Decision Fatigue pt.3 Too Many Choices!

We are on the 2nd reason (3rd in the series) for Decision Fatigue

Too many choices.

In my first post on this topic, I mentioned an incident with my sister, Betty. We were meeting up for dinner and a visit. When I got there, she handed me a stack of 2-fer coupons for a bunch of different restaurants. We spent most of our visit deciding on finding a place to eat that had food at a discount, and that would also work for three people. We were nearly at an arguing phase by the time we picked a place.

The visit was disappointing and so was the meal.

Too many choices.

This might just seem like just a trivial one-off incident, but it wasn’t. It happened frequently and was a major hinderance in the two of us having a great relationship. My sister needed to have lots of things to choose from before making any decision. In turn, anything that needed both of us to decide on together, to forever to accomplish.

Making a choice can be hard enough without adding the need for “more” into the mix.

So, why do we have this need for so many choices? For me, there are a few reasons that come to mind.

It can be a luxurious feeling to have a lot of choices. Having a variety of choices can give us a sense of wealth, in that we can slow down and dream about the possible outcome of each choice. It pulls us out of the day to day monotony that we’re struggling with at the present time.

Let’s look at that feeling of luxury. In the situation with my sister, the shear volume of coupons of varying restaurants ended up being so much mental clutter. We had to sort them by type: Chinese food, pizza, fast food, diner style, French, Indian; the list went on. Then we had to check to see if these coupons were still valid; as these were choices that had to be routinely maintained, but weren’t. Next we had to check the food offerings, to see if two of us could agree on getting the same meal within the coupon parameters. Then we had to make sure that restaurant had the best “deal.” It was not a luxurious feeling in the end. We ended up with an extremely restricted food menu, that took away the fun of the visit and the spontaneity of trying something new, together.

If we had been able to relax, talk about what was going on in our lives, seek opinions and inspiration during our visit, that would have felt luxurious!

Fear of missing out or FOMO. We don’t want to be left behind. We feel like if we keep looking for the next, best thing, we will find it.  The perfect solution is just around the next corner and I will miss out on it if I stop now! We will have everything we need to solve this issue, if we can only have more choices.

Anything that starts with the word fear, is probably not going to be a good thing. FOMO will have you always looking at the future, and not mindfully enjoying where you are now. It leaves you wondering if something better is out there and comparing yourself to others. You then, in turn, think that your own life is somehow “wrong” or “lacking,” because you are different, or have less.  You aren’t!

FOMO also removes you from the decision you were trying to make in the first place. It just adds more of that darn mental clutter that exhausts you and prevents you from moving forward. Believe it or not, you already have what you need to make most decisions. More choices does not mean more opportunity. In reality, most additional choices are just more of what you already have, just packaged differently.

Having multiple choices gives us more control over our life. We feel like having just one choice means that we have no control over a situation. When we have more options, then we have control.

But does having more choices really give you more control in your life? The answer is no. Simplifying is what gives you real control. I believe there is a tipping point between enough choices and too much; where we fall into that state of being overwhelmed. When we have to look at option after option, numbness feeling settles in. I know when I have too much input, I don’t think, I zone out. Now imagine each decision having choice after choice after choice. No wonder decision fatigue sets in.

I’m not saying that having choices isn’t good, but I think we need to be selective. In the last post, we talked about reducing the day to day decisions helps combat fatigue. The same is true for our choices.

So, we’ve covered some reasons why choices are interesting but also problematic. How do we decide (oh gosh, another choice!) if we need more or less input when we have to make a decision? I simply ask myself a few pointed questions (Questioning is the bomb, btw, when you want to breakaway from being stuck).

Which decisions are important enough to require multiple choices? For me personally, I may want a few more choices for singular decisions such as health, financial, political, living arrangements, home repair, religious, and family decisions.  These are macro decisions in my mind, that help me plan major moves that impact my life. I also might include micro things once in awhile, like reading and hobbies because those are fun choices for me. Spending my time thinking on those things, puts me in a happy place.

What decisions do I make that need less choices? In this area, I look for the more day to day basics such as clothing, food, house cleaning, music, TV programs, beauty routine., and so on. It’s not that I don’t care about these choices, I do. But I trust myself to know what I like and what I don’t like; what works and what doesn’t. I have a clothing uniform of sorts that fits most of the tasks I do in a day. It’s comfortable, practical, but also upgradable if I’m going out to meet with friends.

Another example are daily meals. When I was growing up, we had a general plan for weekly meals. We might have chicken one night, hamburger the next, and so on. Sunday night Dad would use the leftovers and make a hamburger/spaghetti dinner, and Mom made garlic bread. It was predictable, but in a good way. Friday night was my Mom’s night off from cooking, and we would get takeout at a favorite Chinese restaurant.  Dad played in a bowling league that night and he also wasn’t fond of Chinese food. It was a win-win for all of us. We had consistency most of the time, but also some occasional choices thrown in. Knowing that Friday nights brought a special treat made for a nice end of a routine week.  But even the routine of the daily meals, were a comfort. If something happened during the week that took us off schedule, we still had the steadiness of the nightly meal to ground us again.

