“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” -Soren Kierkegaard
More choices is not always better. I have an older friend who lost his wife to a horrible disease a few years ago. He’s taken it pretty bad but we were talking the other day about him potentially getting back out into the dating arena. My friend was married for a long time and had a good marriage so it’s just not something that he is in a rush to do. He told me he still talks to his wife every night. I wish more people could have marriages with that kind of love. In the midst of our conversation, we started talking about ways he could meet people and start dating. The church he goes to is populated by a much younger demographic so that might not be the best place, and my friend is not really into bars.
I told him about some dating apps I had heard advertised, and I told him I had done online dating before and that it might be a good way for him to meet some people. We even had a laugh about one dating app called “Tinder” where you swipe left or right through 100s of profiles on your smartphone, based on the way someone’s profile picture looks. While I was writing this article I googled online dating and there are 100s of options out there. Dating for jews, for gays, for older people, for black people, and on and on. Even in dating though, more choices is not always better.
I went in to a Trader Joe’s for the first time about 3 years ago, and it’s been my favorite grocery store ever since. It took me a few months to figure out why, but the reason I enjoy it so much is because it’s smaller and simpler. There are fewer headaches, and there are fewer options. Not that I don’t like walking because I do, but there is a pleasant aspect to going to Trader Joe’s that is just not there for Whole Foods, Wal – Mart, Publix, or Kroger, which are all huge by comparison. Instead of 10 different brands of milk, they have one brand, instead of 6 different types of carrots, there is one type, and instead of a cereal aisle the size of a football field, they have 10 or fewer different cereals in one small area. Trader Joe’s is a simple, easy, quick and pleasant way to go grocery shopping, because there are actually fewer choices.
Having more choices is not always better, and in many cases it is much worse and it’s actually stressing us out. It’s affecting our anxiety levels, our relationships, our productivity, our sense of peace, and sometimes even our personal character. For example, we don’t focus on good or bad choices any more, and rarely do we even say “that’s a bad choice”. We focus instead on the maximizing the number of choices we have available:
- Where to live
- Where to work
- What groups to join
- Who to be friends with
- Who to be married to, date, etc.
- What not to do
- What to buy
- Which car to drive, and what model, color, etc etc
- What clothes to wear
- How we spend our free time
- What to eat
- What to read
- Which apps to use
- What to watch on TV
- Which websites to look at
- What hobbies to engage in
- Where to go on vacation
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have options, especially when it comes to personal finance. It’s good for example to have cash on hand for emergencies and to have the optionality to do what we want with it. It’s good to be able to get out of bad situations. But to hedge our bets, maximize choices to the tilt, and distance ourselves from commitment or actually ever making a choice is not good. I don’t think we’re doing this necessarily on purpose, but it’s just something that is happening culturally because we live in such a consumer mindset. I see it every day in the frazzled looks on people’s faces as they fret about nonstop home improvements, which restaurants to eat at, which workout to do, or what to eat. Often, all of this noise keeps us from doing the important things we need to be doing. It complicates our lives unnecessarily and adds stress where it doesn’t need to be.
We would often do better simplifying and staying committed than we would trying to maximize choices or make the perfect choice.
The Crown is a popular Netflix historical drama I’ve gotten into lately which portrays the life of Queen Elizabeth II, reigning since 1952 and the longest serving monarch in the history of England. It’s a well made show, with interesting plots based on real characters and real stories. One of the things I find most interesting is the life, mind, and character of Elizabeth herself. Throughout the show, conflicts arise where Elizabeth has to decide between what she individually wants to do, and what is expected of her as the monarch. The fascinating thing to me is that Elizabeth’s life is a snapshot into the past. Elizabeth, a fully modern character, exemplifies what Aristotle called a Telos, or an inherent nature or purpose, something she was born to do. In her case, it’s to be queen, and she does it well.
Before the onset of the modern era, most people had their life laid out before them when they were born. It may have been hard, but most people had a Telos. They didn’t necessarily have to stick by the roles that were given to them, but if they did reject them they risked being socially ostracized. And the options really were limited in the past, especially in comparison to now, when we have every choice possible laid out before us, even the choice now to change even our race or our sex or gender just by the way we happen to feel on a particular day. I can’t help but admire Elizabeth for embracing the role she was born into. She doesn’t always like it, but you can see her character, strength, and personality grow as the show goes on, and she embraces it and allows it to mold her into the woman she becomes.
Luckily, we do have the choice now to act as individuals and choose what we want to do in our lives. That being said, when it comes to being healthy, and ironically being free, we would often be better off by reducing the number of choices we have to make. We would be more free and more healthy, in our age, if we embraced a telos, or a thing we were born to do. This would free us up to focus on the most important things in life.
By embracing a more realistic point of view, recognizing our limitations, and even putting limits on ourselves, we are freed up to become truly healthy individuals. No one would say Queen Elizabeth II, one of the most popular monarchs of all time, is not an individual, and no one would say she’s not free and healthy. She could do what she wants to in the moment, but she doesn’t. She does what she needs to do in the long run. No one is stopping her, but by embracing the hand she’s been dealt, she has become an inspiration to millions. As of right now, she’s 90 and still going strong. By making tough choices and sticking with them, we don’t become less free, less healthy, or less of a man or woman, but we become more.
