In life we see limitless possibility. We are told we can do anything, become anyone and live any way we want. It is a sentiment that has produced countless, inspiring rags to riches stories. Freedom and choice is a mental liberation that allows us to consider our options, follow our dreams and become the men and women we want to become. But there is a hidden problem with all of this freedom and choice. When we lay out all those possibilities and all those options for our life, our actions, our experiences, we are often struck inside with a deep anxiety and fear because – while we may be able to do anything and become anyone and live anyway we want – we have absolutely no fucking idea what that looks for us and the last thing any one of us wants is to live in a mental shitstorm of regret and perpetual indecision. And that is why choice and freedom, while so critical to a fulfilling life, can be a dark cloud of anxiety if we let it be.
The problem with too much choice
I am not going to sit here and argue that having the freedom to choose in life is a bad thing. It is obviously one of the key components of a happy life. We all know the value of it. Autonomy. Expression. Excitement. Freedom to choose helps us develop our individual and unique personalities and styles. It helps us to find our paths in life and to develop our sense of personal satisfaction. But there is such a thing as too much choice. We have seen the variety of things we can choose from grow but we have gained almost nothing from this in a psychological way. In fact, all of this choice has exposed new anxieties that can actually diminish your happiness. Here is how:
Analysis paralysis is a condition or mental state of over analyzing a situation or action to the point where it is impossible to take any action at all. Let’s look at a very common example of this in action. Let’s say you have finally decided to drop some extra pounds and hit the gym. You want to get healthy. Awesome. But you also want to find the best way to get healthy because you have limited time and you want to be efficient and make the best use of your time. So what do you do? You start researching ways to get healthy. You learn about HIIT, steady state cardio, resistance training, metabolic conditioning. You learn about muscle splits, full body routines, olympic lifts, power lifts, body-weight exercises. You learn about intermittent fasting, carb cycling, slow carbs, cheat days, cheat meals, paleo. You learn about creatine and protein and macro-nutrients and food prep and pre-workout and amino acids and … OK! Enough. You get my point.
You took a simple decision to get healthy and you spent hours and hours on the couch, eating junk food, reading about all the different ways you can get healthy and never once did you take an actual, solid step to getting healthy, because there is just too much advice out there to wade through and too many choices to pick from and you always want to make sure you are choosing the best of anything.
Well, let me let you in on a little secret. There is no best of anything! There is only anecdotal truths of things that have worked for people or that they like or that they were able to stick with and you know why these things worked or why they like these things or why they were able to stick with them? Because they stopped analyzing it all and just fucking did something!! They tried things. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing at first but they found out what they liked and what worked for them by doing, not by analyzing all the choices out there because at some point the cost of evaluating all those choices outweighs the value of the best choice.
The Regret of Choosing
That is not the only problem with too much choice. Let’s say you finally settled on a diet and workout plan. You are going forward with it. Kudos to you! You jumped a major hurdle in progress. Not only that, let’s say you were able to convince your friend to start a diet and workout plan with you. Your friend chooses a different workout and diet plan but you are both committed and hit the gym together. Great!
A few months pass and you are starting to see some results. You are feeling healthier, you are losing weight and you are happy but you notice something, your friend is losing more weight and seems even healthier and happier than you. How the hell can that be!! Then you realize, it must be because he chose a better workout and diet plan than you! Damnit! Why didn’t I choose the right one? Now I just wasted 3 months… How much further along would I be if I had picked a better way to lose weight? Fuck dieting and exercise! I am going to go eat an entire pizza!!
With all the freedom to choose comes the inevitable regret that you might have made a better choice. Even if you made the perfect choice for you, you still have the ability, because there are so many other options in your rear view mirror, to think that you might have made the wrong choice and that there may be something better out there for you. That anxiety and fear contaminates your experience of the things you did choose. It makes it seem like the choices you have made are lesser than what they could have been because your expectation of what your choice will deliver will always be tainted by your imaginations of what it should have been. Our minds always exaggerate the pleasure we will gain from a certain choice and always downplays the faults of choosing another thing, and because of that, we believe every decision might have been a little better had we a chance to do it over again.
So what can we do about it?
Ok. So you can see that too much choice can turn into a bad thing. It can prevent you from choosing anything at all and it can poison the choices you do make with fantasies about how other choices might have been better. But what can you do to limit this anxiety you might feel over all the choices in your life?
Consciously limit your choices.
One good way to relive your choice anxiety is to simply decide to limit your ability to make choices. Most people do this in some way or another on a daily basis anyway. To-do lists are a way of limiting your choices. Everyday you have the choice to do anything but you write down the things you KNOW you want to and should do and, if you are strict and disciplined with yourself, when you are faced with something outside of your to-do list, you make the easier decision to follow through with your list.
People also frequently limit their choice by understanding what they like and don’t like in an informed way. When you go to the grocery store you don’t spend hours staring at the 300 salad dressings every time you go because you already know what you like. You found out through trial and error and you stuck with it because you know it offers you a satisfaction you can live with. Sure, you haven’t tried all the salad dressings in the world, and there may be one out there that is just ever so slightly better but – once again – the cost of evaluating all the choices is more than the value gained from finding the absolute best, so you go with what you like and don’t think much about the other options.
Stop looking back at roads not taken.
In most cases, the fantasy you have about the thing you didn’t choose, is just that; a fantasy. The woman you should have married instead of your wife. She is a fantasy. The car you should have bought that is so much better than yours. Fantasy. That amazing salad dressing that will make your kale not taste like the sweat off a donkey’s balls. Fantasy. You make them out to be so much better than they are because you never had them and didn’t have to see the ugly side of them. Had you chosen them instead you would most certainly be fantasizing about the things you have right now and how amazing they must be.
You stop looking back and thinking what might have been by seeing clearly what you have right now. Be grateful for what you have because there are so many people who have nothing. Nothing you choose will ever be perfect, it will have flaws and holes and tangles and weeds but it is your imperfect thing and you get to make one really simple choice with the things that are yours; your appreciate them or you don’t. So stop looking over your shoulder and drifting through your life considering all the million things you could have, should have, didn’t have. It doesn’t matter. If you still want those things, choose them now. But I can promise you one thing. No matter what you choose, it isn’t going to matter at all unless you learn how to appreciate it for what it is and not compare it to what it isn’t.