The Paradox of Choice

Have you ever decided to buy an item on Amazon but then became frozen by the total number of choices out there – and left the site without buying anything?

Me too. In fact, I have done this countless times. Who can pick from 150 different white curtains? Or 300 different red toothbrushes?

Life is full of choices – good and bad, big and small.

Scientists say we literally make thousands of decisions every day, even though many of them are unconscious. I know that if I had to consciously think through each and every one of those decisions, I would be exhausted all the time.

I am happy my brain automatically makes lots of decisions for me. It saves brain energy and keeps me from being overwhelmed every minute of every day.

And while having choices in life is a good thing, I would make the argument that too many choices can be a bad thing – just as having NO choices can also be bad.

You see, the key to almost everything is life is moderation. See The Key To (Almost) Everything in Life: Practicing Moderation here. But moderation is no longer celebrated in American culture.

Things were not always this way. In the book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz makes the point that my grandparents’ generation was not faced with quite the barrage of choices that I face. For example, if their washing machine stopped working and they needed a new one, they simply went down to their local store and picked from the two or three models available. Then they took it home and didn’t give that choice another thought.

It is common today for shoppers to do hours, days, even weeks of research before purchasing a new appliance (me included). And even that does not guarantee that buyer’s remorse will not follow the purchase. The fear of missing out, or FOBO, is often joked about, but is also a real thing.

What if I had bought the model that was self-cleaning? And what if the third review was right and this model has plastic gears that will wear out?

Regret is a powerful thing, and in this world of perpetual data and reviews, I might never figure out which model is truly the best. That sets me up for the uncertainty that leads to the regret.

However, I recently bought the audio version of The Paradox of Choice and listened to it all the way through in my car while traveling. Then I started at the beginning and listened to the whole thing again.

After this, I came to understand many of the reasons why I was so stressed and impatient. My brain was simply working too hard to sort out the choices in my life.

We are all fairly smart when it comes to self care these days. Like everyone else, I read and research the latest information on how to be aware and happy. I know to cut off the electronics.  I only engage social media in the pursuit of passing on useful information. I get quiet time and meditation into my schedule almost daily.

I but I never knew I needed to put a wall between myself and so many decisions.

Before you ask, yes, this can be done.

First, just being aware that so many choices are out there (and stressing me) helps me get a handle on the situation.

Second, I put as many things on autopilot as possible. For example, I have created a rotating dinner menu. I simply repeat the same recipes in the same order, and occasionally add in a new one for variety.  Also, like many others out there, I have created a sort of “uniform” for work by purchasing multiples of the same shirt and pants and wearing the same outfit every day. I have a warm weather outfit and a cool weather outfit. (Sometimes I shake that up a bit, but I can always revert to the uniform on days I prefer to be on autopilot.)

Third, I limit the amount of time I search for an item I want to buy. At the end of that time, I make a decision based on the information I have at that point. This is completely liberating! I recommend this method to everyone!

Fourth, I made a commitment not to expend energy on making unimportant decisions. Does it really matter what flavor of ice cream I buy?

Fifth, I dedicate a few minutes each day to meditation. I started slow with two or three minutes per day and worked up to 10. My goal is 30 minutes per day. Some people manage to incorporate even more.

Life is much simpler than most people make it. This was a great place to start for me. Maybe it will be for you too.

Angela Christian PopeAngela Christian Pope is a teacher, author and creator of Happiosity.org. Check out more on Twitter and Facebook.