The Paralysis of Choice

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The recent exercise of booking my flights back to Canada from New Zealand was a harrowing one. It took forever to actually decide on a plan of action and execute it. And for a full-time traveler, it shouldn’t have been that difficult. Then again, maybe my very freedom inspired this paralysis; the paralysis of choice.

This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

Planning where to travel to? The Paralysis of Choice is REAL. #TheProfessionalHobo #TravelPlanning #traveltips #lifestyletravel

NZ to Canada: It shouldn’t be that difficult…

I had a starting point: New Zealand. And I had a final destination: Canada (to visit family and friends, who I haven’t seen for a few years). But after spending six months in New Zealand, and returning to a place very familiar to me, I wanted to “shake it up” by visiting somewhere different (perhaps exotic) enroute. As a full-time traveler, I’ve created a lifestyle that allows me to do that, and I figured I’d be crazy not to exercise this privilege of choice.

But it was in making this choice that I became completely stymied. When the world is your oyster, where do you begin?

So I asked my readers, and polled my Facebook fans. I opened up a world atlas and searched for logical stopover points. And I researched – and researched, and researched – flights, routes, and possible itineraries; emerging day after day from fruitless hours spent online with nothing more than tired eyes and a frustrated spirit.

Nothing clicked.

Nothing seemed easy. Every time I thought I had it narrowed down, another possibility would fly in from stage left and confuse me again.

This was the paralysis of choice.


How I’ve traveled so far

In the past, my travel decisions and destinations have been quite easy; a family wedding brought me to western Canada, a unique caretaking position drew me to Hawaii, a sponsored trip brought Australia into the picture, and filming a television show introduced me to New Zealand. In these situations (and others), there was always choice, but one option always stood out from the rest as the “obvious” one.

But without an “obvious choice” this time around, the world suddenly became really big, with altogether too many places to go, none of which grabbed me or presented an opportunity inspirational enough for me to jump on board.

And the longer I stalled on making a decision, the more stressed I became and the less happy and inspired I was.

expansive beach

Choice = Misery

Suggesting that “Choice equals Misery” is a long shot, but possibly not as far-fetched as you might imagine. Consider these situations:

The Monk

A few weeks ago, a monk walked up the driveway to Mana Retreat Centre. He was on a walking pilgrimage from Auckland, and needed a place to rest. According to his faith, he is not allowed to ask for anything. He owns nothing, and relies solely on the kindness of others for survival. In his (fairly strict) practice, he can’t even help himself to a cup of tea; it must be offered and prepared for him.

Seeing that he was tired and needed a place to pitch his tent and rest for a few days, we offered him just that. In turn, we also prepared his meals (he ate once a day), and regularly offered him tea, coffee, and even blankets and various amenities in an attempt to make his stay comfortable.

One morning I told him that we were having some difficulty in determining what a good meal would be to prepare for him, knowing it’s his only meal of the day, and not knowing what he enjoys or needs. I asked him if there was anything in particular he was craving.

“Yes, but I can’t tell you,” he replied. “I must simply accept whatever you offer.” He went on to describe how the act of choosing something he wants or craves creates an attachment that contradicts his faith.

When I shot him a “you-poor-thing, you-must-live-a-hard-life” look, he simply smiled and assured me that he’s never been happier since he adopted this lifestyle; that it’s amazing what happens when you accept whatever comes your way.

The African Farmers

The (hypothetical) African farmers wake up in the morning, tend their fields, and provide for their families. There is no choice in this routine; it’s just what they do. They’re usually born into this line of work, and if they don’t continue with it, they – and their families – will starve.

We should never wish destitution on anybody, and I’m not supposing that poor people without life choices are happy by nature. But you can’t deny how these farmers don’t know – and haven’t even considered – any other way of life, and they just get on with their day…with a smile on their face.

Isolated Tropical Islanders

I read once about an isolated tropical island that is one of the few places left on Earth still completely disconnected from the “outside world”. The natives still live simply, and haven’t been touched by modern society.

Are these people unhappy because they don’t have our modern conveniences? Of course not; they aren’t even aware of another way of life. Are they happy? Fundamentally, yes. Sure, they have their moments as we all do, but the increasing mental health epidemics of our society (like depression) are completely foreign to them.

Even Me: The One-Bag Wonder

I have also taken some measures to reduce the choices I have to make in life. By having my belongings fit into a bag, I have eliminated most consumer choice. If I want to buy something, it actually has to replace something else; I simply don’t have room for extra stuff!

As such, I’ve reduced the agony of consumer choice. No need to decide between an lcd or plasma screen television, or cruise through aisle after aisle of “stuff” in a big box store, figuring out how I can afford to buy this or that and still make my credit card payments. “The Joneses” are off my Christmas card list – no need to keep up with them any more!

Heck – even the sheer amount of choice at a big grocery store overwhelms me! Do we really need to have 50 different types of cereal, a dozen different types of canned tomatoes, and 20 kinds of pasta? Whew. All I wanted was lunch.

which path to choose

Travel Choice

And so we return to the idea that having too much choice in where to go and what to do next (without an option that seemed obvious and that I was passionate about) ultimately made me miserable. It led to a complete paralysis: the paralysis of choice.

