09/17/2013 05:58 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

Flexibility Can Be Bad for You

In many settings, people don't like to be told exactly what to do. Instead, we prize the opportunity to demonstrate our individuality. It seems obvious that we enjoy this in artistic situations. Most people over the age of 8 are not big fans of coloring books in which you have to stay inside the lines. But, it is also true in consumer settings. We like websites that allow us to customize our products to our needs and tastes.

Although we seek out this flexibility, a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Consumer Research by Liyin Jin, Szu-Chi Huang, and Ying Zhang suggests that this flexibility may actually make it harder for us to achieve our goals.

In one study, they created a loyalty program for a local yogurt shop. In order to get a free yogurt, patrons had to purchase the six most popular flavors of yogurt at the shop. One version of the loyalty card required people to purchase the flavors in a specific order. The other version allowed people to purchase the flavors in any order they wanted.

One part of this study focused on goal adoption. For this group, people were given the card, and were told that they had to come back to the store some time in the future to "activate" the card. The researchers were interested in how many people came back to activate the card. Consistent with the idea that people like flexibility, about 30 percent of people who were given the flexible card activated it, but only about 10 percent of people who were given the fixed card activated it.

A second part of this study focused on goal completion. This group was given a card that was already "activated," and they had about two months to make six purchases and redeem the card for their free yogurt. For this group, the pattern was reversed. A higher percentage of people who received the card with the fixed order completed their purchases (16 percent) than those who received the card with the flexible order (9 percent).

These percentages are small, which is to be expected for a study that uses a real-world measure. The rest of this paper used laboratory tasks to look at this effect further. One study, done at a Chinese university had people plan trips to seven European countries. Some people were given a fixed order in which to do the task, while others were allowed to choose the order in which they completed the task. After the task was described to people, they could select whether they wanted to participate in the study. After deciding whether to start the task, they were asked how difficult they thought it would be.

Those who were given the flexible task elected to perform the task about 85 percent of the time, while those given the fixed sequence elected to perform it about 66 percent of the time. This difference was related to people's perception of how difficult the task would be. Those given the flexible sequence thought the task would be easier than those who were given the fixed sequence.

Another group in this study was not asked whether they wanted to complete the study, but rather immediately began the task. For this group, those given the flexible task completed it only 53 percent of the time, while those given the fixed order completed it 72 percent of the time. These participants also rated the difficulty of the task. Interestingly, people given the fixed task actually thought it was easier than those given the flexible task.

What does all of this mean?

Sometimes, we have beliefs about the world that don't match the reality. That seems to be the case for flexibility. We want flexibility and often pursue options that will give us that flexibility. Yet, when we are actually engaged in a task, that flexibility can backfire, because it can make the task more difficult.

The reason the task gets more difficult is that when you have to choose what to do next, it adds an additional complexity to the job. Not only do you have to do whatever it is that the task requires, but you also have to make choices throughout about what to do next. When thinking about the situation in advance, you do not generally consider the costs of flexibility.

It is worth paying attention to these findings. You may find that there are goals you have adopted and then had difficulty completing, because of the inherent flexibility of the task. If so, you might consider putting together a plan in advance for the order in which you are going to take actions to achieve your goals rather than keeping all of your options open up front.