Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The paradox of choice

with 6 comments

McDonald's Menu

If there’s one argument that this blog has made from the very beginning, it’s the importance of constraints in the creative process. An artist who doesn’t impose any limitations on his work usually finds himself paralyzed by the range of freedoms at his disposal: when you can write about anything, you often end up writing about nothing. Every project begins with an arbitrary choice—of premise, of theme, of style—that might be no better or worse than any number of other alternatives, and equally arbitrary decisions are made at every stage of the game. Constraints are a way of controlling our universe of choices, and if this facilitates the creative process, it isn’t hard to understand why. They force us to find ingenious ways of circumventing the rules; they turn an undefined problem into a particular puzzle to solve; they give us a path to follow, rather than a blank map that could take us in any direction and winds up leading nowhere. It’s possible, even inevitable, that there are better answers than the ones we’ve chosen in our first random stabs at making a pattern. But we’re unlikely to find them unless we lay down that initial, haphazard set of conditions.

This is all common sense—at least after you’ve tackled a creative problem for any amount of time. But there’s another, more subtle factor at play. When psychologists talk about the paradox of choice, they begin with the perfectly accurate premise that a variety of choices is a good thing. To take an example from the work of Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, if a store offers fifty styles of jeans rather than two, it increases the odds that shoppers will find a pair they like. Similarly, if you multiply your range of choices as a writer, you’re objectively more likely to find a solution that works. In theory, anyway. What really matters, though, isn’t the richness of options at your disposal, but your comfort with the process of making choices itself. As Schwartz writes:

More [choice] requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out. When the number of available options is small, these costs are negligible, but the costs grow with the number of options. Eventually, each new option makes us feel worse off than we did before.

Without a doubt, having more options enables us, most of the time, to achieve better objective outcomes. Again, having fifty styles of jeans as opposed to two increases the likelihood that customers will find a pair that fits. But the subjective outcome may be that shoppers will feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied.

Women's jeans

Similarly, restaurant menu engineers have found that more than seven options per category leave customers feeling overwhelmed and confused. And while writing a novel might not seem to have much in common with ordering lunch or trying on a pair of jeans, the same principle applies. When you have two or three creative options, the outcome may not be any better than when you have fifty alternatives: indeed, we should expect that it will be objectively worse. But that matters less, in the long run, than how we feel about the choice we’ve made. If we’re happy with it—even if it’s the wrong one—we’re more likely to move on to the next decision; if we’re dissatisfied—even if it was relatively strong—we’ll worry and fret about it, which consumes energy that would be better used in pushing forward. And you see this in writing all the time. When an author refuses to continue to the next paragraph until the one he’s writing is “perfect,” what he’s really saying is that he wants to go through all the options at hand until he arrives at the best of the lot. The result may well be a glittering string of sentences. But for most writers, it’s exhausting, and it’s an attitude that can lead to a year of work with only a handful of fragments to show for it. A writer who prudently restricts his choices will at least have a finished manuscript. It may not be perfect, but it exists.

In that light, constraints look less like a way of enabling creativity than like a strategy for managing the author’s emotions, allowing him to see the project through to the end. And we shouldn’t minimize how important this is. Taken in the aggregate, the choices that a writer makes are absolutely critical—a work of art is nothing more than the sum of the artist’s decisions—but any particular choice probably isn’t. A writer soon learns that any given decision he makes, whether on the level of the word, the paragraph, or the scene, isn’t likely to remain in its original form for long: it’s revised, rethought, or cut as the overall draft evolves. The number of sentences that survive unchanged from first pass to last is minimal or nonexistent. This reduces the significance of any single choice, while drastically raising the importance of the process of making choices in general. What counts, in the end, is that the writer continues to make choices, including ones that affect the ones he’s made before, until the work as a whole has been adequately shaped. Maintaining that level of focus and commitment over the period of time required by any meaningful project demands a considerable amount of psychological self-care. A few judicious constraints may or may not result in better work. But they’re likely to keep you happy.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2015 at 9:53 am

6 Responses

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  1. I really enjoyed this post. I find unlimited choices often overwhelming and feeling overwhelmed shuts me down. Creating small goals, rules and parameters makes a creative project less daunting.


    April 27, 2015 at 2:50 pm

  2. I have an extremely difficult time making choices, even with simple things like what to have for breakfast or what T-shirt am I going to wear today. It gets even more difficult when I enter into the realm of more important things like “what I want to write about,” “what career path I want to follow,” and/or “whether or not I should ask someone out,” More often than not I can’t decide and just end up doing nothing. (ie: watching netflix for hours.) I see other people, however,who seem to just have it all figured out and are able to race through the choices of their day/year/life with ease and I think they must have something I don’t. Your blog has given me some insight! I’m going to have to check out more of your writings!


    April 27, 2015 at 2:53 pm

  3. Great points. I feel like I only have so many choices of any category I can handle in a day. So, if I want to have anything left over for my writing, I need to limit the other ones as much as possible.

    I haven’t quite gone over to wearing the same thing every day like you hear about some creative types doing, but that way of thinking appeals to me. Ritualizing the unimportant choices to leave room for the creative ones seems about right.


    April 29, 2015 at 7:05 pm

  4. @cajanisz: Absolutely—smarter minds than mine have come to much the same conclusion. (I’ve pretty much started wearing the same outfit every day, although I’m also mindful of the fact that this can turn into an affectation in itself.)


    April 29, 2015 at 9:45 pm

  5. @domingosaurus: Glad you liked it! As cajanisz points out above, sometimes the hardest part is figuring out which choices—if any—really matter, and prioritizing those while making the rest as easy as possible.


    April 29, 2015 at 9:47 pm

  6. @marialberg: Thanks! Figuring out how to make choices more efficiently—or at least less painfully—might be the most important thing any writer ever learns.


    April 29, 2015 at 9:48 pm

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