“Freedom is obedience to self-formulated rules.” -Aristotle
Anxiety and freedom are basically two sides of the same coin. Not worrying is true freedom. When we feel free, we’re not anxious but when we feel anxious, we’re don’t feel free. Ironically, by eliminating choices we can find our freedom by eliminating a lot of anxiety. Eliminating choices is not something that comes easy. I have learned this lesson the hard way, and made many mistakes myself. That’s why I want to help you. The Japanese concepts of Zen, the New Testament admonitions not to worry, and the old-fashioned wisdom to be happy with what you have all point us towards the beauty of simplicity.
No one wants to go back to the old days when we had much fewer choices. But we should make good choices and make life easier and simpler. We want to eliminate some choices altogether so we can move on and become healthy individuals. I laugh sometimes because I like to read and tend to buy more books than I can read and then get stressed about not being able to read them alI, which is a great example of framing things wrong and having too many choices. Most choice anxiety is a much more serious thing than buying too many books, because it keeps us stuck, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. Choice can impede growth and personal evolution.
Less is usually more.
These are some of the downsides of too many choices:
- Most choices are bad choices.
- Most choices are just noise.
- It’s draining to have too many choices.
- It wastes time to have too many choices.
- By not making a choice we’re effectively making a choice.
- In order to become a healthy individual, we have to make choices and commitments and stick to them.
- To become anything at all, we have to choose.
By simplifying, accepting things as they are, and limiting choices:
- We can stick to things better.
- We free ourselves up to spend time on more important things.
- We free up mental and physical energy to focus on things that matter.
- By choosing quickly and eliminating some choices from the beginning, we can end being able to live by our values better.
- We are free to actually become someone stronger, more free, and healthier.
Freedom is being able to stick by the rules you set for yourself, not having maximal choices at all times. Freedom is defined by self-control, courage, and focus. Worry and anxiety are the opposite of freedom. To be courageous about your life, self-aware, and focused is to be truly free.
I’ve given you this before, my motivation model for Movement & Meaning. Use it to help you make better choices:
Values > Goals > Projects < > Habits
Values should determine goals.
Goals should drive projects.
Projects require habits.
Habits are how we live out our values.
There is a place for cutting loose, and letting go of discipline. I’m a believer in Mardi Gras. This is the order of the cosmos, or it should be. Too much routine can be a bad thing, and we can never have absolute certainty about anything. Being too rigid, too dogmatic, and too stuck in your ways is just as bad as trying to always maximize choice. That being said, simplifying your life and eliminating some choices can help reduce stress dramatically.
Here are some suggestions for eliminating choice anxiety:
- Create your own code, or rules for living. Good ones that eliminate stress like always being on time, telling the truth, staying out of credit card debt, etc. and stick to your code. This requires discipline and involves morals and ethics so it’s not always easy but it saves a ton of energy and stress.
- Decide up front how you are going to deal with anxious people. This is an important choice so make it now. Something that I am very aware of is that there are a lot of anxious people in America right now. This country is on edge, and people are feeding each other’s anxiety. There has been a void of real leadership for a long time and we are in a standstill, or even regressing culturally in many ways. When someone tries to infect you with their anxiety, you need to be ready to deal with it, and not accept it. You can do this in a kind way but decide ahead of time how you’re going to deal with it. For example, personally, I don’t play these games with people. I can sense it coming, or see it coming, and I avoid these people or use boundaries with them.
- Pause. Take time out to do nothing. Most of us flee silence because silence brings to light true things that we would rather not deal with. Be silent, take breaks, and breath.
- Be courageous. Making bad decisions and not eliminating decisions often involves avoiding the pain of change. We would rather be surrounded by noise or procrastinate than to go through the difficult process of maturity and growth.
- Eliminate as much as possible. Get rid of things you don’t need so your physical space is not so cluttered. You will be able to make faster and better decisions.
- Practice making choices quickly instead of putting them off.
- Do any 80/20 analysis, and again find out what 20% of your life is causing 80% of you stress and get rid of it. (Check out the Pareto Principle for more information.)
- Stay put and grow. Sometimes, we need to ignore other choices. Don’t be a quitter in a nation of quitters. There may be a million other things you could be doing, but remember that to become a healthy individual takes work.
- Embrace the mystery of life. We’ll never have it all figured out. Mystery is beautiful, so enjoy it. Don’t fret too much about making the wrong choice because life is too big and too amazing to ever know for sure. Live on the edge and embrace the fact that you’ll never be sure of everything.
- Embrace your limitations, and your telos. This is the opposite of cheesy self – help therapy, but it’s the truth. We’re not all going to be supermodels, superrich, or the best athletes. Take life as it is, and work day by day to grow in character.
- Embrace Kaizen. Kaizen is a word I love. It is a Japanese philosophy of slow, continuous improvement. This philosophy is better than maximizing choices at all times and keeps us moving forward.
How can you improve?
How can you eliminate choices?
What can you do to simplify?
What’s making you anxious?
Can you make decisions faster?
Read Next: Don’t Give Up So Quickly
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Have a great week,