Choice overload makes for a less happy life

Ice cream choice overload

I’m often sitting at home with a low level of anxiety just within the range of my consciousness. I don’t know where to focus my attention. I have a bunch of unread books I could be reading, not to mention the unlimited amount I can download instantly onto my Kindle.

I’m subscribed to hundreds of YouTube channels, maybe I should check to see what’s new? There’s Netflix with an endless scroll of movies, documentaries and series. What about podcasts? But maybe I should be researching my next holiday?

Actually, maybe I should go on Amazon and buy that thing?? Hmmm. This is what’s commonly referred to as ‘choice overload’ and something most of us are afflicted with today.

So much to do

In today’s modern society we have endless possibilities but is it luxury? Before all of this choice, we still had fun. I seem to only enjoy reading a book or watching a film when I’m travelling and the plane restricts my options. Has life really improved with unlimited on-demand TV or has it just fuelled anxiety?

Choice overload

Alvin Toffler

In 1970, the futurist Alvin Toffler made the prediction: “Ironically, the people of the future may suffer not from an absence of choice, but from a paralysing surfeit of it. They may turn out to be the victims of that peculiar super-industrial dilemma: ‘Overchoice.'”

Choice overload is a cognitive process in which we have a difficult time making a decision when faced with many options. There have been numerous experiments that prove we prefer fewer options. This has ranged from jam to chocolate; when presented with too many it’s hard to decide and can result in no decision being made.

FoBO (fear of better options)

What did I miss? FoBO (fear of better options) is FoMO’s sibling. The real kicker with too much choice is that it creates a perpetual state of being unsatisfied. Once you’ve made a selection you can’t help but find fault with what you’ve selected. You start to think, was this the right decision? Would I be happier if I’d chosen differently? Choosing one partner, one job, one home means missing out on the possibility of others.

Online dating

If you ever need convincing that more choice isn’t a good thing, try online dating. With an abundance of filter options and an endless supply of potential candidates, surely more people than ever are finding their soulmate? WRONG.

In Modern Romance, a book by Aziz Ansari, the author describes how the abundance of choice has pressured young people into finding the “perfect person” when previously “good enough” would do. In one extract from the book, a woman recounts meeting a man for the first time and spends part of their date swiping on Tinder to see if there’s anyone better! Unsurprisingly, the quest for perfection often leads to dissatisfaction.

It’s why modern-day work is stressful

I have written in the past about how pointless work has become, especially office work. If you travelled back in time a hundred years or so then you may have been a shoemaker, blacksmith or wig maker.

Back then you knew how much work needed to be done, there were only so many shoes to mend or wigs to make. Once done you were finished for the day. Nowadays nothing tangible is produced other than digital nonsense which is endless.

There’s always another email to send, another meeting to arrange and one more tweet to read. The choices are unclear and many. The shoemaker or blacksmith might think our sedentary work looks physically undemanding but I doubt they’d want to swap.

A Hobson’s choice

Thomas Hobson

When there’s only one option available it’s called a Hobson’s choice. Or if you consider refusal as an option, it’s actually two, so take it or leave it. No choice can be a relief, almost liberating.

There’s an endless scroll of departure times, airlines, airports and prices on Skyscanner. Now and again, when I’m going somewhere obscure, it’s a Hobson’s choice. How freeing that feeling is. It might not be the perfect time or airport but so what? I deal with it and save a ton of time weighing up the pros and cons of the airlines, times, airports and costs.

Were we happier when there was less to do?

Before video games, children played marbles in the street

Over time society has become more individualistic (especially in the West). Go back 200 hundred years and you would attend a church gathering, play games or converse with others in your spare time. Now there’s on-demand TV, Instagram and virtual friends to impress. It’s impossible to measure happiness, let alone compare to the past, however, the limited choices and collective nature of society would have created a stress-free, mindful and happy way to spend time.

Remove choice overload from your life

The obvious solution to the indecision and anxiety caused by choice overload is to remove what you can from your life. Here are five that I find super useful.

1. Block decisions/distractions
Parental policy for my smart TV so I’m not distracted by YouTube

Why is reading a book or watching a movie more enjoyable when you’re on a plane or train? It’s because your choices are limited. When you’re at home this isn’t the case, so restrict what’s on offer.

Anyone’s that read up on habits will know that to encourage a good one you make things easy and to break a bad habit you make it harder.

One of my bad habits is watching too much YouTube on my smart TV. That’s why I’ve created a simple internet blocking rule on my router (nearly all routers have parental controls like this). This is enough friction to stop this habit and reduce my choices, which keeps me focused on worthwhile activities.

2. Make Ulysses pacts

The story goes that the legendary Greek hero Ulysses ordered his crew to fill his ears with wax and tie him to the ship mast. He knew the temptation would be too great when he heard the singing from the beautiful Sirens and sailing off course would have meant certain death.

Ulysses’s act of deciding in the present to bind himself in the future is what’s referred to as a Ulysses pact. Ulysses pacts are a simple way of removing poor decision making in the future by deciding now. I’ve done this in the past without knowing it, booking an activity that makes me apprehensive. I know it’s the right thing to do as it will be a memorable experience. Try getting drunk and booking yourself on something crazy  You won’t regret it! By deciding now, you commit yourself and remove options and indecision from the future.

3. Set goals

Setting goals is another way of making decisions now for the future. It gives you a framework for how to make decisions. Making many of life’s decisions becomes harder without an overarching objective. Religious people are governed by a book of rules and maybe a reason they are often touted as being happier than their non-believer counterparts. Having a life goal/s gives you a pre-defined direction with fewer decisions down the road.

4. Become a minimalist

Steve Jobs was aware of the liberation created by choice reduction and why he famously had an extremely limited wardrobe. Jobs understood that we have a finite capacity to make good decisions, so he didn’t waste brainpower on what clothes to wear. Part of the enjoyment of being a minimalist must be because you have fewer day-to-day decisions to make.

5. Make decisions for the day

Task lists are just another way of making decisions for the day. Whenever you write down your to-dos on a bit of paper, you’re saying “these are the decisions I’ve made”. The likelihood of those things getting done has now increased dramatically. Whenever I don’t write down what I want to accomplish for the day it invariably ends up being a day wasted as I roam from one distraction to another.


Research suggests that an excess of choice makes us stressed and leads to less, not more satisfaction. Armed with this information how can you remove choices that are causing stress, distraction or unsatisfaction from your life?

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to be notified about new posts, you can subscribe by email, Twitter or RSS.


2 thoughts on “Choice overload makes for a less happy life

  1. When I first read that Mark Zuckerberg wore the same t-shirt every day to reduce the number of decisions he had to make every day (including choosing what to wear!), it blew my mind!

    If only society wouldn’t be so harsh on a woman wearing the same outfit every day, I’d be in there like a shot! That said, lockdown and working from home has meant that I don’t consider what to wear and it is definitely good to have one less thing to think about!

    1. Yeah, with the lockdown and current hot weather, my clothes choices are very easy: shorts and the first clean t-shirt I see hanging up

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *