As I worked on blog post ten this week (twenty percent of the way toward my blogging goal), I hit a few snags and couldn’t get unstuck. (See, it happens to everyone!) The problems? First, I needed more time to do justice to my top choice for the week’s post; and second, the flood of other possible ideas overwhelmed me. I ground to a halt, and if not for my deadline of a blog a week, I might have stayed stuck. I decided my top priority was to limit choices.
Unlimited Choice Can Be As Hard As Having Too Few
But my problem pales in comparison to what my daughter, a senior in high school, currently faces. What is the best way to coach her through the college application and selection process? She sometimes finds it hard to choose a cookie recipe to make or a frozen yogurt flavor to order. With hundreds of potential colleges, what’s the best way to narrow them down? If she could find a dozen that interested her, we’d help her apply to the top six. After all, what worked for me way back when could at least be a starting point.
I also faced what I call the “all-or-nothing” phenomenon earlier this week. I had an opportunity to hike on Tuesday, but I couldn’t decide on a destination. My non-decision ended up being my decision: I stayed in town on a beautiful day.
Later in the week when a friend proposed hiking to Mason Lake, I agreed. I appreciate it when someone else decides. Other times, it feels liberating to make my own choice. But sometimes, having unlimited choices is daunting.
How to Start Narrowing Down
So where do you start if you feel like you want to make changes? Say you want to alter your diet, start a different job, take steps forward in an important relationship, grab some new travel opportunities, expand your friendship circle, interact more with family members, and improve your physical health.
If you tried undertaking all of that at once, you would fail to succeed in any of them. What do you do if you want to change everything? The answer may be to limit your choices first by picking THE MOST IMPORTANT GOAL (whatever is weighing most heavily on your mind) and to provide yourself with a structure to explore it.
Whenever I face a blank page, it’s far easier to create if I’m given a prompt, an idea, or a structure within which to write. Take blogging: I limit myself to eight photos, keep my word count under 1200, and stick to the same format I’ve used during the past three months. I also tie whatever I write to the broad topic of moving forward and getting unstuck. Such scaffolding provides me with structure and coherence, and it provides my readers with continuity from post to post. Even so, I still face plenty of choices but it’s not as overwhelming as it could be.
On Having Too Many Choices
Curious about shutting down when I feel overwhelmed by too many choices, I looked online to learn what others had to say. Suddenly, I had my topic for this week’s blog.
From the article, Too many choices – good or bad – can be mentally exhausting. In the April issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Kathleen Vohs discusses how making decisions, even about fun tasks like what movie to see or where to hike, can deplete our brain. “Simply the act of choosing can cause mental fatigue,” she says. “Making choices can be difficult and taxing, and there is a personal price to choosing.”
In a study discussed in the article Why you find it hard to pick your lunch or a Netflix show, according to new research, Colin Camerar (professor of behavioral economics at Caltech and author of the study) said the “ideal number [of choices] is probably somewhere between 8 and 15, depending on the reward, and your personality.”
When “Good Enough” is Good Enough
And in Too Many Choices, a Problem that can Paralyze, Alina Tugend of the New York Times introduces Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz says one strategy for dealing with too many choices is to become comfortable with the idea of “good enough.”
In coaching our daughter through the largest decision (so far) of her young life, we don’t want her to think she has to make a perfect choice, because according to the Swarthmore professor, doing so “is a recipe for misery.” If we can get past the illusion that there is a “perfect choice” and choose good enough, we will save ourselves pondering and reflection time, worry, and angst.
The next time you’re debating about what to choose, impose some restrictions. If you’re experiencing writer’s block, set a timer for five minutes and allow yourself to play. Let your pen move nonstop across the page, or let your fingers fly over the keyboard. Or get outside in nature for some fresh air and movement. Sometimes taking your mind off the problem will give your creative self some inspiration or clarity.
If you have the whole state of Washington available to hike in, try narrowing it down to a single target area, with a possible elevation gain and range that fits your ability and mood. Washington Trails Association’s Hike Finder is a great resource.
And when I discovered the guideline of having an optimal number of choices in the range of eight to fifteen, I realized that encouraging my daughter to have a list of her top twelve choices is a reasonable place to start. What’s more, I realized we intuitively already know how to do this.
So if you’re dating a new person every weekend, put some limits on your choices. If you’re looking at the whole world as a possible travel destination, pick one or two areas to start narrowing down. And when you’re choosing a subject to write about, realize that you can always write another, next week. I did. And like that, I was up and writing again.