How spag bol helped keep me sane
Dealing with choice overload in a world of micro-decisions
My life reads a bit like a choose your own adventure book. I would be walking along a nice forest path hand in hand with Prince Charming, heading towards some pre-defined destination when suddenly, obstacles would appear and a complete change of course would be required. Voracious dragon blocking my way… Should I turn left or right?
This status of constant and unexpected change has brought with it intense cycles of stress and anxiety. Having to readjust the course of my life so regularly and habitually has come with its share of self-doubt. Faced with imposed choices, I have time and time again wondered if I picked the path that was meant for me, or if I just lost myself deeper and deeper in the magic forest, missing out on what was meant to be my life. What do you mean I have to choose my own destiny? I have no idea what constitutes a balanced breakfast, I am obviously not fit to decide where in the world I will put down roots after loosing my job to budget cuts and my boyfriend to football and beer.
Outsiders often assume that the absence of constraints means absolute freedom. Actually, the absence of constraints means choice overload, a well-documented and mentally draining phenomenon. Even as a child, I cheated by reading and analysing all the potential adventure options in the book before picking my favorite. So choosing blind? Talk about getting out of my comfort zone. As an adult, times of comfort and stability have been few and far between and whilst this has led to a rich international life experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world, it has also created moments of intense paralysis. What if I chose the wrong career / job / relationship / flat / sofa and missed on the alternative better deal? Sliding doors anyone?
I was having one of those panic-struck ‘Oh my God look at this endless decision tree of possibilities I have to settle on before dinner’ lunch with my friend when she came up with a life-changing sentence. She patiently sat down and listened to me ramble on about the millions of things I was worried about, and the repercussions that one decision would have on all areas of my life. Did I want to remain based in the Middle East? Move back to England? Finally return to Canada like the prodigal daughter? What’s my luggage allowance if I move country? Should I bring my blender with me? Have it shipped? Buy a new one over there? When was the last time I even used my blender? She stared at my stressed-out face for a moment. And then summed it all up. ‘Seems to me like you have too many decisions to make. You need to reduce that number’. And this my friend, was life-defining.
She was right. Whilst I did indeed have to reflect on pretty heavy stuff, I was already panicking about all the smaller decisions that would result from that one final outcome. Looking at this with some perspective, no I probably didn’t need to be freaking out about which cable company to select for my yet unknown apartment.
As grown ups, we have thousands of decisions to make every day. And as a single grown up, every single one of those decisions rests on my shoulders, from what to have for breakfast to which life insurance policy to select, and whether I even need a life insurance policy in the first place. Whilst this is exhausting at the best of times, during periods of intense stress and uncertainty, it is unsustainable. So I came up with my own anxiety-reducing recipe: I cut down the number of decisions I had to make on a daily basis. Considerably. There are only two rules to this method: no decision is too small to be cut out of your life, and what can be dealt with later will be dealt with later.
When you view yourself as a full battery and every single decision you make as using up 2% of your remaining power, you quickly learn to go into energy-saving mode. So I standardised my life, allowing me to save up as much of myself as possible. Everything that could be made into a ruthless routine so simple that no decision was required to navigate through the daily grind was simplified. Breakfast? Same every day. Clothes? I bought the same sweater in different colours. Shopping list? Well by eating the same thing every day, your shopping list remains pretty constant. What’s for dinner? Spag bol. Happy days. Who can be unhappy with spag bol? Still exhausted? I got my lucky penny out. Played heads of tails, relied on the universe to pick out the best restaurant for me. Where I ordered spag bol.
I also learnt to postpone anything that could be decided at a later stage. Let future Annie deal with it. Was I going to be able to find a new job? Future Annie can figure that one out once she’s stepped out of the plane in selected location A with her allowance-compliant luggage. Did I want to go out with my friends next Tuesday for drinks? Let Future Annie get back to you when she’s on the way there. Or not.
Whilst this may not be the most varied or exciting of lifestyles and my diet might have severely lacked green vegetables for a wee while, not having to weight each option against its alternative was salvific in helping me reduce choice overload anxiety. I freed my brain from unnecessary background noise and focused my limited remaining headspace on the things that really, truly mattered. Like shaping the next chapter of my very tailored ‘choose your own adventure’ book.
So for those close to me, do not be alarmed if you see me eat the same packed lunch for weeks on end. Yes, it may mean I’m a tad overwhelmed. But it also means I’m dealing with it, and I’ve gone into energy-saving mode. And when I’ve rebooted a little, I promise to eat green vegetables.