Too Many Choices

About 30 minutes ago, I started to get hungry – slight stomach cramping, vague lightheadedness, lack of concentration. I glanced at the clock: 11:50 am. Then I peeked out the window and there it was. The food truck. It had arrived a few minutes early, and my body was grateful.

I don’t always spend Fridays working at my co-working studio 35 minutes from home, but when I do, I take advantage of Food Truck Fridays. I think the thing I love most about eating from food trucks is simple: they require very few choices. Usually, there’s only one truck sitting outside the door. So, I “choose” that one to make my purchase. Food trucks themselves, out of necessity, are light on options, but since I follow a vegan diet, the choices get even slimmer. Today, when I saw L Kora sitting outside, I knew I would have a vegan burrito or taco or tostada. But really, there was pretty much only once choice since every option would have the same beans, rice, lettuce, tomatoes, and hot sauce. So, I ordered a burrito, and in five minutes, I was back at my workstation, reading and eating at the same time.

I’ve never been one to labor too long over choices, though I still have a lot to learn about the psychology of choice and how too many choices actually leaves us feeling stressed out and unhappy. Theoretically, it seems like more choice would make us more happy. When I first became a stepmom and the boys asked for a snack, I’d list at least 10 items we had in the house. “Let’s see, you could have pretzels, pickles, peanuts, chips, Cheezits, apples, bananas, a piece of turkey, a slice of cheese, or some pudding,” I’d offer. The response was inevitable.

“None of that sounds good,” they would say.

Then, I’d wrack my brain trying to come up with more options, thinking that if they had more to choose from something would sound good. But it never happened.

“If we’re rational, [social scientists] tell us, added options can only make us better off as a society,” says American psychologist and professor of social theory Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice.“ This view is logically compelling, but empirically it isn’t true.” Stuart Jeffries talks about Schwartz’s theories in a recent article for The Guardian. From supermarket choices to pension plans to dating partners to blue jeans and more, Jeffries builds the case for how “increased choice, then, can make us miserable because of regret, self-blame and opportunity costs. Worse, increased choice has created a new problem: the escalation in expectations.”

Just like I now offer fewer snack options to the boys, I also find that eating at home seems preferable to at least one of the boys, where the predetermined meal plan makes dinner easier than a menu full of options. I’ve done something similar in my closet. Recently, I bagged up almost all my clothes, including some I had just worn and many I hadn’t worn in years. I cleaned out the plastic tubs in the basement, the extra shelves in my husband’s closet, my five dresser drawers, and the old-fashioned armoire where I store my hang up clothes. Now, everything I own for every season and every occasion fits neatly in the small wardrobe and five drawers. I can still mix and match, and I have garments for church, client meetings, and dinners out as well as casual work at home and exercise clothes. But my options are significantly reduced. So easy!

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In “The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle: 6 Formulas for More Output and Less Overwhelm,” Tim Ferris of The 4-Hour Workweek fame summarizes it this way:

“Too many choices = less or no productivity”
“Too many choices = less or no appreciation”
“Too many choices = sense of overwhelm”

Ferris offers several suggestions for minimizing choice. I’ll choose just a couple here:

1 . “Learn to make non-fatal or reversible decisions as quickly as possible.” Ferris sets the following limits to help him make decisions more quickly: “time limits (I won’t consider options for more than 20 minutes), option limits (I’ll consider no more than 3 options), or finance thresholds (Example: If it costs less than $100 [or the potential damage is less than $100], I’ll let a virtual assistant make the judgment call or consider no more than 3 options).”

2. “Don’t provoke deliberation before you can take action.” He uses the example of reading work email on Saturday morning when you aren’t planning to work again until Monday morning. Once you’ve read the email, now you have to choose whether or not you will respond to it. As well, even if you choose to wait until Monday, now you will be thinking about that project all weekend.

3. “Don’t strive for variation—and thus increase option consideration—when it’s not needed. Routine enables innovation where it’s most valuable.” Create a uniform for yourself or eat the same thing for lunch every day if you have to. But find ways to not only reduce options but eliminate choice. “Don’t confuse what should be results-driven with routine (e.g. exercise) with something enjoyment-driven that benefits from variation (e.g. recreation),” Ferris says.

The real chore, now, is to take all of this empirical and experiential evidence and apply it to my writing life. I become paralyzed by the choices before me: so many book possibilities, so many journals and magazines to send my work to, so many social media options for engaging with readers and other writers, so many workshops I could attend or lead. There is some value to exploring options for my work, but I now know that too many options can lead to negative effects to me personally.

For me, the way forward needs to look something like a vegan burrito on Food Truck Friday. As long as I don’t forget the hot sauce.

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What about you? Do too many choices leave you feeling dissatisfied and unproductive? Especially for your writing life, reducing options, automating solutions, and setting limits can help you find your productivity sweet spot and enjoy the work you are doing, too.

Let’s make this simple. Download my Sweet Guide to Simplifying Choices and find your way toward a more satisfying life today.

Photo by cwgoodroe, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.


  • Jean Wise ,

    What an interesting exploration of how overwhelming choice is in our life. Love the links and quotes you provided. very thought provoking too. Thanks for a well written post. One of the best I’ve read this week

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      Charity Singleton Craig ,

      Thanks, Jean. Have you found success in limiting choices in some areas of your life? I’d love to hear about that.

      Have a great weekend.