Is Choice Always a Good Thing?

They are two men at the very top of their professions. One is the head of the one of the largest technology companies in the world and is personally valued at over $33 billion dollars. The other is the President of the United States of America. And they have one very unique thing in common – they wear the exact same thing every day. [1,2

Whatever your feelings are on Mark Zuckerberg or Barack Obama, you cannot deny their relative success or their work ethic. Each of these men is at the top of their respective fields and will likely enjoy success for many years to come.  

But why does Zuckerberg, who is worth billions of dollars, put on the exact same grey T-shirt and hoodie every day? And why does Barack Obama, who is as public of a figure as there is in America, wear the exact same suit? 


It’s a beautiful vision that many of us have had since we were children – having the perfect wedding. We get to choose the perfect destination, invite all of our family and friends, go on a honeymoon, and we get to choose all of our own presents!

But talk to any soon to be married couple about this process, and you’ll hear a different story. All of these choices seem to take a toll on their psyche to a point where they just want to get the wedding over with.  

What was once a dream coming true has turned into a nightmare of planning and fighting with one another over who should make the final guest list, which plate of chicken they should serve, and making sure they don't leave anything off the gift registry. Eventually, most engaged couples simply default to saying “what do you recommend?” to the wedding planner - ending the torture of having to make any more choices.


What is happening to these couples? They aren’t exerting themselves physically, they’re not doing anything that’s too intellectually difficult like math or physics. So why do they get so exhausted?

In order to answer this question, researchers set up several experiments to see what happens in the brain when we make choices. Could it be that simply making a choice – even with something fun like choosing your wedding gifts – could drain a person’s willpower the same way working through a challenging task would? 

The answer is a clear and resounding, YES. Researchers found that with every choice we make, whether it’s choosing the movie we want to watch or choosing a university to attend, we expend our willpower. This is because we don’t see it as merely choosing to see Guardians of the Galaxy, we see it as “killing” all other movie choices.  

And before we “kill” all other movie choices, we want to be absolutely sure that we made the right decision. So we use valuable willpower pondering the positives and negatives of all choices in front of us. [3


Of course, not all of our decisions drain our willpower to the same extent as others. In doing further testing of how willpower is depleted in people making choices, researchers found 3 major distinguishers of choice [3]:

“Fun” choices won't drain willpower - until a certain point

Some choices really are fun to make. Choosing what you’ll spend a gift card on, picking something from the dessert cart, etc. With choices like these, researchers found that participants didn’t drain any willpower until a certain point. Choosing dessert just for you is fun, but choosing 6 desserts to share with your entire party becomes a drain. 

Pondering a choice is easier than deciding

Simply thinking about a choice will drain your willpower, but not as much as if you actually have to make it. You will use up willpower thinking about whether or not to fire someone, but it will take the most willpower to make the final decision to send them packing. 

Choosing for others requires less willpower than choosing for ourselves

It also requires less willpower to make decisions for others. Since you probably will not have to live with the consequences, there is less emotional attachment to the decision and less second-guessing.


Many of us have grown up believing that having more options is always better. We believe that the more variety there is, the more likely that the “perfect choice” is going to be among them. 

Unfortunately, this process can be completely overwhelming. Because we have so many options, we feel more pressure to find the one that meets absolutely all of our criteria.

The best example of this is in the online dating world. With thousands of profiles to browse through, you would think that people would have no problem finding someone to go on a date with. But because there are so many profiles, people will jump right past someone that they may be compatible with because they feel that there is still someone "better". This is why speed dating – where choices are limited to the size of the event – leads to a 10 times higher chance of meeting someone to go on a date with. [4]

So limit your choices. Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama have a choice of any of the finest clothes in the world to wear; yet they limit their choice to the exact same thing every day. By doing this, they do not use up valuable willpower on “what should I wear today” and can use it for the far more important choices in their hectic lives. 


To get started limiting your choices, researchers have found that these 3 strategies will help you save your willpower for more important tasks.

1. Plan your meals in advance

One of the most successful ways that dieters can lose weight is by maintaining a food journal [5]. Part of the reason for this success is that writing down what you eat will also help you plan in advance. Despite our good intentions, when we're tired, stressed and craving unhealthy food it becomes extra hard to resist it. 

You can help your future self out immensely by planning what you will eat in advance. Then you can focus your willpower on simply following your plan, rather than having to make the choice as well.

2. Lay out your clothes the night before

Using the same strategy as Zuckerberg and Obama, laying out the next day's clothes the night before will help remove the choice of "what to wear" the next day. This is especially helpful if you're going to the gym in the morning.

Research has shown that those who lay out their gym clothes the night before are more likely to make it there [6]. It's just one less choice you need to make on your way to your goal. 

3. Schedule your tasks and priorities ahead of time

In order to maximize productivity, experts suggest that you have as much of your work planned ahead of time as possible [7]. If you can remove the choice of "what should I be working on right now?" You increase the willpower you will have to stay energized and focused on the task.


We all make many choices in our daily lives – what time to get out of bed, what to wear, what to eat, etc. Every one of these choices uses up valuable willpower that we can use for more productive activities. And the more options we have to choose from, the more willpower we expend.  

To avoid this, see if there are areas of your life that you can limit or eliminate choices. Some great examples are to plan your meals in advance, lay out your work or gym clothes the night before and schedule your tasks and priorities in advance. The more of these choices you can make beforehand, the more willpower you can use to eat healthy, exercise and be more productive.


  1. Lemona, Hasse. "Mark Zuckerberg Explains Why He Wears the Same T-Shirt and Hoodie Every Day." Hypebeast. N.p., 8 Nov. 2014.

  2. Baer, Drake. "Always Wear The Same Suit: Obama's Presidential Productivity Secrets." Fast Company. Work Smart, 12 Feb. 2014

  3. Vohs, Kathleen D., Roy F. Baumeister, Brandon J. Schmeichel, Jean M. Twenge, Noelle M. Nelson, and Dianne M. Tice. "Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-control: A Limited-resource Account of Decision Making, Self-regulation, and Active Initiative." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94.5 (2008): 883-98.

  4. Airely, Dan, Ali Horta¸csu, and Gunter Hitsch. "What Makes You Click: An Empirical Analysis of Online Dating∗." (2005)

  5. Hollis, Jack F., Christina M. Gullion, Victor J. Stevens, Phillip J. Brantley, Lawrence J. Appel, Jamy D. Ard, Catherine M. Champagne, Arlene Dalcin, Thomas P. Erlinger, Kristine Funk, Daniel Laferriere, Pao-Hwa Lin, Catherine M. Loria, Carmen Samuel-Hodge, William M. Vollmer, and Laura P. Svetkey. "Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial." American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35.2 (2008): 118-26

  6. Orenstein, Beth W. "10 Ways to Get Motivated for a Morning Workout." Niya Jones MD, MPH, 6 Sept. 2011

  7. Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity. New York: Viking, 2001