The Art of Not Getting Overwhelmed

overload_homerUntil a few years ago, we were quite all right. Not exactly at the peak of our mental health, but we were not sucked in by a barrage of luminescent screens demanding our attention. Facebook was probably a badly coined portmanteau back then, and YouTube, OkCupid, and thousands of other apps did not even have a platform to exist on.

We now live in a world of apparent abundance. There has never been so many services and products available to us. The choices are endless… and also overwhelming. Instead of enabling us to live better, they are sometimes a source of our anxieties.

Today, we are bombarded with information every minute; notification after notification pops up on our screens, competing for our attention. Because of their rewarding nature, we give in and attend to them.

When we are working on something, it’s not uncommon for an incoming text message or email to distract us from the task at hand. Scientists have warned us about the dangers of context switching; that is when you abruptly stop a task in order to take care of another. Your quality of service on both tasks drop.

Evolutionarily speaking, the human brain hasn’t kept up with our exponential advances in instant and constant communication; nor has it ever been presented with an overabundance of choices.

It seems like living a modern life means you are signing the marriage contract with information overload.

The idea of information overload has been covered in length by many blogs and people. In this article, I want to focus more on the choice overload we face everyday. The amount of choice we have in different areas of our lives, along with the day to day information, has also skyrocketed.

There are several thousand music albums released every day. Never have we had access to such a plethora of artists through Spotify, SoundCloud, Vimeo, or YouTube. Over a thousand films on Netflix are ready, waiting for a single click to be projected into your consciousness. It feels like we should be getting happier with the many choices available to us, but that’s not the case.

In fact, studies have found out that an overwhelming increase in the available choices, beyond a certain happy medium, makes us more miserable than when the choice is limited to just one[1].

What is even more frustrating is that most of these choices are just dead weight. They exist only to give an impression of abundance. Upon closer look, you’ll find that most of them don’t fit your wants or desires.

For example, take the world of online dating: at first, to someone waking up from a 20-year coma, it would suddenly seem like they have so many choices in finding a mate. There’s Tinder, OkCupid, Match, Grindr etc. But once you sign-up and go through the motions of finding someone you can connect with, you’ll have to wade through piles and piles of spambots, horribly written profiles, uninteresting conversations, and finally, a boat load of unsolicited dick pics to get to the one person with whom you’ll have a decent connection.

The illusion of choice is powerful in its deceit. If we fall victim to its fallacies, then it’s so easy not to commit to one thing or one person. We are always looking for a bigger, better, smarter, more toned, or sexier deal. Instead of spending time with the choices we have made, sticking with it and getting to know what we have in our hands better; we anxiously begin to wonder whether we have made the right choice at all.

Such anxieties were not commonplace back in the day. It doesn’t do us any good to make us feel like we are missing out on something else.

Circumventing the Problem

We have a big mess in our hands. How can we sort it out? I’ve been stumped so many times with choice and information overload that I have established some basic rules that I follow to avoid unnecessary frustration. Here are some of them:

Stick To The Usual

In the morning, I don’t want to spend too much energy thinking about what to eat. I pretty much make the same breakfast every day. It’s healthy and tasty, and because I’ve made it many times before, I can cook it fast.

If I don’t feel like cooking, I’ll go to my usual cafe next door and get my usual deluxe cream cheese bagel. I’ve decided not to spend time looking at the menu and wondering if I’ve should’ve gotten something else.

Mark Zuckerberg's WardrobeMark Zuckerberg famously posted a photo of his wardrobe consisting of only a single type of t-shirt and a hoodie. People like him who need all the mental energy in the world know how exhausting choosing be.

Choose One and Commit to it

When I work, I usually put on some music. Most of the time, it’s an emerging artist or an album that’s been getting good reviews. The problem is, there are so many good artists and albums out there. It can take me half an hour or so just to find that perfect music for the setting. And once I’m a couple of minutes in, I’ll start to wonder whether if I’ve made the right choice. “Maybe I should’ve gone with some ambient music instead of hardcore rap”, I’ll think to myself.

This also happens when I’m looking for a movie to watch on Netflix.

These days, in order to protect myself from getting overwhelmed, I’ll pick something randomly out of a list and commit to it. I’ll tell myself that this is the best that is out there and that my choice is excellent.

When I stick to my choice, my mind relaxes and is able to pay attention and enjoy whatever I have chosen.

If I don’t commit to what I’ve chosen, my mind will tell me that there might be something better than what I’m watching right now. If I believe that, then I know I’ll look for this better choice for the next 30 minutes, and even then there’s no guarantee that this cycle won’t continue.

But by choosing something and assuming it’s the best choice to be made, I can let it grow on me. Something magical happens when I do that. I feel engaged. All because I decided to give it a little more time and not allow myself to be swayed by the hundreds of choices out there.

Mental peace and energy is our most valued item. By learning the truth behind this choice and information overload, we can learn how not to be overwhelmed.

What are your rules and strategies to escape from choice and information overload? Leave your answer in a comment below.


[1] More Isn’t Always Better

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