Book Reviews, Reviews

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz


I hate grocery shopping. I never know what I want to eat and I don’t have a list, so I wander the isles looking at the choices and trying to figure out how to turn all the food into meals. There is a practically infinite number of meals you could make out of the food in even the smallest of grocery stores. I find the infinite possibilities overwhelming. I remember I once almost had a panic attack in a pharmacy while looking at their enormous selection of toothpaste. I finally grabbed a tube that was the shiniest, and I have stuck with that brand ever since because I can remember what it is. It turns out, while my particular case is extreme, I am not alone in being overwhelmed by choice.

This is the subject covered in “Paradox of Choice.” Why is it a paradox? Well, as pretty much anybody can tell you, choice is good. Having options is good. Not just material choices, either. There are more career paths and more colleges than there were a generation ago, for example. The paradox comes in, because all of these choices we have to make take a toll.

I’m not particularly interested in “reviewing” this book. This post is more about how I digested and related to the material. In particular, a few things stuck out to me. Although I will say that a noticeable chunk of this book is reiterating stuff I have already read in  Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It was all applicable, but it was a bit much.

The first thing that really jumped out at me, I’ve already described: the feeling of being overwhelmed by choices. For several years, partly inspired by Sean Bonner and mostly of my own accord, I’ve been tending towards minimalism. Getting rid of stuff I don’t frequently use, and paying close attention to what I bring into my home (and my life). As I interpreted the book, it seems like this is (or can be) both good and bad. Clutter is very distracting, so not having a lot of stuff around is good in that respect. It also means less worrying about the stuff that clutter brings, like boxes to put other boxes in (ie storage containers and/or renting storage space). On the other hand, the book discusses “maximizers” vs. “satisficers.” A “maximizer” is someone who tries to find “the best” whatever. The best shoes, the best haircut, the best car, etc. And a satisficer wants “a reasonably good” pair of shoes, haircut, car, etc. Schwartz explains that most people aren’t 100% maximizer or 100% satisficer; that it tends to depend on the person and on whatever it is they’re looking for. For example, a gadget junkie may spend hours/days/weeks/months agonizing over which phone is best, but have a $3 haircut. “Maximizing” is exhausting work, and the more you try to maximize, the more likely you are to regret your choice. Buyers remorse is more common in maximizers. This made me think of a great blog post by  Moxie Marlinspike about how he buys silverware, which was a sort of response to a blog post by  Dustin Curtis about how he buys silverware. This “argument” really struck a chord with me when I read it months ago, and now I understand that it is very much a debate about maximizing vs. satisificing. Ultimately, what I took away from the book (and those blogs) is that I need to satisfice as much as possible. Especially for stuff I don’t really care about. It’s very easy for a minimalist to tend towards maximizing. When you want less Stuff, you want “The Best Stuff” because it will last longer; work better. But if you’re buying a fork, good enough is good enough.

The final big takeaway for me was basically a reiteration of something else I had already read. I strongly recommend  Time Management for System Administrators by Tom Limoncelli to anybody who has a job in IT. One of the chapters is all about developing routines. An example from the book, the author fills his car’s gas tank every Sunday, no matter what, no matter how close to full it is. Why? Because he used to be late for work Monday mornings, because he had to stop for gas. By always getting gas on Sunday, he knows he doesn’t have to worry about stopping Monday morning. Granted, he could still be late for other reasons, but not for this very easily preventable one. He says that making a routine allows you to “think once, do many.” In other words, weigh the factors, make the call, do it the same way every time, and you never have to spend time thinking about it ever again. This ties in closely with “Paradox of Choice.” Since you have to expend energy and stress thinking about choices, why waste that energy doing it over and over again, when the odds are pretty good you’re going to choose the same thing you did last time? For example, if you like a particular dish at a restaurant, don’t bother with the menu. If you try to “mix it up” you’ll spend time and effort on something that might be better than the dish you know you like, but it could be worse. And either way, you will have gotten yourself in a lather over a meal. Not worth the stress. It’s also worth noting (although I don’t recall this being in the book), that making choices reduces your ability to make other choices. This is called Ego Depletion. I used to spend way more time than I wanted to thinking about the clothes I wore. Is my favorite shirt clean? What about literally anything other than that shirt that doesn’t fit very well? When was the last time I did laundry? Etc. I got tired of wasting my time thinking about this stuff, so I got rid of all my clothes, and bought exactly 8 days worth of clothes. I do laundry exactly once per week, always on the same day. Now I don’t have to worry about what clothes I have available, because they’re all the same thing. And I don’t have to think about how long it’s been since I did laundry, because I must do laundry once per week, or I have to start re-wearing dirty undies.

I didn’t really learn a whole lot while reading “Paradox of Choice,” but it did seem to solidify and reenforce some ideas I had already had or things I had learned about how I do things and the choices I make. It was also a quick read. I suspect this may be one of those books I pick up every couple of years and re-read, much like the aforementioned Time Management.


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