The Tyranny of Choice

When I was a kid, my mother ran a daycare out of our home. This had a lot of implications growing up. For instance, I only have one blood-related sibling, but I had nearly 50 “revolving” siblings between ages 5 and 18, the ones who came at 7 a.m. and were gone by dinner. The ones I never had to see when they were sick.

One of the biggest things it changed was the state of our cupboards. We always had enough food to feed 10 people breakfast and lunch, plus two snacks. I don’t remember when my mom started using the meal plan the state now requires, but it wasn’t there for most of my time at home.

We often had 10 different kinds of cereal, and a pantry full of a variety of snacks – probably no less than 15 or 20 kinds ready-to-eat snacks at a time.

So what did I do?

I had Cinnamon Toast Crunch five mornings a week, peanut butter and jelly for lunch, with a side of Gushers and peanut butter crackers, and usually a spoon full of peanut butter for my afternoon snack. Every single day. For 12 years, with little variation.

Why’s that? I think I understood at a young age how much time I could waste making unimportant decisions.

[A]s the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.

– Barry Schwartz

My husband understands this, too. When we were planning our wedding, I would ask him what colors he might want to have, or what kinds of flowers. He never had an opinion beyond “I don’t know/care.” He told me, finally, that he can’t do open-ended questions. He needed choices. Limited choices. So I would show him three pictures. Then, and only then, could he help me make decisions about our wedding.

The same held true for paint colors when we bought our first home. If I had chosen without him, there would have been no choice. With no choice, quoting Barry Schwartz again, “life is almost unbearable.” With limited choice, life becomes simpler.

One of the most common places I hear this concept applied is in raising autonomous, confident children. That it’s better to ask “Would you rather have an apple or a banana for a snack?” than to say either “Here is the apple you’re having for snack,” or “What do you want for a snack?”

What interests me most, though, is the applications for productivity. I mentioned earlier that I’m obsessed with list-making. But, unlike some people,  I make weekly lists that I only rarely break down into daily lists. Like on Saturdays, which are usually the only day I have nothing going on.

My lists are numbered, but I don’t make myself complete them in order. Of the 10-15 things on my weekly to-do list, I usually accomplish at least 8. Having a limited list of things to do, but the option to do any of the items, gives me the sense of freedom I need to feel like I’m in control, while still giving me boundaries.

The lists include fun-type-things, like coloring and reading, boring administrative things, like scheduling my overdue visit to the dentist’s, and writing and household things I’d rather avoid. But they tend to get done.

As an added bonus, I spend very little time per week wondering what I should be doing. I made my list for this week in about 5 minutes this morning. I spend even less time on our meal plan for the week. And the <10 minutes I spend planning probably saves me more than an hour every single week that I would’ve spent debating what to do next.

How about you? What keeps you focused? How many choices do you like to have?


  1. I definitely get stressed the most at the grocery store. Instead of Wal-Mart, it should be Choice-Mart! I don’t write that many lists for myself for housework type things, though I do keep a vague list in my head, and if I manage to squeeze in dishes and a quick sweep in between all the other never-ending chores, I feel good!

  2. I get overwhelmed with choices too and have been known to have grocery store meltdowns (and of course, bookstore meltdowns!) when there are too many things to choose from. Lists help, and I always do research beforehand so I have an idea of what I really need versus what I want, and can narrow it down, if that makes sense!

  3. Great post. I’m Heather and I was hoping you would be able to answer a question I have regarding your blog! My email is Lifesabanquet1(at)gmail(dot)com 🙂

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