Why you need to reclaim your power to choose

Scrolling through Instagram, I come across a free restorative breathing class that sounds perfect for my frazzled nerves, and I sign up for it immediately. One of my art groups is abuzz with news of a free mini-workshop that’s run once a year. I really don’t want to miss it, so I pop in my email. And when I check my email, I see an invite for a year-end planning intensive, and of course I say yes. All of this in the space of a single evening.

We are exposed to a plethora of interesting ideas, courses, offerings, and deals every time we log on to social media, run a Google search, or check our emails. It’s very easy to sign up for 5 different things before breakfast, all of them interesting, many of them available for a limited time, and most of them happening at around the same time. No wonder then that we find it increasingly difficult to focus on anything. And all of those interesting things just pile up in our inbox until they expire.

We’re drowning in a sea of options

This isn’t surprising. According to a Class Central report, 2.8K courses were added to the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) market in 2020 due to the pandemic, with that number expected to shoot up to 16.3k. But a 2018 Columbia University’s Teachers College study shows that completion rates on edX and Coursera MOOCs are just 15% or less, with an astronomical dropout rate of about 96% according to a 2019 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Any wonder, then, that the weight of everything that you could have done but did not do weighs you down, and that you quickly start to feel inadequate and overwhelmed in the face of all the things that you want to be learning about but aren’t?

Most of this data is only for MOOC platforms, which doesn’t take into account all of free and paid courses, subscriptions, and masterclasses offered by small business owners, creators, and online entrepreneurs of all stripes.

Why we are unable to choose

Photo by Greta Hoffman on Pexels.com

What the exponential growth in MOOCs shows us is that people are eager and excited to learn. The problem, I believe, lies in the fact that we are unable to choose what we want to focus on.

Which, given the sheer plethora of options available to us, especially online, is understandable. We can, theoretically, learn about anything we are even slightly curious about. There will be a MOOC, e-course, YouTube video, or blog post on the subject. We are like the proverbial kid in a candy store, grabbing all of the candies until we make ourselves sick {metaphorically, if not literally}.

But there is a way where we can make multiple trips to the candy store and come away with just the candy that we want to have right now. It’s not easy — choosing just one or two kinds of candies means we have pass up all the other equally tempting candies. But it isn’t a choice we make forever. We get to return to the candy shop once we have finished our candies to buy some more.

If you think about it, all the freebies and courses and classes and YouTube videos and blogs that you signed up to learn, watch, or read are the candies that are available in the online candy store. You signed up for all of them because they’re all interesting to you. You probably feel like if you’re disciplined enough, you should be able to fit most, if not all of them, in to your schedule. And you feel good about signing up for them, because even if you don’t get to all of them, you have the option to. And as you’ve learnt, keeping your options open is a good thing.

But, is it?

Reclaiming your power to choose

When you keep your options open, you’re unable to focus on any one thing. You end up either trying to adopt the classic “straddled strategy” of investing in everything at once and hedging all of your bets; or you end up with an overflowing inbox and an inability to choose — or stick to — any one thing that you wanted to do.

So how do you figure out what is really important to you? What, among the sea of options and interests available to you at this time, do you really want to focus on?

Photo by Judit Peter on Pexels.com

One option, that has worked for me most times, is a 10-15 minute brainstorm. Ask yourself:

“If I could do only one thing with my life right now, what would I do?”

And then actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write.

Once the timer goes off, look over over your answers. Observe what you’ve written down, and also what you’ve left out. And then see how much of your attention you are focusing on the things that didn’t make it on your list vs. the ones that did.

That should give you a very good idea of which candy to focus on at this time.

Because here’s the truth: you really don’t need to keep your options open, you need to choose. Keeping your options open simply paves the way for overwhelm, and all that you end up doing is sacrificing your power to choose. And when you sacrifice your power to choose, you make a choice. When you refuse to choose “not this”, you choose “this” {whatever “this” is} by default.

We often think of choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice—a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do….For too long, we have overemphasized the external aspect of choices (our options) and underemphasized our internal ability to choose (our actions). This is more than semantics. Think about it this way. Options (things) can be taken away, while our core ability to choose (free will) cannot be.

GREG McKEOWN

It is a tough trade-off, choosing just a few great things among a lot of good things. But it’s the sanest way to actually do the things that you’re interested in.

Here’s another way of looking at it: We have a finite amount of time on this planet. In this finite amount of time, as Oliver Burkeman writes in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals, “if you truly don’t have time for everything you want to do, or feel you ought to do, or that others are badgering you to do, then, well, you don’t have time.”

So it’s better to get clear about what feels truly exciting at this time and to focus in on it. To allow ourselves to miss out on many good things for a few great things, because that missing out is what makes our choices — and consequently our lives — more meaningful in the first place.

Every time you choose the truly great thing, you sacrifice all the good things. Making that sacrifice willingly is to take a stand, without reservation, on what matters most to you.

So what are you going to choose to focus on right now?

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4 comments

  1. Nodding along, Shinjini! Couldn’t agree more. You’ve just spoken about the dilemma we’re all in, currently, varying possibly only in degrees, but ultimately, the struggles are the same. We seem to have too much to do and there is too little time to accomplish all of them. Consequently, our focus for depth in any chosen area becomes the first casualty. This is one subject that often becomes the topic of discussion at home and we’re realising how exercising our choice is becoming the #1 challenge for all of us at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is a challenge, Esha. Even when you try to go for depth, there are just so many interesting options out there that choosing becomes difficult — and yet, it’s one of the most important things that we can do!

      Like

  2. You’re so right. We are truly spoiled for choice. The exercise you suggested is somewhat like what I’ve been doing of late. At present, I realize that what I really need to learn is how to rest and let things go, even if it means giving up on some plans. I know that this is a phase and I’m embracing it before moving forward with more activity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been in that phase too. I feel like I really need to rest, and I’m also realizing how difficult it can sometimes be to allow myself to just take things easy.

      Like

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