The Paradox Of Choice.

I’m banned from the supermarkets these days. Not by the stores themselves, you understand, they’d be only too happy to have my time and money. It’s a self-imposed ban. Not for any  ethical reasons, although I do have plenty of those. For my sanity.

I have come to realise that I don’t cope well with too much choice. In a restaurant, I behave as though it’s my last supper every time I order, and I often struggle to choose my lunch (when I’m not using up leftovers, that is) but the time it really comes to the fore is in the supermarket.

It begins in the fruit and vegetable section. If I’m buying apples, for example, I’ll look at the variety, the condition they’re in and where they have come from. I prefer to buy UK grown fruit and vegetables, but if I’m buying from abroad, then I’ll look for a Fairtrade label.  There are pros and cons to air-freighted vegetables, so I’ll make decisions about that too. So far, so complicated. But in fact, this is now the easiest section of the supermarket for me to be in. When it comes to packaged food, I find myself looking at labels relentlessly, searching for ingredients, working out who owns the company, which type is cheaper and what looks the most appealing. It goes on and on. My husband says I go into something like shock; the proverbial deer in headlights. The last straw came when he had to drag me away from a whole wall full of tooth-pastes. I mean, why do we need so many options? Whitening, fresh breath, gum health, complete care. Do I want spearmint, fresh-mint, sensitive? Is one of those stand-up pumps better than a normal tube? Which works out cheaper? And what are blue micro-beads for anyway? There is no wonder I go into some kind of choice paralysis. Coupled with the bright lights and Christmas music in October, it’s a wonder anyone gets out alive.

These days, we order our supermarket shopping online. Using the information from the last shop, I can quickly whip through the list and, even when I change things ( I always check for special offers and cheaper deals) it’s so much less stressful in front of a laptop and away from the store. An added bonus is never having to take my small children with me. Not for them the opportunities to throw extra sweets into the trolley, destroy the magazine aisle or have a ginormous tantrum because I won’t buy them everything they want. Those days are over.

Of course, it’s not just supermarkets. The paradox of choice is everywhere – from choosing a mobile phone (uppermost in my mind, after losing mine) to a pair of jeans, and much much more. The size of the market, which is allegedly one of the greatest successes of a Western society, does not do me many favours after all.

At the moment, I’m in the throes of yet another de-cluttering of my house. This time I’m being more ruthless. I’m getting rid of lots of things that I have been keeping for sentimental reasons, despite them being hidden away and forgotten about. I’m looking for voluntary simplicity. I’d like to have far fewer things, and only buy things that I need or truly love, and keep them forever. I want things that are not trend-led but designed to last, and for my surroundings to be peaceful instead of feeling as though the house will explode if we bring one more thing into it.

It is a difficult enough thing to do with a small family for whom more is better. My son in particular is a collector and is desperate for every single engine in the Thomas Take’n’Play collection, so I will have to accommodate that to a certain extent.

Yet, the real challenge comes from within me. It is becoming easier and easier for me to get rid of things. I’m far more comfortable with that now – and I can tell that clearing out the house is doing wonders for my mind too – it’s as though as weight is lifted from them when I give away yet another bag of unwanted belongings to the charity shop. But what about when the time comes to buy something new? To replace something that is worn out and cannot be repaired? I’m not talking about the occasional luxury here (those things tend to be used up anyway, given that my favourite treats are things like a bottle of fizz or a luxurious bath oil) I’m talking about the things that I hope will last forever.

If I want to have far fewer things, then any new things that I buy need to be the very best choice there is for me. That doesn’t mean the most expensive, it means the best suited to what I want and need. I already prefer to have fewer clothes that are well-made than lots of cheaper clothes, so it’s just spreading that to other areas of my life and making the best choices about the things I want in my life. But given that I cannot even choose a tube of toothpaste without assistance, that might be something of a challenge…

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5 Comments to “The Paradox Of Choice.”

  1. Agree with so much of this – particularly with the decluttering, sometimes the weight of all that ‘stuff’ feels overwhelming. And how liberating it feels when you just get rid, it definitely gets easier to let go the more you do it.

  2. I know exactly what you mean… we have the biggest Tesco in the country just up the road, and although I don’t tend to get into quite the same choice paralysis (though sometimes it gets me like that too!) I do wonder why we need so much choice. My particular bugbear is raisins. Who honestly needs that much choice in raisins?!

    And as for decluttering; what happens when you love /all the things/? ! I don’t think you’ve ever seen our place, but you’d faint, I think! It’s crammed floor to ceiling, every room, with things which (in the words of William Morris) we know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Some of them are sentimental, most are things we love and want to keep. And the rest are books! 😉 Every time I try for simplicity, I look at things & go ‘I like that’, ‘that was a present from so&so’, ‘I definitely need that’ and so on. I think I’m one of life’s clutter-acquirers, and I should just accept that!

  3. I’ve just remembered; the Germans have a phrase for it… Der Qual der Wahl… the torment of choice!

  4. decluttering is hard. But once you start, it becomes oddly addictive. Can I sell this on ebay? Would X like this gizmo?

    I’m terrible at it, of course. Go through bouts of decluttering followed by bouts of ‘well, the shelves are empty’

    And I know exactly what you mean about supermarkets. I spend entirely too long looking at row upon row of essentially identical things before realising that actually all I need is some new toothpaste, and that one tasted nice before, so I’ll just get it.

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