On Limiting Choice

On limiting choice
Keeping life simple saves energy for the important stuff, says Caroline Sylger Jones

The infinite choice that surrounds us today has become a burden to my soul. I have spent more time than I want to staring bewildered at the range of tissues on supermaket shelves, I’m always the last one to choose from a dinner menu, and I get panicky in the queues of busy cafés, wondering if I’ll have decided what I want by the time the barista gets to me.

Having too much choice makes it hard for our brains to make a clear decision. We become confused and agitated, stuck in a state of indecision or in danger of making the wrong one – whether that’s buying an Earl Grey rather than a herbal tea or dealing with a client using anger rather than kindness. As it’s unlikely our choices will be limited any time soon, it’s up to us to control those we’re exposed to, and the way our brains deal with them.

Studies show that the brain only has limited resources to draw on, and that if we use it too much and too often each day those resources run out. Yet we over-complicate our precious days, straining to make the right decisions about every little thing. To ensure you’ve got enough energy for the important, interesting decisions in life, try limiting your daily choices in more trivial areas.

Clothes are a good place to start. Part of the reason we feel more relaxed on holiday is that we’ve pre-selected our wardrobe before we arrive, so unless we’re the kind of person who travels with a truck load of Louis Vuitton bags, dressing ourselves each morning is pretty easy (if not, more to come on packing soon). As most of us wear only a fraction of what’s in our wardrobe regularly, it’s not difficult to recreate this refreshing situation at home. Take a little time to select three effective combinations of clothes that work for each of the different situations in your life – work, going out, being at home, whatever. Then have the courage to get rid of the rest.

When you’re shopping for anything, go for the highest quality you can afford, and buy less of everything. Countless times I’ve found myself buying a bag that looked absolutely fabulous on its market stall but turned into a plainly weird affair once I got home. Not knowing what we really want, whether it’s a type of handbag or a style of apartment, is often because we’ve become disconnected from what matters to us most – what life coaches call our ‘core values’.

If you want help making a decision, try writing down words that describe the choice you want to make. If you’re choosing a job, it may be ‘flexible, friendly, challenging’ and so on. Pick a few of those aspects from your list that you feel, on instinct, are most important to you, and ask yourself if what you are about to choose fulfils those. If not, rethink.

Not being able to deal with choice is a sign that we’ve become disconnected from ourselves. Learn to trust your instincts and experiences over what other people are yelling at you from the pages of a magazine, a website or on the TV. Select what you watch and read with care, going for what you truly love or what you believe will feed you, and have the courage to ignore the rest.

If you’re stressed or depressed, top up your serotonin levels  – researchers at The University of Cambridge have found that low serotonin levels make you more likely to make a choice you later regret. Nuts and seeds, avocadoes and bananas, beans, pulses, cottage cheese, eggs, fish and turkey are all good sources.

What we eat is another crucial area when it comes to limiting choice. Sociologists have found that we make on average a staggering 226 ‘food decisions’ every day, so it’s worth thinking of ways to limit these choices that work for your lifestyle. For me it’s creating a weekly menu plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner, eating the same meals each week for a month or two, then create a new plan. I’ve (mostly) decided on my favourite brands of essential items like olive oil and baked beans, and buy them in pairs online. I cook predominantly vegetarian dishes at home, with fish and chicken a few times a week, and I eat my red meat quota when I dine out (unless The King is grilling some fantastic unsmoked bacon). Sadly I still potter about the Tesco aisle choosing tissues, though I do manage to avoid busy cafés.

More ways to keep things simple

Embrace the present moment alongside others on a mindfulness retreat. Meditation, the art of stilling the mind, has been practiced for thousands of years, but mindfulness is newer to us as a concept. Understanding and then practicing the art of mindfulness can transform the way you go about your daily life and improve your mental wellbeing. Read more in our journal.

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