i hunt for deals too but i also factor in transportation cost, quality and reliability. cutting corners can help but when you are cutting corners at the expense of usability and practicality….you need to re-evaluate if what you are doing is really helping you out.

  70. CrankyOtter says 26 October 2009 at 14:44

    I’m reading this book right now! I am also a maximizer, growing up with “if you can’t do the best possible job, why bother?” While I believe you need to take extra care with tiling and other things that are hard to fix and easy to notice mistakes, I’ve purposefully tried the “satisficing” strategy of “done is better” with “any choice is better than no choice” situations and found that it helps a lot, especially at work or with investing in retirement funds.

    The concepts from the book even helped me pick a halloween costume that served perfectly well! I already knew that a primary form my procrastination takes is indecisiveness – but I’m usually only indecisive when facing limitless choice. Give me three options and I’ll pick one immediately. I too have spent goodly chunks of time reading labels for hair products, and any number of other interchangable things. It’s actually embarrassing to think of that time wasted on a a solution that was not so much unimortant, but where WHICH solution was unimportant.

  71. Laetitia in Australia says 26 October 2009 at 19:19

    I think I’m overall a satisficer. I’m definitely one on the less expensive items (shoes) but I can be a maximiser on the expensive items (computers). But then I’ll turn satisficer on cars.

    I think what it stems from is that I hate shopping so, for example if I’m after a pair of shoes, I’ll go for the first pair that meets my requirements (including budget). Then if they serve me well I’ll try to get the same type when they eventually wear out (works for my steel-capped shoes).

    I will do some basic comparison shopping by calling a few places to ask if they sell the shoe and how much they sell it for. Generally I won’t call more than about 3 shops including the people I bought them from the last time (my “control” price).

    As for computers, because they are pricey and change quickly, I’ll look for things that can be modified later (e.g. more RAM can be added). I dither a bit because if I’m going to fork out at least $1,000 I want to make sure I get a decent quality product that’s going to last several years. Now I just ask my computer savy mother (a maximiser) to do the looking for me. 🙂

    With our last car purchase I had the good fortune of working for 21 months for an organisation with pool cars that I had to drive for work purposes. This meant that I was test driving cars in the general size we’d be looking at and at the same time earning the dough to pay for one. It also meant that I could cross off the list some otherwise very good cars that didn’t meet certain criteria (like a full size spare tyre).

  72. Monique Rio says 27 October 2009 at 06:56

    Perfect is the enemy of the Good.
    Good is the enemy of the Great.

    These seemt to be opposite ideas, but really they’re both about avoiding paralysis. In this post, people are paralyzed by choice. Perfect is the enemy of the Good.

    In other situations, it’s better to do a great job than it is to do a good job, but good will get you by. Getting your degree is a good example. You can do the minimum to pass your classes or you can do an excellent job, get to know your professors, explore research options in your field, etc. It’s easy and tempting to be good enough, but being great is some much more worthwhile.


    Re: Stick with what you know, I both agree and disagree. I agree if you’re changing for the saking of maximizing your experience. I disagree if it’s out of laziness. The world is constantly changing. It’s much better to get used to change when there’s little at stake; it makes bigger changes that much easier to accept.

  73. Matt@Self Improvement Resources says 27 October 2009 at 16:28

    I know a few Maximizers in my life. And Boy… they often turn ME into a basket case!

    MAKE A DECISION PLEASE! Sometimes just the stress of going back and forth and the health problems that it will cause outweigh making a bad decision.

    No matter what, you will lose some, and you will win some. But you have to play the game.

  74. Student H says 28 October 2009 at 09:29

    Oh, man, I totally believe this!

    I experienced this myself once. I love shoes and normally, I love shopping for shoes. I found a pair of shoes that I really liked at a store once. Turns out, there was a good deal if you bought a second pair of shoes! I stressed out so much because I couldn’t find the perfect second pair. That’s when I realized that too many choices are just that…too many! I didn’t need the second pair! I should’ve just bought the one pair that I LOVED and forgot about the “deal.”

    Also, whenever I pick something out that I like and someone asks me, “Are you SURE that’s the one you want?” it irritates me. I start to second-guess myself. The tried and true and first instinct are usually the best. 🙂

  75. SJT says 29 October 2009 at 12:29

    This was a good article…but was it the best? I think I might want to look at some others for comparison and see if there isn’t something better out there to really help me deal with this problem of maximizing. After I’ve read a dozen or so I’ll get back to you : )

  76. Sebastian says 02 November 2009 at 02:26

    A good criteria for buying is the price tag. If I have too many options I see if the least expensive is not good enough. Very often it is and I am happy with my purchase.

  77. Kelly says 02 November 2009 at 16:35

    Limiting your options is the easiest by far…

    If you’re looking for some limiters for hair products, try cruelty free products (check the labels) or lower toxin products (via

  78. Marco says 03 November 2009 at 08:38

    I took so much time writing this perfect comment, I’ll probably regret it.

  79. Elizabeth Kaylene says 05 November 2009 at 10:27

    Every time my boyfriend and I go out to eat, I know what I want within seconds. Mike, on the other hand, has to pore over the whole menu, and once he thinks he’s made a decision, he changes his mind again! It’s always amusing, but I’m wondering if he’s a closet Maximizer! 😀

  80. Pas B says 05 November 2009 at 10:28

    Do the authors have anything to say about tiered choices? E.g. in the bicycle example, first choosing a shop (from presumably a manageable set of shops within reasonable distance). Deciding which shop seems both knowledgeable and helpful/personable. Then constraining further choice by shopping exclusively at that shop. This strikes me as a good way to get satisfaction in both service and product. Multiple choices, but each one fairly simple.

    It also strikes me as related to how good sales and service people justify their jobs. Someone who is knowledgeable, stocks a good/appropriate selection, and informs and steers you with regard to your individual needs. And NOT manipulating you into purchasing what they happen to have on hand that perhaps some clueless purchasing manager selected on the basis of lowest inventory cost and/or profit maximization.

  81. Andre says 05 November 2009 at 19:46

    Funny thing, I am a maximizer in “big” purchases, and spend lots of time in research. I usually do the right choices, for the lowest price, in the right time (usually tecnological stuff: gadgets, pc, etc). The fact that the price is always getting down in that kind of stuff helps to take your time analysing all options. I am happier with the purchase because I’ve invested time in it, and not just because it was a better purchase, but also because I’ve waited for it (kinda like christmas). Having an “excuse” to wait is sometimes fun. I’m getting more out of one purchase.

    I do see that it can be a problem for everyday purchases, but fortunately I don’t think too much about them.

    I do use, for pretty much everything in my life the rule to do the least to get the most (that is satisfatory). Maximizing AND having fun, as long as it doesn’t have a negative impact in personal relatioships, is a good thing!

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