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Information Overload + the Paradox of Choice [Episode 26]

Information overload contributes to so much of the physical and mental clutter in our lives—but what should we do about it? Listen to this episode of The Simply + Fiercely Show to find out.

In This Episode:

  • why having too many choices can sometimes be a problem
  • my top tip for dealing with information overload and too many options

Featured In This Episode:

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Note: this is not an exact transcript and has been edited for clarity.

Information Overload and the Paradox of Choice

It’s Jennifer here and welcome to the Simply and Fiercely Show. 

In today’s episode, I want to explore something that I’ve been thinking about lately. The whole concept for this podcast has arisen because I’ve been asking myself the question, ‘What is it that makes modern life so complicated’? 

Obviously, that is a very big question, there’s so much that contributes to it. But one thing that came to mind is the paradox of choice and information overload. 

I just came up with that thinking about it myself and then I googled the paradox of choice and realized that somebody has written a book about it, which I have not read. From reading the description, it’s really relevant to what I want to talk about today.

Autonomy and having too many choices cause stress and overwhelm

The book is called ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less‘ by Barry Schwartz. 

I want to read this quote to you “Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well-being and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though, modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever have or ever has before and thus, presumably more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it, psychologically.” This quote summarizes his point of view, with regard to us having too many choices. 

As I said, I haven’t read this book, although having just discovered it, I’m definitely going to check it out. It really aligns with the thoughts that I’ve been having about why so many people feel so stressed and overwhelmed. This applies to life in general, but specifically, for example, getting dressed and our wardrobes.

I wrote a blog post about the problem that so many people have, where they have a whole closet full of clothes, but nothing to wear

Another example is the stress that so many people feel about figuring out what to make for dinner every night. We have so many options, so many choices.

I even remember feeling this way when thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. We have this world now where we’re told when we’re growing up that you can be anything that you put your mind to.

Which is really brilliant. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t have those kinds of opportunities. It’s amazing that you can go with that many people, I shouldn’t say everyone, because obviously not everyone has the opportunity. Many people have the opportunity to go to university and study whenever they want and there are so many possibilities for careers, etc. 

But the flip side of all of these possibilities is that it can be overwhelming. Walk into a supermarket and there are 10,000 options. Walk into the shopping mall and every style is out there, there are hundreds of 1000s of clothing options.

While it’s good to have options, I also believe that it’s causing a lot of stress, clutter and unnecessary busyness. 

So I thought I would share how I manage this because there have been a few simple shifts that I have made in my life that have really helped me navigate the complicated world, and in my opinion, have made my life a lot simpler.

Creating boundaries for yourself

I will start by saying the number one thing is creating boundaries for yourself. 

Anyone who has listened to my previous work knows that this is something I am utterly fascinated with. I think there’s so much power behind creating boundaries for yourself, especially in terms of simplifying, but I feel like there’s so much resistance to that. 

I’ll break this down a bit further, let’s talk about fashion. Culturally, we have this concept that you’re always supposed to be following the trends. 

Every season there are new styles. If you walk into a shopping mall right now, every store has its own kind of theme. There’s a whole new look and it is something that changes from year to year. 

We also have this idea that we’re not supposed to wear outfits on repeat, we always have to be coming up with something creative. 

That’s something I used to struggle with. I felt that every day I had to think of something new to wear. I think that all of that pressure that we feel to always look different stems from having so many options. 

Whereas I’m sure that 80 years ago, women didn’t have as many clothes to wear. This is long before fast fashion.

So you might have fewer clothes in your wardrobe and that makes looking stylish, easier. I always look at old photos and think that the women always looked so put together.

I think that when you have fewer choices, it sometimes becomes a little bit easier to be more cohesive and to look put together.

Whereas when you have a million things, you’ve got the stress of trying to figure out how to put these different items together. How do I make this outfit work for me?

The same thing in the kitchen. Cooking dinner is a lot more stressful when you have the supermarket and a million recipes and cuisines and everything from all over the world available to you. 

That’s where we end up buying things that we only use once whether it’s clothes or food, it leads to wastage. It also leads to, as I said, stress, overwhelm, and clutter, all of these things are the flip side of having options. 

So as I said, what I find really works for me is having some boundaries. In terms of first, what I don’t want to do. You’ve all heard me talk about this with regards to wardrobes, for example, there are certain colors that I’ve decided that I just don’t wear, certain silhouettes, certain fabrics.

Creating those boundaries for myself helps me limit all of that choice. So when I walk into a shopping mall and I am overloaded by all of the options I have the freedom to decide those boundaries for myself. It’s not like somebody else is imposing them on me. 

I just say, hey, to make my life simpler, and to make me happier and because I know I feel better, I’ve used this example before, I don’t wear yellow. 

I love the color yellow, I think it’s beautiful, I just don’t like how it looks on me and that has reduced the options and that overload. So when I walk into a store to pick out what I want to buy, there’s less stress because I have a smaller selection to pick from.

It’s not just yellow, it’s certain fabrics, certain silhouettes, and there are certain types of clothes I wouldn’t wear. The more self awareness I have about that the more easily I can create those boundaries. It brings things into focus and I feel less stressed and overwhelmed. 

I really want to point out how you can use this in so many areas of your life, too, beyond fashion. That’s the example I usually talk about because I find that it is so relatable to everyone.

What is personal uniform dressing?

There are other ways that we can use this same concept of creating boundaries, or what I call like, personal uniforms to simplify our lives.

So again, it’s in this article I wrote on my blog, but I love this concept of uniform dressing, which is not wearing the exact same thing every day but having formulas. 

For example, my size fluctuates a lot. I’ve had two kids, and I’m in my early 40s, some of you can probably relate. So what I find now is that I don’t really wear tailored clothes, I like short flowy dresses which I wear with shorts underneath so that I don’t flash everyone. 

