The paradox of choice – What to do when you’re overwhelmed with options

In researching this concept, I discovered that I am not alone in my bewilderment! I encourage you to explore the above video to learn another perspective of the topic I will discuss in my own words below….

As I took a short walk this morning from my lovely homestay in Ubud, Bali, to a local market to fetch groceries for breakfast, I became mindful of a difficulty I’d been having since my arrival to the wonderful country.

I’d arrived to the market with a clear idea of what I was looking for – ingredients to make a healthy Indonesian-style omelette, and discovered that the ingredients I required (eggs, onion, eggplant, leafy greens) were available from almost all of the 10+ market sellers.

Where to go? Who to choose? Was product better here or there?

It was then that it hit me. I was overwhelmed by the abundances of produce, the variety of stalls, and the effort of choice.

We all crave it, we all want it, we all need it.

The good news is, there’s plenty of it out there. You only need to look in a grocery aisle and discover the number of alternative brands offering the same product to realise this. The question is, how do you avoid becoming overwhelmed? How do you decide what to choose when faced with so many options?

How can you overcome the paradox of choice?

This post will raise awareness on the power of choice in life, and provide you with 5 key concepts I use to tackle the paradox head on.

Say goodbye to blank stares in the supermarket isles.


Why we need choice

The ability to choose is a disrespected luxury that we in the western world have.Have a think about it. How often have you not been provided with a choice in the goods or services you’re searching for (Not counting the lack of available resources i.e money as limitations)?

Not very often I’ll bet.

So there’s definitely an abundance of choice in our lives, but why?

Perception of freedom.

I’ll give you a personal example of what I mean.

Here in Bali, as with all tourist destinations, there is an abundance of activities to immerse yourself in. Bicycle tours, trekking volcanic mountains, you name it. I’m an adventurous type of guy, so naturally I want to give some of these a shot. Walking through the streets, I have seen so many tour operators offering the exact same service.

Exactly the same!

Having this choice is extremely time consuming and emotionally draining (as I’ll discuss soon), but I like it.

Why?

I can shop around. I can compare deals. I can get a better price for the trip I want.

More options gives me freedom.

Without options to allow a choice, I’m hypothesising that I’d have felt trapped, cornered, and like I was getting ‘done over’ by the locals who (understandably) all want to make a dollar. Moreover, I’d be far less likely to do anything at all, as the lack of choice would raise my scepticism of their authenticity and genuineness.

So why did I need choice?

Choice provided me with reassurance of authenticity and authority in claims, and with the perception of freedom.

Choice was (and is) a necessary factor in my ability to reach a decision and move forward.

In limited amounts…


Too much choice means…

Headaches!

There are some great articles on the topic out there (including this one), highlighting the problem with an abundance of choice.

We don’t know what to do with it.

Yes, choice is necessary to come to decisions, and too much choice can have the opposite effect.

An abundance of options gives us no limitations, no scope, and leaves us with blurred criteria we would normally have enforced with limited options to come to a decision.

Too much choice is confusing, time consuming, and mentally overwhelming.

Arriving at a mental stand-still, suffering from what I term “paralysis through analysis”, will find you at the same point on the opposite end of the spectrum.

You’ll struggle to make a decision n times when choice is abundant.

It’s all a balancing act, so how to tip the scales in you favour?


Overwhelmed by choice? Try this.

1. Know your criteria

Criteria are what we can use as a map through the maze of choice.

Going shopping? Make a list (and stick to it).

Booking a tour? Know how much you are willing to pay and what you expect from the experience (Note: some research will be required).

Having criteria will act as a reminder of the true objective of your acquisition.

No successful project was ever completed without a well defined scope. Let your criteria be yours.

2. Practice limiting your options

Just because there are abundant options out there, doesn’t mean there needs to be.

Use your criteria from above to assist you in eliminating options that you know are not suitable. This process of elimination will not only reduce choice, it will either confirm or get you to question if the decision is indeed what you are looking for in the first place.

3. Stick to what works

There is sanity to be found in repetition.

Found a toothpaste that rocks your world? Keep getting it, even if it’s an extra 20 cents.

Having trouble choosing a new smartphone but have a friend that’s recently purchased one and is extremely happy? Use their experience and try their recommendation.

If you have a history with a successful option, or trust someone else that has, there is liberation to be had in utilizing it.

Make life easier for yourself by finding something that works, and sticking to it.

4. Follow your gut feeling

This is an important ability that I believe deserves mention.

Think back to times when you’ve had to make important decisions, what they were, and the outcomes that ensued.

Did you have a feeling it would be that way?

I get this quite a bit.

As such, I find myself using my instincts and ‘gut feeling’ more and more.

You’re smarter than you think. Try looking past the logic and grab hold of your instinct. You may be surprised at your abilities.

5. Do nothing

Sometimes it’s best to step away and do nothing.

It’s possible that the reason you’re there, isn’t reason enough. Use the experience, take stock, and revisit the points above to create clarity.

There are many battles that can be fought, it’s a matter of choosing the right ones for you.


The concept of the choice paradox is not a new one. There are many whom have theorised and philosophised in opposition, advocating a simple life (Epicurus, Buddha and Gandhi to name a few) to free the mind and soul for more pleasant activities.

I’ve only touched on it here with my recent experiences in my travels, and there are meny more instances that I could cover that reinforce the undeniable fact that too much choice makes life difficult.

Luckily I’ve devised 5 useful tips to help you on your journey to overcome your abundance of choice.

Try practicing the following when next you’re faced with a complex or overwhelming decision:

  • Creating criteria
  • Reducing the number of options
  • Sticking with what you (or trusted others) know
  • Follow your gut; and
  • Doing nothing.

I’m sure that these simple processes with have you break through that mental barrier, and leave your conscious free for bigger and better things!

Have you come across mental roadblocks caused by choice? Is there a time when you’ve become overwhelmed / frustrated / upset with abundance and an inability to act? Please leave a comment! I’d love to hear from your experiences, and you never know how you can be a help to others.


Thanks for reading my work.

Like it? Please share with your friends on social media. The more people I can inspire, the happier I’ll be.

Until next time…..

Yours in inspiration,

Jason


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References

Tim Ferriss – The Choice Minimal Lifestyle

Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice

The Sydney Morning Herald (article) – No Freedom in Too Much Choice

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