Productivity, Creativity and Focus: The Paradox of Choice and how to deal with it.

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
4 min read
door number 3?

The Paradox of Choice

We live like kids in a candy store. We have access to all the information of recorded history at our fingertips. Its the akashic records made real. We can listen to any song ever recorded or read any surviving book ever written. We can take free courses in any subject from world class universities and instructors. We have cheap tools to write, record, produce video, publish, share, and promote. Barriers to entry and traditional gatekeepers are gone.

Now what?

A world with too many options can be paralyzing. We can end up like Buridan’s Ass.

Buridan’s Ass describes a paradox regarding free will. It refers to a hypothetical situation where a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. We assume the ass will always go to whichever is closer. It dies of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make up its mind between the hay and water.

Limitless possibilities are paralyzing. More is less. Less is more.

We can experience the vertigo of limitless possibilities.
More is less.

We want to do it all. And end up getting little done. We are in the enviable, and challenging, predicament of having to choose what to leave out. We need to develop focus.


She advises Odysseus to plug his men’s ears with wax so that no man is tempted to steer the ship off course. Circe also said that so long as his men are able to ignore his pleading, Odysseus can tie himself to the mast and listen to the Sirens’ sweet songs.

Focus is really about eliminating all the really interesting and compelling things we could do so we can focus on the one priority that is most important to us. All the other super attractive pursuits are debilitating distractions in disguise. They are like the sirens call in the Odyssey. They are beautiful and seductively interesting; and will dilute and destroy our ability to get things done.

I’m not talking about the easy things to identify as time-wasters like TV and booze. I’m talking about virtuous pursuits that are appealing but no less distractive.

If we have big plans and dreams, we can’t afford to squander time.

Steve Jobs knew

Eeny Meeny Miny Moe

Too many choices make us like deer in headlights. We end up endlessly analyzing pros and cons; paralysis by analysis. There is an interesting premise related by Perkins of Kleiner (the two name partners of the VC firm) Kleiner said that

If the choice between two options is very difficult, then the choice doesn’t much matter

I have pondered this a lot and I think what he means is that if it looks like a difficult choice, that means the pros and cons are very similar and so either option is as good as the other. The poor decision in this instance is no decision.

We have to figure out what’s important (This is no small task) then have the discipline to leave out things in order to concentrate on the really important stuff. This takes relentless and vigilant discipline.

Its a high class problem, but a serious one nonetheless.

We need to impose constraints on ourselves. Limitations mean freedom; freedom for creativity and productivity. Constraints are the foundation of focus. We can do our best work with the right constraints.

Constraints impose discipline. Too much investment capital can ruin a startup. Too much food makes us fat and diabetic. Too much of a good thing is, well, too much. We tend to get profligate with too many resources at our disposal. Conspicuous consumption overtakes Spartan discipline and we end up making poor decisions and wasting time. Time is our most precious asset.

Don’t make excuses. Make something today with what you have available and revel in tight constraints. Write a poem on your lunch-break. Paint a monochromatic painting. Sing a song into your smartphone. Write something on your computer (or, better, with a pen and paper). Just do it.

Do it wrong. Just do it.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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