The Agency of No Choice

By Marshall Goldsmith

Many of us have ways to make our lives more efficient. If we like to work out in the mornings before going to the office (at home or elsewhere), we might pack our gym bag the night before. We might do something similar if we like to exercise at lunch or on the way home from the office: We have our bag ready to go so we save time, stop having to think about it, to save any regret that we forgot to pull ourselves together to do something we might like or need. 

There are people who know which subway car leads most quickly to the exit at their destination, so they choose that car — which eliminates having to deal with the crowd or even searching for the way out. 

Likewise, there are people who have a certain way of organizing their various daily routines or rituals to make the most out of them without having to put too much effort into organizing them every single day — this eliminates having to think about them and allows these folks to concentrate on other, more important matters. 

I do something along the same line. Whenever possible, I avoid making choices. If you were to look into my closet at home, you’d find a rack of more than fifty green polo shirts. On another rack, you’d see twenty-seven identical pairs of khaki pants. On the floor would be a half dozen pairs of brown leather loafers, in variable conditions, depending on how long I’ve been wearing them. 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

People who know me, know that this is how I roll, so to speak: recognizable to others, and a way of not having to think about what to wear for me. This amuses some of my clients. Some years ago, I had three Bell South executives as my houseguests. I gave them a tour of my home, including my closet. When they saw the row of identical khakis, I heard one executive say to the others, “Thank goodness! I thought he only owned one pair of pants!” 

My business uniform isn’t exactly runway-ready for the current era. Think aeronautical engineer circa 1976: Green polo shirt, khaki pants, and loafers. I consciously adopted the look after a writer for The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar, noted that this outfit was all she saw me wear during the time she was profiling me for the magazine. Soon clients who read the piece expressed disappointment if I didn’t show up in a green polo shirt and khaki pants. So I obliged them. 

Eventually, I realized that my uniform was an act of liberation. Every time I packed my bag for a business trip, which could be three or four times a week, I didn’t have to agonize about what to wear. No matter the meeting or audience, it was always green polos and khakis—one more decision I didn’t have to deal with. 

In my small world of C-suite executives and HR professionals, it gradually became my signature, not unlike (pardon the hubris of the comparison) Tiger Woods wearing a red shirt and dark pants on Sunday in the final round of a golf tournament. But unlike Tiger, it wasn’t a branding exercise for me. It was, instead, one small instance of awarding myself the freedom of no choice. 

I say “no choice,” but it’s really an organized choice. Over time, the avoidance of choice — at least those small choices that don’t matter to me — has become one of my highest priorities. I pretty much agree to make time for any stranger who makes the effort to reach out to meet me, telling myself, “It won’t make me dumber.” 

When I need a new assistant, I hire the first well-qualified interviewee. When I’m at a restaurant, I ask my waiter, “What would you choose?” This has the added benefit of eliminating Buyer’s Remorse. You can’t regret a decision you weren’t tasked with making.

This isn’t sloth or indecisiveness. It’s a conscious practice of dodging any nonessential choice in order to save my brain cells for the consequential decisions that occasionally arise in a day, such as agreeing to the eighteen-month commitment of taking on a new coaching client. 

Some people love making choices—CEOs, film directors, and interior designers come to mind. They enjoy the power of giving a thumbs-up or -down to an acquisition, or the length of an actor’s hair, or the specific shade of gray wall paint. I don’t. Perhaps you don’t either. 

Yet extensive research shows that the process of making a choice probably represents the biggest expenditure of your mental energy each day—and it leads to depletion, which can ultimately lead to bad decisions. 

From the benign choice of what to have for breakfast, to the snap decision of answering or ignoring a ringing phone, to the time-consuming, often nerve-rattling process of researching, test driving, and haggling with sales managers in order to buy your next automobile — they all add up to an existence that is dominated by our choices.

If I asked you to keep a log of all the choices you made in a day (starting, of course, with the decision to accept or decline this request, and then your choice of paper, pad, notebook, or digital device to record the log, and then the ink color in the pen, if, in fact, you chose a pen over pencil over smart- phone . . . you see where I’m going with this?), how many choices would you estimate you make in a day? 

I’m a choice-avoiding extremist, and I stopped counting for my one-day log when I hit three hundred before 4 p.m.

To live any life, you have to make choices. 

To achieve an earned life, you have to make choices with an expanded sense of scale, discipline, and sacrifice. 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

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