Dealing with Choice

Though I didn’t study psychology or neuroscience directly in college, the matter of how our brains work has always been something of great interest. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the workshop that I led for our office last month on how we decide took a decidedly psychological slant and has led to me becoming an info-glutton on the subject. Don’t be surprised when it arises again in the future.

One of the books that I used as a reference for the workshop was The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. It’s not an incredibly long read at 223 pages, but I found it to be an interesting reflection on the impact of the abundance of choice available to us.

The first two portions of the book, ‘When We Choose’ & ‘How We Choose’, we the ones that I actually used in the workshop. They reference some interesting results of studies that have been done involving small versus large choice sets which reflect that the larger the number of options the harder it is to choose.

You may think that is a ‘duh’ sort of statement, but when you take a moment to look at how we live our lives it can been seen how this isn’t reflected. If you’ve bought a car recently or had to pick a college you know what I mean. For an even more common choice consider lunch hour at work. Almost every day I hear my co-workers debate the merits of various restaurants. Even in our fairly small community there are more than 30 different choices of which they have 5 or so they frequent yet every day it is a process to decide.

That section also covers the difference between ‘pickers’ who just grab & hope and ‘choosers’ who think through the alternatives of their choice. From within the second group there are also ‘maximizers’ who must search out the absolute best of every alternative and the ‘satisficers’ who settle for what is good enough based on their criteria and don’t worry that there might be better.

The bit that really caught my attention and drew me to write a post tonight is actually from the very end of the book. The very last section, which is only 16 pages long, ask the question what to do about choice and the very first point includes this statement:

“To manage the problem of excessive choice, we must decide which choices in our lives really matter and focus our time and energy there, letting other opportunities pass us by.”

When I read that it really struck home with me as it’s something I have been trying to work on in my life over the last few years. In every time management class out there it seems they use the analogy of the big rocks and the sand. If you fill your life with sand and pebbles, the big things never get done, but you have to know what your big rocks are.

Some of our big rocks are intrinsic to who we are as people and easy to identify. For me family and faith are givens. I come from one of those strange families who actually like each other and talk to each other at least a few times a week if not more. We willingly and without compunction added each other on Facebook. My faith has always been a big rock in my life, so much so that I’m not even fully aware of how it impacts my daily life and choices.

I learned the hard way a few years ago that my mental health requires artistic and social involvement, but what does that look like? Community theatre? Taking a painting class? Joining a book club? The options are wide and varied and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day or week for them all. So we have to choose. We have to learn when to say yes and that it’s ok to say no – even to good causes. After all, how much good can you do when you don’t have time to do?

So, as the quote says, we must choose those things which are most important to use and run all those other choices through that filter. It sounds simple to type, but don’t be deceived. It’s not, but living without doing it is harder.

Going back to the book, it’s a really great read. The middle section I skipped is all about regret, the impact of choice on independence vs. community, how the way we deal with it affects our mental well being and the problem of comparisons. I got my copy from the library but you can also find it on Amazon and at other fine book retailers.


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