Why the More Options We Have, the Less We Want to Do

Scott Leonardi

Image from istockphoto.com


It’s kind of paradoxical that the more options we feel we have, the less we seem to want to do.

After being stuck at home for so much of this year, the expanse of potential and opportunity stretches out as far as we can see. And yet, when faced with the reality of seemingly limitless options as to how to spend our time, it’s easy to let the weight of it all hold us down and keep us overwhelmed and underachieving.

When you’re presented with such a vast array of options for how to spend your time, time ceases to really mean anything. When there are no longer clock-based checkpoints scattered across your schedule (i.e. your alarm clock waking you up, getting out of the house in time to beat traffic, being at work at a certain time, eating at a certain time, leaving at a certain time, taking care of household necessities in a timely manner so you can get to bed at a certain time,etc.), your normal habits and routines start blending together into one long block of existence that has been there the whole time and is just called life.

As much as people like to joke about how bored they are, or relate to each other about how many times they’ve cleaned the same spots in their house, or share sympathies regarding the feeling of opening up your refrigerator for the 19th time just to check once more if there really isn’t anything to eat, we’re all really just avoiding the fact that, if we wanted to, each of us could easily occupy ourselves with learning, creating, collaborating, and expanding ourselves is a litany of new ways that hadn’t been available to us before due to time constrictions.

Why then, when presented with such an expanse of free time, do so many of us shrink at the thought of it all? Why do we let ourselves become so overwhelmed by options that instead of just choosing something, we resign ourselves to do absolutely nothing?

You could say that it’s a natural response to a heightened state of anxiety, almost as if that amount of free time is a predator and you can’t help but freeze at the sight of it instead of choosing to fight or flight. You just lay there and let the God of Options swallow you whole.

I don’t think that it’s necessarily based out of any kind of fear response, though. I know that, at least for me, when I’m faced with such a variety of options to choose from and all the time in the world to make a decision, the reality of it all sets in and I realize that the more options I have, the less meaningful each option is until there are so many different choices that no one means any more or less than any other. Everything begins to have to same value, and if the value of every option in the same, then nothing has value. If no choice is any more valuable than any other, then nothingness itself becomes inherently more valuable than making a meaningless choice for the sake of choosing.

It’s a stretch, I know, but I’m just saying that this is how it feels, not how it actually is.

In reality, we know that choosing something will always be better than choosing nothing. We become overwhelmed by too many options because our brains can’t manage more than a few interests at a time. We have our obligations, our hobbies, or health and wealth, and outside of the handful of things that normally take up our time, we can’t really handle spinning more plates than we have arms to hold.

We’re all staring down the barrel of our true self-interests and beginning to see what’s really important to us outside the framework of a traditional work schedule. A lot of people aren’t used to having this much clarity, enough to see how they’ve actually built their lives and what happens when you take out all of the superfluous distractions of everyday living.

Obviously, the answer to finding out what you should do with your time is to just pick two or three things to focus on and block out everything else. It seems easy enough, but there are also enough people here that already experience FOMO regularly during their normal lives that now that they’re stuck inside with a million potential things to keep themselves busy, they still can’t help having a Fear Of Missing Out on the 999,997 things they chose to neglect so they could focus on a measly 3.

The more options you give yourself without actually committing to any one of them is going to leave you either dipping a single toe into a wide variety of different things, never actually getting better or making progress with any of them, or you’re going to end up saying Fuck it all and not choose anything — the easiest choice of all.

Sometimes not choosing is necessary for your mental health, sometimes it’s hazardous. It all depends on your personal situation.

When you’re killing yourself trying to fill your time and continue the bad habit of never giving yourself a second to be alone while you hurry back and forth, scatterbrained and anxious, I’d say that taking a few nothing pills would be the right prescription. Letting your mind settle from a boil to a simmer keeps you from burning up too quickly. You can refocus on the mind behind the actions instead of the actions themselves. Staying too busy for too long can disconnect you from the person you were before you decided to immerse yourself in life’s constant calls to action. Doing absolutely nothing and allowing the world to move without your involvement can alleviate those pressures by giving you perspective about your small place in the world. It starts to make you consider how much happier you could be if you were able to simply live at your own pace instead of your time being managed by the obligations of modern society.

On the other hand, too much nothingness and it can be hard to find your way back. An object at rest…

Doing nothing shouldn’t be your go-to move when things become stressful or you’ll start to put off so much of your life that there won’t be any life to come back to. You can’t refuse a direction forever or your feet will start to become rooted in the crossroads. You’ll get stuck in place and become nothing but another mile-marker for others to glance at as they make their way through their own lives. You can’t choose anything every time or you might as well be choosing non-existence over existence. It’s literally the only thing left at the end of that road. Put off too much of your life and it will slowly morph into non-life, a stagnant pool of dead water, the embodiment of de-evolution. No one should want to crawl back into that primordial mud.

But still, being faced with so many options can feel daunting.

We seem to think that because the time is there, so is the obligation to fill it.

And you can, if you want. Fill it, that is. If you see the spread of choices and actually pick one or two from the buffet, by all means, enjoy yourself. But, you’re also allowed to not fill your time. There are no Option Overlords aware of your every decision and making sure you at least choose something. It’s okay to look out at your open landscape of free time and simply enjoy the space. You don’t have to start building houses in an empty field. Sometimes it’s better to be able to roam the range without worrying about tripping over tools. It’s calming and free of the worry that keeps anxious minds forever on the flutter. It steadies the shaking and lets you catch your breath. Let it.

When you choose to do nothing instead of something, try to take a step back and see the real reasons you’re avoiding things. It could be out of fear and avoidance, it could be a natural release of stress.

Either way, one is better than the other and I’m sure you can figure out which is which.

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I write a lot about self-development and personal growth. I want to help people uncover their authentic selves through creative expression and in the process understand their place in the world a little better. I also enjoy writing screenplays, short stories, and poetry. All of which can be found at MossManSupreme.com

Imperial Beach, CA

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