This kind of uniform is so simple. When I go to the shop, I look for those same kinds of short flowy dresses. I have them in more casual looks and more dressy looks. So even though I’m not wearing the exact same thing every day, I kind of am, if that makes sense.

Cooking your way with simplified meal planning

You can apply this to so many areas of your life. 

For example, another blog post that was one of the first that I wrote on my blog eight years ago, was about how I apply this same concept to food

For some reference, I am not someone who loves, actually, I should say that I used to think that I hated cooking. But it’s because I hated cooking in the way that I used to think you had to cook. Which is in this really structured way where you’ve got to follow recipes, and it’s really stressful. 

You’ve got to plan out your meals for the week. Then you have to get all these different ingredients and follow rules, or a recipe. I found it really stressful, and I didn’t really enjoy it.

But as I’ve started to embrace this simple eating philosophy over the last decade, I’ve learned that I actually do like cooking when I do it my way. 

This concept of simple eating is about reducing information overload. It’s reducing that paradox of choice. Instead of sitting down and saying, there are 10 million recipes in the world, what do I feel like cooking today? Then having to buy all these random ingredients that I just use once or twice, I follow the same concept that I do for getting dressed. I have a personal uniform for getting dressed and I follow the same thing with food. 

The best way to explain it is to think about a taco. Everyone knows the concept of Taco Tuesday, however, you can have a million different things on your tacos. You don’t really have to follow an exact recipe, you can have your favorite things in your fridge and throw them on your taco on Tuesdays and that makes life so much easier.

Of course not authentic tacos, but you can clean out your fridge and toss whatever you have onto your taco. 

You still have options but you have reduced that overwhelm, that kind of deer in the headlights feeling you get by deciding that you’re going to have tacos.

What I do to reduce that overwhelm is have a few go-to meals. I like stir fry, salad bowls, tacos, and a few really basic things. 

I don’t plan them out ahead of time either, I just fill my fridge with things that I love eating, and then when it’s time to eat, I have these limited choices. 

I just say okay, well, I’ve got some chicken and some vegetables in the fridge, do I want to turn it into a taco? Do I want to turn it into a salad? Or do I want to turn it into a stir fry? 

I’ve limited my choices but it’s incredibly freeing and it’s not boring because I can use different spices or different sauces or whatever, to mix things up.

The concept of reducing your options

I find that we can apply this same concept over and over to so many different things in our lives. It’s sort of pre-deciding, as often as possible, where am I going to limit the scope.

It’s not being imposed on you, you give yourself the opportunity to consider all of the options that are out there. Then you step back and you say, ‘Okay, to simplify my life, what are the choices I’m going to give myself?’

Another way that I like to describe this is kind of like creating a toddler world for yourself. If you have ever been out to eat, for example, with small children, you know that you don’t read them a menu of 20 items and then ask them what they want. You’d be spending an hour sitting there waiting for them to hear what they want, right? 

Instead, you read the menu and then you choose two or three things that your toddler might like. Then you say, ‘These are the two or three options. What is it that you want for dinner?’ 

What I’m suggesting is that you can do that exact same thing for yourself. You still get that initial opportunity where you think about how you want to decorate your living room, how you want to get dressed, and what kind of food you want to eat. 

You still give yourself the opportunity to consider all of the options that are available to you. But then you say, ‘Look, I want my life to be simpler so I’m going to shrink those options down for myself.’

This is something I struggled with where I never felt like my home decor was very cohesive. Back in my shopaholic days, I was always popping into Target and seeing pretty things that I liked on the shelf and bringing them home without really considering how they were going to fit into my personal style. What happened was that my home felt really cluttered and everything felt really mismatched. 

So again, I applied these concepts of reducing my choices. I said, ‘Okay, well, there are certain colors I like in my home, I like to decorate with gray, blues, and greens. Even certain materials, like for furniture, I like the wood look or I like white.’ I used to like a lot of farmhouse stuff but it didn’t really fit in with the rest of my home so now I have just cut that out. 

It’s that process of constantly saying, ‘Hey, that’s not for me’. 

Then the next time you go to Target and you’re looking to buy home decor, you can be like, ‘Okay, well, that’s the kind of stuff that I like’. 

I really believe that you can do this in so many different areas of your life, from getting dressed, to how you eat, to how you decorate your home. 

Trust me, I get it. As someone who is quite free-spirited, one of my core values is freedom, I hate being told what to do. If somebody used limits for me, oh, my goodness, I would not deal with that well. 

But when you make it for yourself and you do it with intention, and you’re saying, ‘Hey, it’s not that I can’t ever do these things’. If I’m in the mood one day to cook some kind of elaborate meal, go for it. 

But on a day to day basis, where I’m busy raising my kids and running my business and dealing with all the stress that comes with life, I limit myself. 

It’s actually counterintuitive, but it creates so much freedom because now I don’t stress about getting dressed, I don’t stress about what I’m going to make for dinner. I don’t waste hours wandering the shops, looking at things, trying to figure out what to buy. No matter what I’m shopping for, whether it’s food or decor or home items.

I think that this is a really important lesson that might sound kind of obvious, but I don’t think that many people are implementing it. Instead, they’re just letting themselves be overwhelmed by all of the options and not realizing that we do have the power to step back. That it can create so much simplicity and create the freedom that we really want. 

We think the freedom that we want is having 10,000 items to choose from, whereas the freedom that we actually want is having some space in our minds to just enjoy our lives.

I hope that’s something for you to think about. As I said, there are so many different ways that you can apply this. 

Get your journal out and be a little bit creative and think about the ways where you can reduce your options to create more freedom in your life.

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