If you think the settings on your iPhone are frustrating, consider the settings you choose for your life.
We’ve All Got “Options”
Nearly every piece of modern software has one element in common. Somewhere tucked away in the menus is a page or, more likely, multiple pages with names like “settings” or “options.” Whether we’re talking about a trivial app on your phone or a full-blown application on your desktop PC, you’ll nearly always find something similar. These out-of-the-way menus let you pick font sizes and background colors. They let you pick what your alerts sound like and how loud they’ll be. The options screen doesn’t fundamentally change what the software does, but how it goes about doing it.
I’d like to propose that our lives also have equivalent “options” or “settings.” They aren’t conveniently grouped together in a page on a screen, but they exist all the same in the choices we repeatedly make. We have real-life “options” in how we choose to spend our time, the company we keep and what thoughts we allow our attention to dwell upon, to name just three.
Simplicity and customization are two mostly incompatible but widely desired properties that pull at every program in existence. If a program is simple, then it’s probably not that customizable, so you’d better hope it does the right thing for you right out of the box or you might be wasting your time. Customizable software is often (though not always) more complex. You’ve got a better chance of beating it into something you can use, but getting it there may take more effort and expertise than you’re willing to expend.
Whole operating systems and software companies stake their territory on the simplicity / customization continuum. In general, Apple products trend towards the simple. Apple likes to give you one valid way to do things, and prevents or forbids most others. This allows their developers to focus and make that one way nearly flawless and beautiful. I know a lot of people using Apple because it lets them do common tasks with a minimum of fuss and distraction.
Linux, an open-source version of the venerable UNIX operating system, lives at the opposite extreme from Apple. While many user-friendly graphical front-ends for Linux exist, at its core, Linux lives to be endlessly customized and modified by experienced and confident users who have some very specific, often quirky ideas about how they want their computers to work.
By and large, I don’t believe the “good old days” were all that good. However, the old days had drastically fewer “options” or “settings” in terms of the lifestyle a person could select. Life a hundred years ago was more like Apple and less like Linux. A century ago, there weren’t many choices of occupation and few people ventured very far from the place they were born. Prospects for marriage and family were also strictly limited by geography, religion, and social standing.
Fast-forward to 2013, and it’s become all but impossible to take a full inventory of the choices we all enjoy every day. Given a car, it’s absurd to begin to even compute the number of towns you could reach in a single day, let alone the number of people you could encounter. Career counseling is complicated by the fact that it’s hard to even get a read on the kinds of work available today, and many of the tests career counselors use are based on job catalogs many years out-of-date. It’s no wonder we’re having more trouble making decisions.
One of the nice things about modern computing is that developers do a lot of work to make a product that works reasonably well for most people most of the time even before you start digging around in the options or settings pages.
Life has defaults too. As people, we get many of our defaults from our parents. They try to teach us a way to live, including manners, morals and values. But they don’t always say why their way is the best way or under what conditions we should switch from their defaults. As children and then adolescents, we start learning a new set of defaults that conform to whatever social clique we belong to at the time. Trouble looms as we meet and then settle down with a life partner who may well have an entire panel of settings that cause painful conflicts with your own selections.
In the absence of a direct challenge to the way we live, we may not even be aware that options exist. It’s just “always the way we do things.” In our lives, as with our software, recognizing the options, and finding how to change them, can be a surprisingly difficult task. What’s more, some of the settings have implications we can’t imagine. Getting a streaming service for your TV may seem like no big deal until you realize you have half a dozen seasons of your favorite TV series on tap, anytime, night or day. There go your free evenings and weekends. Oops! Didn’t see that one coming.
Eyes on the Options
There are a couple of cultures that are outstanding in the amount of attention and thought put into the kinds of lifestyle options I describe. Surely they aren’t the only ones, and I speak of them as an outsider, but I think the example they set is widely useful.
The more traditional Jewish communities are rigorous about obeying and correctly interpreting the hundreds of proscriptions and taboos that make up Judaic law. Some of their “defaults,” like the Sabbath, make practical sense today, ensuring the faithful make time for rest and reflection. Others have meanings that are harder to understand, but whether or not we personally agree with this way of life, it’s indisputable that a particular set of life options is being very deliberately practiced.
Another culture that thinks deeply about options and lifestyle are the Amish. While they are sometimes portrayed as technophobic, this label really doesn’t fit. In my understanding, the Amish consider each new technology and lifestyle option and carefully weigh its advantages and disadvantages against the values of the community. Only if the new innovation advances the well-elaborated goals of Amish life will it be consider for inclusion, and even then, the level of interaction will be considered as well.
Think of these deliberate, thoughtful and conservative approaches to change and choice, and then consider how easily and with how little foresight most of us have allowed things like smartphones and Facebook into our lives, bringing with them a host of unintended and sometimes vexing consequences. I love technology and wouldn’t want to give it up, but I do think that all of us could benefit from a regular re-think of the decisions we make about all the new options before us. Giving the “settings” page of our life a regular review won’t promise happiness, but could at least highlight some unintended consequences that may be holding us back.
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