Overwhelmed by choices

“There is such a thing as doing too much to make your life better. Running, vegan eating, meditating, two blogs, cooking for myself… I think I overwhelmed myself and ended up just feeling like a disappointment.”

Sound familiar? I found the above quote a few months ago at a blog called “Refocus – using 100 words to change my world,” and put it aside for later comment.

This is another downside to all the wonderful information that’s available all around us, the million voices telling us how to improve our lives. Even if we granted that a lot of the advice out there is junk, there’s still a tremendous amount of helpful skills and habits you can acquire, wonderful things to experience, and books that YOU ABSOLUTELY MUST READ. Not to mention blogs that are devoted to drawing your attention to even more cool stuff.

We simply don’t have enough time or energy to experience even a fraction of what’s out there, and that can result in guilt and frustration. Living in a connected world means having to develop a new skill that doesn’t come easily to many of us: the ability to find something new, something that will enrich your life, improve your health, and make you a smarter, better, and more interesting and creative person… and then say to yourself, “This new thing is great… and I’m going to admire it for a moment as it floats on by.”

Years ago, one of my college roommates had a shelf lined with books he hadn’t read. Not books for classes. These were books that had been strongly recommended to him by professionals in his field. Each one was somebody’s “must read.” But as a full-time student my roommate didn’t have time to read any of them. He only had time to feel guilty and inadequate about it.

I can still picture that bookshelf. It stuck with me because I can be that way myself — setting unrealistic expectations – and even then I recognized on some level that this was a good way to make yourself miserable.

Only later did I understand what now seems like a really obvious point. Each of these leaders that my roommate admired probably had his or her own list of must-reads, with little overlap between the lists. One person’s must-read is another person’s waste of time. But my roommate earnestly combined all these lists into one massive ship’s-anchor of a bookshelf that weighed on him whenever he had some free time.

Now take that anecdote and broaden it from books to include exercise, diet, family time, cultural experiences, appreciation of nature, being an Informed Citizen, volunteerism, meditation or spirituality or religious practices, do-it-yourself projects, That Book You Want to Write, an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, etc. The world is full of enthusiastic experts who want you to do more of their thing. (And most of these experts have blogs!)

This explosion of self-help/cultural/educational media is generally a good thing, I think, but its current scale and accessibility is new enough that many of us don’t yet know how to deal with it. We have to adjust our expectations, and learn how to live with a constant surplus of good choices.

Have you ever been in an outstanding restaurant that has an extensive menu? It can be difficult to order in such a place. Everything looks good. How do you decide? Any choice you make means saying no to dozens of delicious entrees, some of which may be better than what you’re about to order. And who knows when or if you’ll come back?

Some people always know what they want. Curious people, I think, tend to see more possibilities, and this can be daunting. And some free spirits just close their eyes, point at a random spot on the menu and say, “That’s what I’m having!”

If I may add just one more Important Skill You Need to Acquire to your already long list, may I suggest that this is an important one: the ability to say yes to a small number of good things by saying no to many others.

At “Refocus” (whose quote opened this post) the blogger wisely concluded, “Instead of letting myself sink into a funk, though, and giving up all of it, I just did what I could.”

Exactly.

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