Paradox of Choice: The Psychology of Modern-Day Overwhelm

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Freedom is the central American value. In fact, well beyond that, it is the central value of any great society. What is a democracy but a government in which people choose who rules? What are laws but a protection of your right to speak your mind, your right to own property and possessions, your right to move freely from one place to another, to engage in activities that bring you pleasure, and so forth?

With any meaningful freedom comes choice. By living in a society that does not compel you to do much of anything (other than pay taxes and follow a few regulations here and there) you are therefore compelled to make choices. Lots of choices.

What will you eat? How will you dress? What will you watch or listen to? What brand of toothpaste will you use? Do you need to upgrade your smartphone? Which budget travel site to book that trip through? Will you drink wine or water or beer or soda or seltzer or a cocktail with dinner? What school to tour first for your toddler? Should you buy a few shares of this or that stock?

It’s all a little overwhelming. Or a lot overwhelming, actually.

Being Overwhelmed Is Not Just a Modern Problem

Yes, our phones and our Amazon Echoes and our smart fridges and our emails and texts and our crowd-sourced data-assisted GPS navigation systems and all do bombard us with information in ways our forebears could scarcely imagine, both in type and scale. But feeling intruded upon by external forces and feeling the need to constantly engage with information, with media – these are age-old phenomena, not new realities.

Witness writing attributed to the Ancient Roman playwright Plautus in which he rails against the placement of sundials throughout Roman towns, saying: “Confound him … who in this place set up a sundial, to cut and hack my days so wretchedly into small portions!” The lengthy diatribe laments the control these timekeeping devices exert on lives because they can force people to keep to a recognized schedule.

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Or read the opening couplet of T.S. Eliot’s short poem “The Boston Evening Transcript” in which he describes readers of that newspaper as “sway[ing] in the wind like a field of ripe corn,” transfixed by a chance to read the latest news, much like today one can become glued to his or her phone, swiping idly away for hours on end.

Long story short, it’s a long story, this human sentiment of being pulled in too many directions, assailed by too many external sources of input, and left feeling under pressure, overwhelmed, and stressed out. 

Modern-Day Overwhelm Is Real

Just because you’re not the first person to feel overwhelmed (and won’t be the last) does not mean that your feelings and emotions are not 100% valid – in fact, they are all the more valid given that so many fellow human beings have felt and do feel the same as you. And being as your time on earth is here and now, it is indeed our modern-day factors that are assailing you. Plautus had the sundials to worry about, you have calendar reminders and Zoom meetings and voicemails and errands and a cluttered closet and so on. 

And indeed, the modern world (AKA the present) does present us not only with more information than ever before, but with more choices that must be made in the course of any given day, any given year, and in the greater context of one’s life.

On any given day, you may start the day staring at a closet so filled with clothes you can hardly decide what to wear. You may find yourself in a grocery store pondering which of a dozen varieties of pre-shredded cheese to buy, with 25 options for boxed pasta noodles, with scores of cereal brands on display, and so forth. You might find yourself wondering if dinner should be home cooked, take out, order in, or dine out. Or you may be looking forward to whiling away a bit of your evening only to find yourself torn between streaming a show from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, and so on. There’s a reason TV just doesn’t have those “Who shot J.R.” or Fonzie jumping the shark moments anymore, those shows that everyone was watching: people today have much more choice.

Then, bigger picture, whereas a few centuries ago job opportunities may have included blacksmith, fisherman, farmer, or tanner, today you can be a marine biologist, graphic designer, social worker, history teacher, music producer, restaurateur, and on it goes.

music producer
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You’d think having a larger wardrobe would make choosing your outfit easier, that a vast selection of foodstuffs would mean a constant variety of meals, that having more shows to watch would make leisure time more relaxing, and that having all sorts of career avenues available would make it easy to find a job you love, but in practice, we know that’s just not the case.

Identifying the Threshold for Overwhelm and Taking Back Control

We have established that having too much choice is a bad thing, not a good thing. But when is that too much choice threshold reached? The answer is of course different for everyone – there is no universally perfect number of pairs of shoes to own or number of streaming platform options – so it will be on you to establish your own choice threshold as you seek to settle your life down some.

The first thing to do is change the way you acquire new things. Consider applying the 10-10-10 rule to your life, wherein you pause and consider how a given purchase (or a life choice, for that matter) will make you feel in 10 minutes, in 10 months, and in 10 years. If you can’t justify the buy (or choice) against each of those future times, don’t proceed.

Next, it’s time for a careful accounting of what you already have. Take a look at some of the stuff in your life, stuff meaning physical objects like garments or kitchen gadgets or tech hardware, and also things like streaming service subscriptions, and ask yourself if these things bring you any actual joy, or at least actual utilitarian function. If the answer is no on both fronts, then said thing should go.

Finally, you need to establish boundaries for yourself. You need to decide what level of access you are OK with your workplace having to you and then make it clear to colleagues what those boundaries are – if you’re not contractually obligated to answer work emails on the weekend and you hate doing so, then stop. And tell others, respectfully, of your choice. If you have long stayed in touch with someone despite feeling the relationship to be toxic, end it. The brief emotional sting now will heal and will leave you with more bandwidth for yourself and others later. 

ending toxic relationship
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And if you just never seem to find time for the things you really want to do, change your priorities. Your mental and emotional wellbeing are important, so demote that errand or follow-up call or what have you and have yourself a break doing something you’ll enjoy without any feeling of guilt about so doing.

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