Freedom of choice

Good for the teeth, bad for the fur

Xmas is almost here. This year, for a brief period of time, I am visiting my family. In Poland — where huge and shiny shopping malls co-exist in vast numbers — having a choice (heaps of it) is of a great importance.

Being forced to re-stock some of the cat’s food for my sister’s truly aristocratic pet — Leone, we decided to visit one of the mentioned malls. We entered a specialised, zoological store on a dedicated, zoological floor. We found a dedicated cats’ department and started looking for the perfect meal for our fluffy friend awaiting us hungrily at home. Choosing food quickly turned into an almost impossible mission. There was not a single box simply saying: a good meal for your hungry cat. Some food was good for growth, some would calm down a cat while you are away (by cuddling I presume?). Quite a few boxes contained food good only for the teeth, some others with food good only for the fur. After a while, we were facing a truly challenging dilemma: what is more important for Leone? Having healthy teeth or healthy fur or…? You might be thinking that the choice here was obvious — go for the teeth as he can’t grow them back. Wait a moment! What if the winter will be especially cold and long this year? There would be not much use of these healthy, shiny fangs if the cat will freeze, right? This is exactly what I thought.

There were three ladies hired at the store. They seemed like the experts we were looking for. In my naive mind, they stood as the unlimited source of knowledge about the vast selection of offered cat food and… a beacon of hope — we seriously wanted to finally buy the frigging thing and go back home. After a minute of talking, I figured out the sole reason for the “three ladies” existence. It seemed that they were only hired to ensure that nobody steals anything from the store. I simply can’t imagine a different purpose as they had absolutely no idea about anything. The advice we received was so vague that I started to even doubt that they actually knew what kind of a creature a cat is. Of course additionally to their friendly-ish advice we caught the infamous are-you-an-idiot? stare completely free of charge. Long live the customer!

Forced to make a decision ourselves, we went for the food which is good for the teeth agreeing that Leone will not leave the flat during the winter thus will not freeze to death. We were seriously hoping that the food we chose was also a healthy overall meal as otherwise it would be a catastrophe.

All of this made me wonder about two things. First, the glorified “having a choice” didn’t really make me any happier (rather frustrated) and second: what was the real reason for the “three ladies” to sit in that store. I mean added value of human interaction equaled zero in this case. I decided that reasoning about the latter was a waste of my brain cycles. The first point was very interesting: why does having a choice made me rather unhappy?

I did some research and I found an article by Barry Schwartz describing a phenomenon called “the choice paradox”. Interested, I dug more. In his TED presentation — and I really do recommend to watch it — Schwartz estimates that choice has made us not happier but more paralyzed and more dissatisfied. These trivial situations in my life — which are happening over and over again — showed me that seriously less is more. Always! I just happened to be too blind to see it through.

All those consuming questions to answer, this overwhelming explosion of choice. I realised that I was inflating them to a degree of serious problems. I felt blocked, paralyzed and procrastinating so many times without realising the root cause of the issue. I always tried to make a perfect choice. A single, perfect decision to define everything I do. Paradoxically, I was ending up digging a deeper hole but not really pushing things forward — very demoralising.

What I finally understood was that: nothing is set in stone (bravo mister!). You can start every week with a completely clean slate and most importantly it is not a bad idea to just wipe your goals clean and start from scratch if you feel like doing so. This simple thought helped me to set up a little “process” which so far worked quite well.

What I try to do on a weekly basis is:

  1. Review and understand where I am in relation to my current goals;
  2. Set the smallest possible next step;
  3. Focus and make that step;
  4. Rinse and repeat (hand-wash only!).

Additionally, while dealing with a few close alternatives, I prefer to pick the one which will potentially not block me too much later on.

What I found really funny was when I realised that the “process” (which I proudly called mine back in the days), was actually the foundation of many so-called “lean methodologies” out there — for instance, the Agile Manifesto.

Now, back at home, we unpacked all the purchased goods. My sis prepared a bowl of food for the cat and served it. How did Leone react to all of our efforts? Well… He remained totally unimpressed while happily munching whatever was served. I bet that he seemed happier not having to choose what to eat that particular day.

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