When Choosing Means Losing Time

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On a recent trip to a popular local pottery shop – the kind of place where everything is made on the premises by hand – I was faced with an unexpected dilemma: Which two of the ceramic birds should I choose as Mother’s Day gifts?

The issue was not bird species or price – they are all the same bird, same price, same size. But the same bird came in three colors, each decorated in three distinct designs. Nine different birds.

I joked with the owner about how lucky we are to have so many choices – it’s like choosing toothpaste! But I still second-guessed my selection as I drove home.

Then I saw the headline in the New York Times, “Making Choices in an Age of Information Overload.” Yes! Exactly! The problem was not that I had too many birds to choose from. The issue is that I have become so conditioned to choices, and researching them, that I pretty much anticipate complexity with every purchase.

In the Times piece, the author discusses the art of brand “signaling” or product cues that distinguish certain brands and services from others. These cues are supposed to make choices easier for us. He illustrates by detailing how, after his own extensive research that proved all baby formulas are pretty much the same, he still inexplicably found himself spending more for one particular brand.

The author asks: “Is it better to live in an economy where there’s so much chaos that we spend more to ensure our chandelier shows up unbroken or our baby formula isn’t tainted?” The answer, he is told, is yes. We have the choice to do the research ourselves, or to trust the signals.

But all of these choices – and the research that online merchandising now makes possible – is why I promised myself that this year I am going to stop overthinking things. The choosing has worn me down. Some things – whitening or fresh breath; insuring the package or not; two queen beds or one king – just do not require five minutes of thought.

After all, that time can be much better spent doing other things, like talking on the phone with mom, or – if you have a baby – sleeping.

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