I have been engrossed in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. I’m enjoying learning how human beings behave when it makes absolutely no logical sense to behave that way.

My favorite nugget so far has given me a powerful new mantra. Shut the door. 

I got this from the book’s chapter titled Keeping Doors Open: Why Options Distract Us from Our Main Objective. In it Ariely describes a series of experiments he devised that involved MIT students playing a video game to earn money. The game was made up of several doors and the students were to click on the door to open it and go into the room. Once in the room they could click and earn money. Not all clicks in each room earned the same amount and they could only click 100 times total. In the first experiment students would go into each room, click around, figure out which room averaged the highest payout per click, and then spend the rest of their time in that room clicking to earn as much money as possible. Completely rational behavior.

Then the researchers added a twist and this is where it gets really interesting. They made the doors of the rooms that weren’t being used grow smaller and close if they weren’t used after 12 clicks. This made people feel like they were going to miss an opportunity. The MIT students would then spend a substantial amount of their time and clicks keeping the doors open even though they could be using those same clicks to earn money inside of the room with the highest payout. The researchers tried several ways of preventing this irrational behavior but no matter what they did these extremely bright MIT computer engineering students were still obsessed with keeping their doors i.e. options open.

The kicker is that if they had just stayed in one room, no matter which one, they would have made more money than switching from room to room.

Sound familiar?

I read this chapter and then attended a meeting for a board I’m sitting on. At the meeting I was asked to take on several projects in addition to the one I’m working on and although the projects were relevant to my experience and sounded exciting and I wanted to be helpful I had an image of a bunch of doors opening. By taking on the other projects I’d have less time to devote to the one I’m already working on plus I’d waste a lot of time switching from one task to the next. Armed with my new mantra, shut the door, I graciously said no. It felt so good!

Now I am looking for where else I can shut the doors. Realizing that the cost of having too many doors open is time, money, and emotional stress makes it easier to do.

Are you keeping too many doors open in your own life? What is it costing you to work on several projects at once rather than just focusing on one or two? How much time are you wasting switching from doing one thing to another? Is it time to shut the door?