Reducing Choices

So if choice is paralyzing, ultimately leading to misery, the solution would be to reduce your choices, right?

But once you are used to having choices, bereaving yourself of that “privilege” might seem extreme. Reducing my belongings to one bag was moderately extreme and might be incomprehensible to many people; in turn, the life choices of the monk who owns nothing and lives at the mercy of others didn’t seem like a lot of fun to me.

But I do believe that choice – too much choice – is a recipe for unhappiness. Or maybe it’s when we identify something we want but can’t have – the feeling of deprivation – that leads to misery.

So how do we reduce our choices (a.k.a. misery) without feeling deprived?

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25 thoughts on “The Paralysis of Choice”

  1. I’ve dealt with this very same thing–both in my location independent lifestyle and my wedding officiating business. In fact, your post is a reminder that it’s time for me to write about this topic again, so thanks.

    I think the solution to your “problem” (a good problem to have by the standards of most) is to realize that oftentimes, one choice is as good as another. If you’re agonizing between the apple and the orange because both are delicious, then you really can’t go wrong no matter what you choose, can you?

    I’m willing to bet that wherever you’ve chosen to stop off on your NZ to Canada visit, you will find a wonderful adventure!

  2. To reduce the misery of choice, for me, is to know what I NEED. This is easy when it comes to shopping, but I guess a total different story for long term travelling.
    Since I’m not a long term traveller yet, I can only try and imagine how hard it could be to decide on an “in between” travel destination. Will it make financial sense? Will I enjoy the journey and destination, and how will it change me?
    For now I can only hope that my travel choices, in the not too distant future, will not be too miserable.

    Nora, I’m sure I will be happy with your decision.

  3. @Maureen – Indeed: I think the toughest thing about making a choice is actually taking a stance, making that step – that leap of faith at times – and choosing. The rest takes care of itself from there. (And yes, it’s a nice problem to have!)

    @Vicki – Great essay! Substitute “travel” for “read” in this paragraph, and it’s very applicable:
    “If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.”

    @Jan – In the end, I decided on a (relatively) direct flight to Canada, with a simple 12 hour layover in San Francisco. I figured that Canada was the ultimate destination, and a short time spent somewhere enroute would feel too much like a “time-killer”, or an in-between “purgatory” of sorts, instead of the destination in and of itself that it should be.
    As it has turned out, it was a good decision, since some opportunities for side trips (to Florida, Quebec City, and Muskoka) have presented themselves, and Toronto is a great base for all of that travel.

  4. Wow, great post! I love the story about the monk in particular – the Thoreau thought of “the stuff you own ends up owning you” has always had a certain appeal to me…

    It’s wonderful that we live in a world of options, but, like you, I think the paralysis of choice is something we have all encountered at some point. I had a realization once, though, that has made this situation much easier for me ever since: few choices we make are ever really that important. If you travel some where and dislike it, you know there is an end date on it, and you can probably leave sooner than originally planned. If you end up loving it, though, what an experience! If there was some place truly critical on your list, it would either stick out, or you could probably come back later. Either way is okay! I found that, once I took the pressure off of myself to make the perfect decision, it freed me up to make a great decision. And I’ve had some great experiences for it!

    Have a safe trip back to Toronto!

  5. My choice is to reduce my need for too much stuff. In my case, being more spiritual – reflecting and digging deep within helped in reducing this desire to accumulate more, to compete, to impress more, to keep up with the Joneses.

  6. What this reminded me of was Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” where a Grand Inquisitor of the Inquisition proposes directly to Jesus that He has sinned by giving man free choice. Choice, the Inquisitor postulates, leads to nothing but misery and suffering for men, and that they would be happy should all of this “choice” be removed from their daily lives. Essentially, this predicted the heyday of totalitarian regimes by about a quarter of a century.

    Maybe I’m just being a pedantic PoliSci major, but be careful what you wish for!

  7. Right now, Nora. I didn’t use to have a good analogy for this until I saw “The Hurt Locker”. That scene where he’s standing in the middle of a supermarket staring at 300 kinds of cereal…

    The reason I usually choose to base myself in small towns is because there are limited choices about what to eat, where to go, what to do, with whom to spend time. Whenever I do take a weekend to visit the big city, I get a little satisfaction out of it, but more often than not, I think to myself: “Why did I need to go there? My essential needs are met in my town.” Having the choice just made things more difficult.

  8. @Karen – That’s a wonderful video, and so applicable! I love TED. Here’s another powerful talk that really affected me:

    @Barry – “Few choices we make are ever really that important”: so true! But isn’t it interesting how we tend to “lock” ourselves into decisions and don’t always see a way out once we’re in it. Maybe it’s personal pride or ego for having admitted a poor choice….but in reality it’s all a learning experience. Some of my best travel tales and learning experiences are in fact MIS-adventures!

