Paralyzed by Too Many Choices

A perfectly orchestrated backyard party took an ugly turn when the bounce house was emptied and all 15 little friends and twice as many adults gathered around to watch the 5-year old open a mountain of gifts.

That’s when the birthday girl melted into a puddle of tears.

Melissa’s embarrassed parents threatened punishment if she didn’t “stop right now!” which only made things worse. She ran to her room and slammed the door.

I’m sure a child psychologist would have had a field day citing poor parenting skills, hidden anger, deep-seated fear or some form of attention deficit. I saw it as much less complicated. Melissa was the victim of too many choices. I know because I feel the same way when I go to a supermarket or try to determine which cell phone plan is the best.

When I have too many choices my brain goes into overload and then it just stalls out. I cannot make a decision and all I want to do is to run to my room and slam the door!

In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, (Ecco, 2016) author Barry Schwartz says that freedom and individual choice have a downside. “As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded,” he writes. “At this point, choice no longer liberates but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

Recently, I attempted to count the number of choices in the cookie aisle at the supermarket in my neighborhood. When I hit triple digits I stopped. That makes me crazy! How can I expect to make the right choice when I have so many options? Schwartz says so many choices may be bad for us. Several, not hundreds, of choices, give us the freedom to show our individuality without pushing us into the maddening dilemma of having to make the perfect choice.

Thankfully, I’ve discovered ways to escape the tyranny of too many choices.

1. I stay away from places known for an abundance of choice. I depend on experts to narrow the possibilities to a number I can manage easily.

2. I avoid shopping malls, preferring warehouse clubs. Their buyers narrow my choices from hundreds of choices to just one or two. I can deal with that.

3. A written list narrows my choices. When I create a list based on items that are on sale and the coupons I have for that store, my choices are made for me long before I walk through the door. Researching online in the quiet of my office helps me to narrow my choices even before I leave home.

Recently, I had an immediate need for a heavy-duty, outdoor extension cord. My minimum requirement was that it be 12 gauge and short in length. Home Depot is only a few miles away, so of course, my kneejerk reaction was to jump in the car and go get what I needed. But I caught myself and went to HomeDepot.com instead.

A quick search turned up the exact item I needed—heavy duty, outdoor use, 12-gauge in weight, 15-feet in length. Perfect. As a bonus, the site gave me the option to see if the store nearest me had this item in stock. Yes! I learned my store had three in stock together with the exact Aisle and Bin location for where to find them.

Had I walked into Home Depot to get an extension cord with only a vague idea of where to start looking for an item that might fit my needs, the entire store would have been in my purview—including the Garden Center. And the cleaning supplies aisle; the lamps section and window blinds. Oh, look, Christmas decorations and power tools!

Thankfully, I’d narrowed my choices to just that one thing before I left the house. I’d printed the page telling me the exact location. I was on a mission. I wasn’t distracted, overwhelmed or paralyzed. I knew where to go, had a picture of what to look for; found what I needed and was out of the store in five minutes flat.

If Melissa’s parents had asked me, I would have suggested they move the mountain of gifts indoors, bringing out just one or two gifts at a time. Or better yet, scale the party down to just a few friends to avoid being overwhelmed by too much of a good thing.

Speaking of choices, I’ve been researching my heart out in anticipation of the year’s biggest shopping season. Are you overwhelmed? Don’t know where to start? Oh, do I know that feeling! And so for both of us—and back by popular demand—tomorrow we’ll kick things off with Holiday Season 2017’s Best Inexpensive™ Toys for Kids Ages 1-7.

Stay tuned!

Question: If you’ve found yourself frustrated by too many choices, what have you done to deal with it? Let’s talk about it in the comments section here and I’ll respond.

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  • Birgit Nicolaisen

    Best Christmas gift for a 1 year old? Wrapping paper and the empty box. LOL

    Our first trip to the American Girl store when my DD was little ended up in a puddle of tears. Exactly as you said, the choices were overwhelming. We still visit the store, usually once a year, and it’s still over whelming, but we have coping mechanisms and strategies to keep it from suffering from sensory overload.

    • Funny. And I would add for the cat, too!

  • Christina Copeland

    Best anti-anxiety grocery store? Without a doubt it’s got to be Aldi. Only four aisles, no coupons needed, no shopping carts left in the parking lot and an unbeatable double your money back guarantee. Not that you will need the guarantee as most products are as good as or better than name brand items. When shopping there, go green and bring your own cloth bags.

    • I hear Aldi has finally expanded to opening stores in California! Sadly, I don’t live there anymore. Come on Aldi … Colorado sounds like a good choice!

  • Theresa Reed

    Hi Mary. I read this somewhere a long time ago and believe it is so wise. Many I have recommended it to do not heed the good advice. It is in relation to birthday parties. You should not invite more children than the child’s age. For example a six year old should have six children invited to the party. Also I am hearing the trend now is to have the birthday child not open the gifts at the party because it is too upsetting for the children who are not getting gifts. WOW. That is all I can say about that!

    • Interesting concept! I wonder at what age that specific ratio of invitees wanes. Just thinking about my own birthday coming up. Hmmmm …

  • Sue Ryder Scott

    This is just one of the reasons I love Aldi’s and have become a committed fan. I start all of my shopping here. Not only are the prices great – to your point today, the choices are limited to what they consider to be the best options. So it’s a faster shopping run and not so overwhelming. As a bonus, some of the “limited” items amongst the smaller options (and in not-brand-name packaging) are indeed already your favorites (like the “Girl Scout Cookies”)…. I only step into the “regular” grocery store for an occasional / specific need.

    • gamebird

      I do the same thing! And at least half of why I love Aldi’s is because there are few choices and the store is small. I don’t get lost or feel overwhelmed, or like I need a map to figure out how to shop!