If we don’t know the answers to the above questions, can we experiment to find out? Experimenting is a good way to break the decision fatigue cycle. We are always growing and changing, even if we don’t realize it.  Sometimes we can get stuck in a rut with our choices. Greg is one of those people who is very steadfast (read predictable, here) in certain parts of his life. But, he experiments like crazy in his choice of flavored water and drinks. Ok, true, this isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it keeps me on my toes. Greg is pretty particular about his meals, with specific likes and dislikes, but beverages are a whole different story. Regular water, coffee, or tea, that’s a huge resounding “No!” But give him a black cherry/vanilla/ strawberry water or a combo of mandarin orange/ kiwi/whatever, and he’ll try it.  He may not like it, but he’ll try it and gladly experiment some more. Me, on the other hand, I like my drinks singular, and I’ll experiment some other way.

Another way to experiment is make an occasional “gut” choice. I wouldn’t start this with a major life decision, but something smaller, where the end result doesn’t have to be the perfect choice.  It’s a fun way to hone your instincts and practice trusting your judgment. It also takes a little more involvement than just, “eeny, meeny, miny, moe!”

I have one last family story to use as an example of a way you can handle the dilemma of having too many choices.

My nephew, Chris, lost both his parents, 6 months apart, when he was 16. I stepped in as his guardian, right after that. Betty passed about a month before she and Chris were to go on a long “vacation” trip to visit 10 colleges across the country.  Yes, I said 10! My sister did love having choices!

But, with the work of setting up the funeral, cleaning out the house, and planning on how Chris and I were going to handle just life in general, adding this mammoth trip to the list didn’t seem to make sense.

About a week after the funeral, we were going to lunch.  While we ate, I just asked Chris what he wanted to do about this big trip.

“What?” he said. “You mean you are really asking me?”

That pulled me up short. I mean this was about college for him, I figured he given his input to my sister about all of this. 

“Yeah, I am. Was there a specific college you want to go to?” I asked.

“Well, yeah. At least I know I want to go to school in California,” he stated.

“But, you live in California! Why were you going to travel to 10 different schools across the country?” The answered dawned on me before I even finished the question.

“Mom said I needed choices,” he said quietly.

We spent the next ½ hour just talking. In that short period of time, we settled on: 1) What he wanted to study, Japanese, so he could teach English as a second language, or do English translating in Japan. It was a very specific goal, which left me both proud and amazed at how much planning he had already done; 2) Where he wanted to go to school  (San Jose State), they had a great language department and he could study in Japan in his junior year. It also had a discounted tuition because the college was in his home town;  3) Where he wanted to stay while studying (at International House, just off campus where he could meet kids from different countries and practice his Japanese); and finally, where he would spend his last year in high school (his current school).

The last decision took a little more planning.  I lived in Reno, and Chris lived in San Jose. With both his parents gone, he had been afraid that he would have to leave his friends and move to Reno. This was something he definitely did not want to do. I couldn’t leave my job at the time, but I could drive down to San Jose, every other weekend and “parent” him. What I couldn’t do, in good conscience, was to make him leave his support system.

Fortunately, Chris and Betty had that needed support system already. in place. I was able to make arrangements for Chris to stay with his best friend, Yuji, and mom, Leslie,  for the school year. Also, this school had just set up a website for parents to remotely review each student’s progress. I could monitor his work when I was in Reno and address things as they came up. I also made a new friend in Leslie, and together we helped Chris navigate life, his senior year in high school, and the loss of his parents.

To sum it up, by simplifying the initial decision-making process and those extra choices, Chris and I were able to make what were life choices with relative ease. We were able to look for more creative solutions, that in the long run, became the best possible choice for him. In the end, he got his degree in Japanese, did some of his schooling in Japan, and is now living and working there, teaching and translating.

The other thing to consider about reducing the number of choices is this: There is pretty much never a perfect choice. Usually that choice is a beginning point and you flush out the rest your decisions as you go along.  What works for one person, doesn’t work for another so you always need to customize your plans, anyway. And if needed, you can always change your mind.

Choices can be good to have. They can clarify an important decision. But it’s also perfectly fine not to have a lot of things to choose from. Choices are like collectibles. When you have too many, sometimes you miss the uniqueness of that one special item. And it may be that one item, that will give you just the creativeness and freedom you need to make a great decision.

In the end, I’ve learned a surprising side benefit to reducing choices in my decision making: I don’t really like having more than a couple of options. I have learned trust my judgement more. I’ve learned to that with a bit of good information, I can outline the basic path of whatever I need to do, filling it out with more detail when needed. It’s made even the hard decisions, pretty basic. By breaking a problem down into manageable, understandable chunks, I can figure out how much I need to still learn, and focus on just that. The rest seems to fall into place.

It means less stress. I’m all for that!

Next week, we’ll wrap this series up with Differed Decisions: what they are and why they happen, along with another little story and some suggestions on how to deal with them.

See you then!


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