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The Tyranny of Too Many Good Choices
How the Paradox of Choice Drives us Crazy and What We Can Do About that.
Hello, good people! Before we get started today, I want to share that this Thursday, March 10th, at 4 pm Central, I'll be part of a live Walled Garden Podcast event with Simon Drew and Brandon Tumblin (Tumblin interviewed me for The Strong Stoic podcast a few weeks ago). This is an interview and live Q&A onthe topic, “Overcoming the Pull Toward Human Devolution.” You can sign up here: https://thewalledgarden.com/overcoming-the-pull-toward-human-devolution-with-shane-trotter
And now to today’s Stuff!
From the Ages
“Anyone not wanting to sink in the wretchedness of the finite is obliged in the most profound sense to struggle with the infinite.”
— Soren Kierkegaard
“As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, it debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”
— Barry Schwartz
Source: The Paradox of Choice
A couple of weeks ago I was granted one of those rare, precious parenting moments. The kids were both at Grandma’s and I found myself with a quiet morning all to myself. I had three hours before I needed to get the kids and I was already done with my morning routine. The possibilities seemed endless. So I reached for my Audible app to play a United States history course that I had been making my way through. But, hardly a minute in, I began to wonder:
“Should I get a bit more ahead on War and Peace instead? (we’re reading a chapter per day this year). Or should I keep reading Theodore Rex since I’ve already read the allotted chapter of War and Peace today? Or should I take some time and listen through some more of those podcasts on the war in Ukraine? Don’t I have a duty to be an informed citizen? Or should I do some IHD work? I do have a busy schedule coming up and it would be nice to get ahead. Or should I write that letter for Ace’s fifth birthday? Or should I start planning how I want to sod the front yard this spring?”
I imagine you’ve been here. Overload. Monkey mind. Decision paralysis. The paradox of choice. Whatever you want to call it, it is the defining struggle of modernity. We don’t know how to best spend our precious moments. We have infinite options and our brains don’t know how to make sense of them all. Consequently, we tend to spin our wheels and regret whatever we eventually decide upon, if we can even decide at all.
We aren’t good at having too many choices, and that is not a good thing for a world defined by infinite choice. You can be anything, live anywhere, play any sport, read any book, take on any hobby, or choose any lifestyle. We are constantly exposed to other options, many of which are actively sold to us—“Hey, join us as we read War and Peace this year”—and, in our finite lives, we only have time to actually do an infinitesimally small number of the things we think we’d like to do.
So what do you do about this…
I won’t pretend to have all the answers. But my solution to this challenge is multi-pronged. First, we have to clarify our values so we know how we want to spend our lives. Meditate on what will matter on your deathbed. How do you want to be remembered? What will you wish you spent more time on? Get perspective.
We also have to recognize the realities of our distraction-inducing world and work to shape our own environment so that we are reducing friction to the behaviors we’d like to choose and increasing friction between us and the behaviors we’d like to avoid. This includes:
Forming desirable habits: e.g. Cold plunge and then exercise each morning.
Practicing environmental design: e.g. Delete email and social media apps from phone.
Setting rules/automatic defaults for ourselves: e.g. Only check email at 10:30 am and 4:00 pm. No grabbing your phone without an explicit reason—stop and grab Kindle instead. Taking an actual sabbath where work is not allowed.
But perhaps most fundamentally, the secret to living well in the age of infinite choice is to make peace with the fact that we can’t do everything we want. We can only pick one hobby to learn right now. We will not be able to read every book. And we can’t actually give every relationship the amount of care we would like. If there is anything you can take from my frenzied attempt to optimize that morning of bonus time, it is that over-optimizing is a trap. The problem with having too many good choices is that no matter what you choose, the opportunity cost will be high. You get something wonderful—something that is likely so magical that it would have been impossible a couple centuries ago—but you also close the door to many other magical options.
Theodore Roosevelt once said that comparison was “... the thief of joy.” Modernity has a way of constantly making us compare our own state to what it could have been. This is a mental pattern that takes work to overcome. Usually, we will have many good options. It doesn’t matter what we pick. We just need to pick one and move forward without giving any energy to that pesky little voice, which is bound to second-guess us. We have to get better at applying the skills of meditation to these little moments so that we can give ourselves fully to whatever wonderful task we choose.
Thanks for reading today and sharing with your kindred spirits!
I hope you have a wonderful week!
Life is too short to be normal,