  • x_ray_tech

    I tend to get very easily distracted when going into a store like Home Depot for just one quick need item, too. Though your idea of going to the website before going to the store is a good idea, it would never work for me if I still have to enter and walk through the store! What I have learned to do is to go the website, find what I need, purchase online and have it waiting for me at the customer service counter. Works every time! Most stores do this now, even for groceries.

    • Great idea, X. What’s the approx lead time and how do you know when you’re safe to cautiously move in for the pick up?

      • x_ray_tech

        Timing depends on the item(s) and the store. If you are ordering groceries to pick up at a grocery store you will likely wait an hour, or two, before pick up is ready. If you order something at Home Depot, like a specific tool, it is ready at the customer service desk within 20 minutes of the online order. About how long it takes for me to drive to the store. You can also call the store and place an order directly with the customer service person if you don’t want to order online (they then do it for you in other words). But this is even more assurance it will be ready and a definite time. Get the persons name you speak with so they know you are holding them personally accountable! Works at clothing stores too, everywhere in my area.

  • kddomingue

    I’ve often felt like the overwhelmed five year old that you described….and I’m 57, lol! I call it decision fatigue and it certainly can make you want to plop down on the floor in the middle of an aisle in a store and start bawling your eyes out. So many choices and options! And, when you finally pick one, often you’ll get home with it and have to suffer through buyer’s angst…..did I get the best one? Is there another that would have been better? Perhaps I chose poorly…..arrrgh!

    I simplify my grocery shopping by shopping at Costco and two smaller local stores. If they don’t have it then I probably don’t need it that badly. I don’t buy a lot of junk food and cook mostly from scratch so that in itself eliminates a lot of choices. Items that are not grocery items get researched online and through blogs like yours, the Sweet Home and the Wirecutter and others. I ask people that I know have a certain item what their thoughts on it are. Do they like it, would they buy it again, does it perform as advertised, was it worth the price?

    But my biggest weapon against stores filled with too many options and choices? Stay out of them, lol! If you don’t go in the store, you won’t see all the things that you didn’t know you wanted until you saw them!

  • Linda Wronski

    Our grandchildren (ages 6 and 8) ask for a donation to their favorite charity in lieu of gifts. This year it was to a non-profit children’s hockey organization another year it was to a children’s soccer organization which provide equipment for children less fortunate. They have a sealed, slot-top box where their guests can make their contributions.

  • Trudy Lund

    I have a 2 year old and I depend on online shopping. I have one brand for each clothing item that has proven to be good quality. I type the brand, size and what I’m looking for in Google. Then click shopping at the top. Then there’s a drop-down at the top that says Sort: Default, drop down to Price-low to high. Then it shows you pictures. Click on the one you want and it will tell you price, tax and shipping. I can’t imagine going from store to store looking for something.

  • Luisa

    I agree with you completely: too many choices paralyze me. I thought I’d let you know about how you hellpmed with this last month. Recently I decided to buy my first electric toothbrush and was overwhelmed by the possibilities and by options that I’d never even thought of.

    I happened to read your post about the best inexpensive electric toothbrush, the Oral-B Pro 1000 for $40, and bought it at once on Amazon. I hit a sale and got it for under $30 and I love it! Thanks for the tip and for relieving me of too many choices!

  • Sue in MN

    For the 5-year-old (or any small child on a gift-giving occasion) parents in our family present one or 2 gifts the day before, or early on the day, another after lunch or nap, after supper, even the next day. As grandparents, we restrain ourselves to only one gift on the occasion, with cash to savings for the future. We give other gifts as we find them or as the child needs something randomly throughout the year. While we are waya for the winter, we may send something in the mail, to be opened during a video phone call. Or we bring books back from trips. We just bought boots (brand-new ones found at the thrift store) because it began snowing here – why make the kids wait for Christmas?

  • Karla Mason Bergen

    I agree. I am also frustrated by too many choices. I used to get very frustrated doing clothes shopping, going from store to store, looking for the perfect pair of black pants and simultaneously trying to get the best price. I now limit myself to one medium size department store that I know will have practically everything I need . Not so many choices and I can almost always find what I need. I should also say that this store runs frequent specials and has online coupons as well as coupons in their marketing brochure that comes wiith the Sunday paper. I always walk out feeling like I got a great deal without comparing prices between stores.

    • sadnana

      I agree that this is a good strategy. I shop for clothes at one store because their styles are suited to my age and lifestyle, they have great customer service, lots of inventory, and great sales and coupons. And I joke that I’ll have to live in my pajamas if they ever go out of business.

  • crabbyoldlady

    I end up walking away from the frustration of indecision. Frequently after I go home and think about it, it’s easier to decide or I find I don’t really need the item in the first place.

  • Richard

    I enjoy the choices, but what twists my shorts is how many times the choice I desire is no longer available. I shop by lists and am product and brand specific. Customer choice and satisfaction is being replaced by bottom line profit to the retailer or outlet rather than focusing on the customer. I look for quality not lowest price. Quality always wins in the long run as the least expensive.

  • sadnana

    I had an epiphany of sorts several years ago when I realized that pouring over too many choices in search of that one, perfect item was a waste of time. The truth is that there is seldom one perfect item and that I don’t have to look at everything available before making my selection. So when I shop I select the first thing that meets my need at a price I’m willing to pay and then I stop looking. Since adopting this strategy I’ve had no regrets and I’ve saved lots of time and stress.

  • Janie

    I recently moved to a small town with a big box store that is 10 miles away—its the closest place to buy groceries and pet food. At first, I missed all the choices I had in Florida, but after going back to visit a few times, I realized that I actually preferred having less choices. I have never liked malls because all I can mentally see is a lot of wasted money on things I don’t need.