One of my favorite books is called the Paradox of Choice. The premise is right there in the title: choice is a paradox because choice makes us happy, but too much choice has the opposite effect.
Its core idea is that with too much choice people get overwhelmed and shut down. We have to distinguish between choices that are meaningful – say, a choice between buying a car or a motorcycle – and choices that are not meaningful – like whether we should use the right lane or the left lane on the way to work.
It’s important to make this distinction because we need to save our energy for the important choices. If we don’t, research shows we make the wrong one.
The book describes an experiment where people are asked to choose between 40 different varieties of jam; afterwards, it actually depleted the subject’s ability to make meaningful choices. When we’re faced with too much choice we tend to back away and not choose, the worst choice of all.
We face choices all the time like this in, for instance, technology. At any time there’s so much that we could learn, but only so much time for learning. Staying focused on the important choices is one way to address this and get the most out of the time we have.
I’ve tried to apply this to my own goals.
In my 20’s I wrote two novels, which helped me land a creative writing teaching job. That was my introduction to really long-term self-directed projects.
The next was running, which I started about a decade ago; now I regularly run for an hour every other day. I learned there was a discipline and a rhythm to running. It’s not as stressful as it’s made out to be in the commercials, or as fun; it’s a practice, in the end. To do it, I stay focused on simple, close by goals, and try not to get overwhelmed with new ones.
It’s an effective practice, I have learned.