It’s a typical situation in these typical times
Too many choices
—Dave Matthews Band
The world of information has offered us tremendous opportunity. We have access to more information, more entertainment, more learning than any other point in our history. And the Internet allows us near-instant access to all of it. Want to know the best way to peel a hard-boiled egg, or write a haiku, or sharpen the blade on your lawnmower? Just the click of a link and a set of instructions or a step-by-step video are ready to show you exactly what you need to do.
And entertainment? We have access to thousands of television episodes, thousands of movies, thousands of books. Millions (billions?) of hours of video, billions of pages of written content… you get the idea. Huge. Monstrously huge. Gigantically huge. A universe of content spinning in “interspace.”
So we already understand that there’s too much information out there. We can’t possibly read everything there is to read (books or articles or even–dare I say–blog posts…), watch everything there is to watch, listen to every piece of music, visit every website. We just don’t have enough time in our lives to do that, especially if we want to produce something ourselves.
Because we want to do more than just consume, right? We want to give something of our own to the world. And doing that takes time, along with all the other responsibilities we have as parents, spouses, career people, family members, citizens…
So we either make some hard choices, or we get bogged down and overwhelmed, drowning in information and images.
So how do we go about making those choices for ourselves? How do we decide where to spend our time? How do we narrow the infinity of options to a manageable set that we can consume and understand and enjoy? How do we decide which among all the options is the best one for us? And how can we do that without feeling we’re missing out on something?
That last question is a tough one for me. I struggle with it a lot. I just hate the idea of missing out on something cool or important or interesting. Just the thought of having options out there I can’t experience stresses me a little.
But I keep telling myself that that’s okay—some of those experiences, some of that content, isn’t made for me. As a general rule, I’m not into professional wrestling (or most pro sports, for that matter), gangster movies, sewing or knitting or crocheting, hunting… you get the idea. There’s nothing wrong with these pursuits, and other people take great pride and derive great pleasure from these pursuits, whether participant or fan. On the other hand, if it has something to do with writing, fantasy fiction, productivity, business, games, Tai Chi, bulldogs… then I’m interested.
So my own tastes, and yours, are that first line of defense from information overload. This doesn’t mean we don’t try new things, and find new interests we add to the list. But we use our natural instincts to focus on those things that fit us, and eliminate from our view those that don’t.
Within the bounds of those interests, though, there’s still thousands of hours of content we can consume, classes we can take, things we can learn. And with multiple interests, as I have and I’m sure most of you do too, we’ve got to be even more selective about where we spend our time.
With that in mind, here are some tools and techniques you can use to help manage your choices and focus on the things that really matter to you:
1. Make a “Someday Maybe” list. AKA life goals list, bucket list… Start here and list all the things you want to do in your lifetime. Give yourself permission to be as open and free and wild as you can be. This is brainstorming! If you’ve thought about opening your own pottery studio, put it on the list. If you want to take up squirrel-suit diving, put that on too. Maybe you want to watch the whole series of How I Met Your Mother or 24. Add it. Maybe you want to write a book of poetry. On the list.
This is your time to be as limitless as you can be. Enjoy it!
The beauty and freedom of putting these things on a list is that they’re captured outside your head, so your brain doesn’t need to chew on them. You’ve acknowledged them, given them importance, but you don’t have to take action on them (or at least not on all of them) at this time. This is not your action list. You don’t need to feel bad you’re not taking action on them right this minute, because this list is intended to be a holding tank of sorts for those ideas that haven’t become critical. Because you have other things to do that are more important or urgent or both. So when you’re done making your big list, then it’s time to…
2. Make some initial choices. Make a list of things you want to do or should do now. Focus on a few things so you’ll be able to get enough depth to see whether or not you want to continue. Don’t be afraid that you’re picking the wrong things just yet… Just get that initial list together.
3. Be selective. Your time and attention have value. Treat them that way. Don’t waste your time on information that doesn’t materially benefit you, whether to teach you something, to inform you, to entertain you. With the wealth of material out there, the multitude of things you can spend your time on, you can afford to be choosy. Don’t settle.
4. Prioritize. What things will give the most pleasure, satisfaction, joy, fulfillment – whatever your desired state of being is? You might use the 80/20 rule here: focus on the twenty percent of things on your list that will provide you eighty percent of your “reward.” This will also allow you to keep your focus list to a manageable number (no more than five).
5. Give yourself permission to experiment. Try out that yoga class, take salsa dancing lessons, learn calligraphy or public speaking or a foreign language (or maybe several). Many classes will let you try them out for free the first time, so it won’t even cost you anything but a little of your time. And if it’s not a good fit…
6. Don’t be afraid to quit. If it’s not right for you, that’s okay. We give quitters a hard time, but if you’re quitting for the right reasons, it’s really more making an educated choices about your options. It’s okay not to stick with something that’s not a good fit (see Seth Godin’s The Dip for more on this). If you gave ballroom dancing a try, and found it too slow for you, then quit. Instead, try swing dancing, or salsa, or hip hop! There are tons of choices out there; find the ones that are right for you, and let the rest go.
This applies to content, too (see Be selective above). If you’re reading that book a friend recommended and you’re still not enjoying it after 50 pages, it’s time to put it down and find something you will enjoy. Same with that movie: give it 10 minutes and if it hasn’t captured your interest, shut it down and pick something else.
An added bonus of applying experimenting and quitting techniques, is that whether you finish or not, you get to cross it off your list! One less thing to worry about, to wonder whether or not you’d be good at it or enjoy it or want to have a career in it.
7. Be comfortable with “good enough.” Chances are good that when choosing between two alternatives, neither one is perfect. Go back to your reasons for making the choice in the first place, and determine if it’s giving you the result you intended. If it is, then great, it’s done it’s job. If it’s not, then head back out to your research, and find another that just might meet your needs. Just because that book or class or club or app or computer program doesn’t have everything on your list exactly how you want it, doesn’t mean it’s without value to you. Does it meet your needs? At least at a minimum level? Maybe plus a little more? Good. Then it just might be good enough.