Choice is a good thing or is it?

by Joanie Butman

At first glance, the answer to that question seems obvious. However, as with anything, too much of a good thing sometimes transforms it into something else entirely.

Too many choices can be paralyzing, much the way I feel entering Costco or any mall. When faced with a gluttony of choices, I tend to buy more than I need simply because it’s there and because I am overwhelmed by the options. It doesn’t take long for buyer’s remorse to settle in on the way home. What was I thinking? Do I really NEED these things?

As a result, I have adopted a SWAT-like approach to shopping. I determine what I need, mentally map out its location, and with the precision and timing of a navy seal, I proceed with stealth, extract the necessities and leave in record time. When I am with my husband or children, I review the plan in the car: “Remember, you have twenty minutes. We’re in, we’re out. No looking around. Stay focused at all times. Keep your mission clear.” They claim I take all the joy out of the experience. Who knew that shopping could be “joyful?”

When we refer to my parent’s generation and even my early years, it is recalled as a simpler time. Why? Because there were less choices. Life wasn’t that complicated. Morality was black and white along with our television sets. We only had four channels, and you had to get up to change them which was often the defining choice in what you watched. The media had yet to lose sight of any moral code. They adhered to a certain decency. There was a definitive line not to be crossed. Now, I am embarrassed to watch the commercials, never mind the shows. Is there really an ED epidemic in the US? Based on the number of ads we are bombarded with, one would certainly have good reason to draw that conclusion.

Today, we have the world at our fingertips and simply choosing what to read or watch can be overwhelming. Information comes in at alarming speed. It is hard to process it quickly enough. There is so much noise, I find it difficult to concentrate on anything for long periods of time unless I intentionally block incoming information or interruption, which infuriates my family when I am not immediately available. The next generation lives in sound bytes. Everything is instantaneous. There is no down time. They expect instant gratification, and if it is not forthcoming, they move on quickly, which doesn’t bode well for deep, lasting relationships both personally and professionally. It is difficult to have a conversation with them without some kind of device in their hand where they are monitoring incoming messages. When one more interesting than the one you happen to be sharing comes in, you are preempted.

I hope I am wrong, but stillness and reflection seem to belong to that simpler time. We have so many more options as to how we spend our time. There is just so much we want to do. Even so, there is still only 24 hours in a day. Life is a smorgasbord of options. I have learned by experience that trying to savor every dish is far from satisfying.  In fact, it usually leaves me feeling uncomfortable if not sick from overindulgence. Consider a puppy whom you have to monitor because they will continue to eat until they vomit. They haven’t learned or developed the mental capacity to realize when they are full. Teenage boys suffer from the same malady when it comes to food. The thing is, after you pass a certain point, you can’t really even taste or appreciate the flavor of what you are eating. I would argue that the same can be said of trying to cram too many things into a day. Can you really enjoy any of them fully? Can you experience the freedom of losing yourself in the moment without having to watch the clock? There is always a cost involved. The people around you can feel when you are mentally present or not, and it has a negative impact, leaving them feeling “devalued.”

You can’t have meaningful conversations on demand. In fact, some of the greatest conversations I’ve shared were the result of not having anything pressing to say whether it be sitting on a stoop in Brooklyn or sitting on the porch at my in-laws’ beach cottage. I’ve been told that in therapy, what you choose to discuss in response to silence says more about you than whether you were asked a specific question.

Time is a gift. Choosing how you spend it and share it is undoubtedly one of the most powerful choices we make every day. The process is a difficult one given the number of options available to us. Some of those choices will be limited or dictated by our circumstances, some won’t. Who doesn’t want to do it all?  The only answer  I can think of is one who has learned the cost of trying.

Rick Warren uses a great analogy, “Think of it this way. If you attach one light bulb to a battery, the battery will run for a long time. If you attach 100 light bulbs to a battery, it will go dim and dark really quick!”

The SWAT-like attitude I described earlier is also the way I approach time management. I protect my time with just as much focus, discipline and training. My friends and family don’t always agree with my triage system as to who or what gets my attention at any given moment, and they would probably debate the order of my priorities as I sometimes do with them. With age and experience, we all develop and are constantly refining our own triage for determining how and with whom we choose to spend our days.

Do you have a story about a consequence that resulted from your choice of how, where, and with whom you chose (or didn’t choose) to spend your time?