If it’s true that we’re bombarded with more choices than ever before, how can we cope? Here’s a strategy that can help.
Deciding how to spend our time and money can be a daunting task. Unless we pay special attention to this problem we experience dissatisfaction in one form or another. The most painful is often voiced as “I hate my life.” Despite being at least marginally aware as we make choices day after day, we find ourselves in situations we never planned and never wanted to be. What happened?
A different failure signal shows up as a sense that time is getting away. We may ask “where did the day go?” or reflect that, despite being furiously busy, we didn’t get “anything done” this week.
While these situations and feelings can arise for many reasons, one major factor is that we have so many different options available to us at any given moment. While we want to believe that more choices make us more free and allow us to pick better options, the truth is that more options actually make us stressed and sometimes fail to decide at all. What we need is a way to cope with multiple possibilities in a way that keeps us in control.
One of the reasons we make lousy choices from among our many available options is that we rarely have all our possible choices available to us at the same time. A friend calls about a night out and needs an answer now. Your boyfriend proposes to you. Sometimes circumstances force your hand, and yet we often fail to get perspective even when we have the chance, leaving us to react to life as if it were a cafeteria line where we either will or won’t select each ‘dish’ as we pass it by. We may have little or no insight into how full our life’s ‘tray’ has already become.
Clearly then, the stronger move is to stop responding to the immediate, back up, and see if we can look at all our needs, wants, and wishes in a single perspective. In some way, this exercise is like goal setting, but there is a difference: with goal setting, there is the assumption that what we put on our list will be achieved. However in this variant, the point is to simply list all the opportunities that might be worth taking on, without committing for the moment. So feel free to let the list get long and stock it with wacky ideas as well as the more necessary and practical.
At this point, the list is complete; we’ve listed out everything we think we might want to accomplish, acquire, or experience. Big and small. Important and trivial. Now begins the process of fitting some, not all, of these elements into your life. The goal is to order them from most essential to least important. This is a pure judgement call and completely up to you. Yet let me offer just a few tips on ranking your list.
We are poor judges of what makes us happy and fulfilled, but guess, because even a bad guess is better than inaction. Will there be “apples and oranges” comparisons? You bet! Which is more important, more money or more free time? Don’t be surprised if all the answers don’t jump out at you, but do your best. If you get stuck deciding between two options, they’re probably close in importance, either choice will be equally good. Pick one quickly or flip a coin if you must.
Most things we want out of life require resources. The most common, as I’ve already mentioned, are time and money. Being good at budgeting money is a rare enough skill, but a competence in managing time and attention is, in my experience, even rarer. The aim here is to put an estimate of time and money required to achieve each item on your list.
While our net worth varies quite a bit, our allocation of time is exactly the same, so that’s a great place to start: how much time will it take to move towards each of your options? Take a wild guess at an hours-per-week or hours-per-month number and understand it’s a wild guess. That’s perfectly fine. Once again, a poor decision beats no decision every time.
Repeat the exercise with money. How much will each of your options cost you? Some (like a career change or starting a business) may actually make you money, either up front or down the line. Make the best guesses you can and keep moving forward. Fix mistakes later when you know more.
Only One of You
Given a list of options, and costs for each, now your job is to fit them into your life. You have 168 hours each week, some of which is already spoken for, e.g., sleep, self-care, and other duties. What’s left? You also have a certain level of income and perhaps some credit or savings, minus your current financial responsibilities. Knowing what you bring to the table enables you to move to the next stage where you actually make your key decisions.
Make the Cut
If you’re tired of all the analysis to this point, I don’t blame you. But having done everything I’ve asked allows you to set your priorities in a quick and straightforward process. Simply start with your total resources (time and money) and then deduct the requirements for the top item of your list. Then move to the second item and subtract again. Still have time and money left? Great! Keep going. Eventually, at some point in the list, you’ll run out of time or money.
At this point, you’ve hit “the cut.” Everything under this line is out of reach (for now). Everything above the line is within your power. Congratulations! From a plethora of options, you’ve figured out what’s most important and how thin you can afford to spread yourself. Making the cut saves you the trouble of considering a lot of not-so-important options which you simply don’t have the resources to pursue. Sure, there will be regret, but if you’re at all confident about your ranking, you know everything below the cut is not as important as everything above.
Revisit and Revise
Remember how I kept saying that all these estimates are likely to be wrong? The only way to find out which ones were off target is to start working the plan and see what breaks. Perhaps things take longer or cost more than you expected, or you’re not so crazy about your top goal now that you’ve been chasing it for a while. No matter. Revise the estimates, reorder your options, recalculate the cut line, and move forward on an updated set of goals. In time some goals will be achieved and you can free up their resources for other objectives that were once below the cut, but now are within reach. By keeping your list and your cut line up-to-date, you stay on top of what you have, where you’re going and what it takes to get there.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by