    @Prime – Reducing your belongings is no small task! Keep digging deep…it’s a cathartic process.

    @Jason – There’s so much truth to “be careful what you wish for….” that ties right into the adage that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”.

    @Turner – That’s a really powerful scene from The Hurt Locker…I only just remembered it now – it’s amazing that the character should CHOOSE to return to a war-torn life after being overwhelmed by the (largely mundane) daily choices of metropolitan/suburban life.
    I too like small town life….if only sushi were more commonly available in small towns! 🙂

  9. Thanks for sharing this post. I have been following you for some time and I find your blogs awesome. This one is Over the Top great. When it comes to NO attachments, like the Monk, What a Freedom it must be. In the world today, we all want to have our own choices, but it seems the Monk gave me a whole different thought on this. I want that freedom in my world. I attempt to control everything, and in the end, I am truly NOT free at all to let go and enjoy life. Thanks again. I would love to hear about what Struggles you have found in your Journey.

  10. @Tammy – It seems that we attach freedom (and a life of “privilege) to having choices, but maybe that’s not correct. I too, like to have full control over my destiny, but at the same time I know (deep inside) that it’s not ultimately possible. Just when you think you have control….something happens to show you that you don’t! Letting go (within reason – that’s the trick and the balancing act) is so important.

  11. Sometimes you need other people to put in words what you’re living, so thanks for that!! I’ve been several times paralyzed by choice and so I am now. 3 years ago I also have decided to fit all my stuff in a backpack and choose a very simple lifestyle travelling very slowly. recently, after a year and a half in Ireland it was time to move on… but where? Anywhere was going to start from the bottom, someone mentioned the great deal Laos was and hey, here I am. I have to say I had to check the location on a map before booking my one way ticket.
    Honestly it’s been a thrill but it’s not my place, so I decided I have to move on (again… where??).
    I always remember doing the Camino de Santiago, in Spain… all you had to do is walk till the next town, there was no doubt of where to go, and the whole aim was to get there. I love the freedom of having those options, but sometimes I’d like not to worry about the destination, just enjoy gettig there.

  12. @Ceci – Yes, the Camino can be beautiful if nothing else than for its simplicity…..I’ll get there one day.
    Maybe the challenge for those of us who have the (privilege of the) freedom to choose our destinations is to do just that: enjoy the journey.

  13. Hi Nora,
    I fell on your website from Chris’ Blog! I love the way you have illustrated the whole notion of choices!!! I am currently traveling across South America with NO fixed address:) I relate to your stories:)

    During my stay in Vicuna (north of Chile), I met an older woman. She lived in house which had absolutely no facilities like we are accustomed to. No electricity, of course, no hot water, none of the things we consider necessities. She was the most peaceful, happiest person I have met. She claimed to have what she needed. The thing that was even more intriguing, is that this woman was never alone! She had many visitors on a daily basis. No one ever showed up empty handed, they brought her food and meals for the day. These people received an energy from her. Having been around her, I know what they meant. There was a source of energy that you automatically felt in her presence.

    I learned how we can clog our minds with the many choices we create. When we eliminate all of it, we open ourselves to so much more. We actually enrich our lives!
    Loved your post, will continue reading:)

  14. @Antonia – I’m glad you found my site! How long have you been traveling in South America?
    What a beautiful story of the Chilean woman. I too have met people like that.

  15. I’d be glad to host u. East london, Capetown and Johannesburg… Then… I dont know exactly, probably Belise, Cuba or Miami

  16. Hi Nora

    My journey began last September in Buenos Aires. You see I also made a major life change:) I quit my job, sold all my belongings to pursue my passion…It has not always been easy, but, it has been an amazing growing experience.

  17. @DJ Nico – Wow…your hosting capabilities are quite world-wide! 😉

    @Antonia – Congratulations! Indeed, the full-time traveling road isn’t always smooth, but it’s sure to be exciting!

  18. This is a very timely article for me to read. I have been sitting here for over 2 weeks trying to decide if I should go back to SE Asia for a 5th time, or somewhere new, everyone says somewhere new, but somehow i keep thinking, well I haven’t been to most of SE Asia..

    So here I am at least 2 weeks of brain storming and time is running out.

    I think inside of me the thing is I want to go away for a very long time, this means packing up my projects to take them with me, this means I haven’t decided yet..

    It is hell.. glad I found this blog but still the answer will come from me… agg…

    • Blendo: Ha ha – yes, it’s nice to know you’re not alone in your paralysis of choice, but in the end, there’s still a choice to be made! I hope the path becomes clear for you very shortly. Good luck!

  19. I really appreciate your website and your journey. I have been on my own journey for over a year. It helps when I read your posts. Thanks.

  20. Thanks for this article about choice and the reality of it, and the various stories you have included including your own! I especially enjoyed reading about the guy who could only accept what is offered and couldn’t even tell you what food he was craving! I couldn’t imagine not being allowed to say what I wanted if someone asked me.

    • Christine – I learned so much from that monk…..he was the one who inspired me to write this post to begin with. 🙂

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