Don’t impulse shop. Use a system to buy the right stuff for you.
When it comes to making decisions, there are two kinds of people in the world: maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers strive to make the best decision possible, while satisficers look to make up their minds for something good enough that they can be happy with. Research has shown maximizers are more likely to make better decisions, but experience more regret and anxiety— around both the decision and the process—than satisficers.
When we buy something, especially something expensive, we all want to confirm our order or leave the store knowing we made the best decision for ourselves. If, for you, that entails buying the best things, you have to act like a maximizer. But don’t worry—this doesn’t mean it’ll be stressful or you’ll end up second guessing everything.
Here’s how to overthink—in the best of ways.
Know when to use comparison websites
Comparison and meta-review websites like The Wirecutter are fantastic resources when maximizers don’t have much of an opinion about what they’re buying and just want something that gets the job done. The site’s top pick is normally one of the more pricey options and well-suited for the hypothetical average consumer. It’s a safe bet that finds a good balance between function and price, saving you from becoming a toaster oven expert just because you want to buy one.
But, as Owen Williams at OneZero explains, that top pick can totally ignore other criteria that may matter a lot to you. I’ve never bought a top pick I truly hated, but when it comes to recommendations for stuff I know a lot about, like travel gear, coffee, and cameras, I disagree with some of the choices on these websites. When it comes to areas I’m an expert in, I want expert-level gear.
If you fit the description of an average consumer for a product, don’t over-complicate your life by putting more thought than necessary into buying it. Instead, go straight to a good comparison site and buy one of their top picks. But, if you’re looking for something better or specific, be prepared to dig deep.
Identify specific criteria
Meta-review websites push the myth that there is a single “best” product. (Every tech writer who’s ever done a roundup review, myself included, is guilty of contributing to it, too.) The reality is that there is only one best product for your needs, but that might not coincide with what’s best for my needs. So before you start searching, step back and consider what you’re really looking for.
Whenever you decide to put the time and effort into really researching a purchase, start by laying out the criteria you are going to base your decision on. Consider what you find essential, desirable, and what you absolutely want to avoid.
These are some of the things you should think about:
- Price. How much are you prepared to pay? There are serious diminishing returns at the high end of most products.
- Features. What features are dealbreakers for you? What’s absolutely required and what can you live without? Figuring out what features you need is often the easiest way to cut down a long list.
- Build and materials. What do you want it to be made of? Do you need it to be sustainably manufactured?
- Aesthetic. How does it look? Is form more important than function or does it not really matter?
- Compatibility. Does it play nice with the stuff you already own? Buying an Apple Watch makes more sense to an iPhone user than an Android one, for example.
I’m the kind of person that thinks too much about bags, and I’ve got very high standards and requirements. One of my favorite travel bags is the Cotopaxi Allpa, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t work for me—none of the compartments are big enough to carry my DSLR and lenses, which means it just doesn’t meet one of my most important criteria.
Once you’ve worked out what the perfect product for you would be, you can start to look around for products that best line up to it.
Build your own database
Especially when dealing with big purchases, it’s easy to get drawn into a constant research loop where every few weeks or months you read over the same options, reviews, and articles, and never really learn anything new. This is one of the big downsides to being a maximizer, and you can end up wasting hours of your time.
If you’re planning on buying something sizable and expensive, start your research ahead of time by creating a database on any spreadsheet app—Google Sheets, Excel or whatever works for you. Make a list of the products you find and note whether or not they meet your requirements, what you think of them, what sites recommend them, and link to any big reviews or comparisons. This way, you can stop yourself from wasting time wading through the same articles again and again.
Take reviews with a bucket of salt
It’s pretty common knowledge that there are lots of fake reviews on Amazon—unscrupulous sellers looking to give their products a boost will give free products or even pay people for glowing 5-star reviews. Amazon is trying hard to crack down on it, but it’s a difficult problem to solve.
But even genuine reviews on big sites shouldn’t be trusted entirely. Think about when a new flagship smartphone comes out. Tech reviewers get it perhaps a week before consumers so they have time to write something before the official release day. This means reviews are written by people who have spent, at most, a few days with a phone you plan spending at least a couple of years with. Yes, an expert reviewer will be able to compare it to similar offerings from other manufacturers and call out any obvious duds, but what they’re writing about are only their first impressions.
It’s the same with most reviews. So when you’re looking at one about a product you like (either good or bad), consider asking the following questions:
- How long has this person spent with the product?
- How much experience do they have with similar products?
- How extensive was their testing? Did they use it in the situations it was meant for or just play around with it in their home?
- Did they use the product the way you plan to use it?
- Are they looking for similar things in the product?
Also, if you’ve come across something with glowing reviews on Amazon, you should run it through Fakespot, a site that flags suspicious reviews. It’s not foolproof, but it will help you catch anyone who’s really trying to game the system.
Hit the buy button
Endlessly reading up on products you’re never going to buy can be fun (yes, I do want to know how fast Tesla’s Cybertruck goes from zero to 60 mph), but doing it when you need to buy something is just procrastination. The best travel bag is the one you actually get before your summer vacation, not the one sitting on an Amazon shelf while you cram all your underpants into a decrepit college backpack.
It’s easy to get to the point of diminishing returns where no amount of new information will actually make your purchase decision any easier or better. When that happens, it’s time to stop the research and make a decision. Take a lesson from the satisficers and ask yourself not whether your choice is the best possible one, but whether you can be happy with it. If it meets the criteria you laid out and has no unsurmountable downsides, smash that buy button.
And if you make a mistake, you can always return it—at least most of the time.