I’m learning so many valuable lessons during this house-building project. Not the least of which is this: 8-year-old girls will gladly offer all their hard-earned allowance money to buy the things we cannot afford. Like a built-in pool and a horse. And also, additional square footage.
But the most valuable thing I’ve learned thus far is this: Though my options are endless, I must choose to limit them, lest I die…or kill someone.
Parents everywhere are quite familiar with this practice. We do it every time we take our preschoolers out for ice cream. There, before us on the chalkboard menu, are 175 hand-churned flavors. If you consider the add-ins, toppings and cone/cup variations, you now have exactly INFINITE ice cream choices.
But what do we tell our preschooler? “They have chocolate, vanilla or cookies and cream. Which one do you want?”
We know darn well our child will be perfectly giddy eating a small cup of vanilla with sprinkles. We also know that if we start rattling off every flavor combo, our kids will become paralyzed. And after 15 minutes of our gentle (through clenched teeth) promptings to make a decision, the preschooler will suddenly deem absolutely NO ice cream satisfactory, thereby, throwing himself on the floor in utter disgust and protest at the injustice of it all.
And you will suddenly deem ice cream an absolutely unsatisfactory treat for your preschooler, who obviously struggles with entitlement issues.
Actually, it’s not entitlement they are struggling with at that point, it’s just too many choices.
“How is it that in the developed world this increase in choice, through which we can supposedly customize our lives and make them perfect leads not to more satisfaction but rather to greater anxiety, and greater feelings of inadequacy and guilt?” source
For grown-ups in affluent Western society, regular life is a lot like a preschooler walking into the ice cream store. The combination of choices available to us on a daily basis is staggering: from the stores where we shop, to the prescription drug we take, to the channels we surf on television, to the cellular phone plan to which we subscribe, to the way the barista prepares our coffee (87,000 varieties at Starbucks!).
“One of three things is likely to occur when people have too many decisions to make — consumers end up making poor decisions, are more dissatisfied with their choices or become paralyzed and don’t choose at all…Even when we choose well, we are often less satisfied because, with so many choices, consumers are certain that somewhere out there was something better. We think about attractive things we’ve passed up and missed opportunities.” source
So, in the midst of building our house, before I ever once consider throwing myself onto the floor of the paint store or the tile shop, I choose to limit my own options. And that single practice has kept me (mostly) centered and happily married, in what is notoriously, a very stressful and overwhelming process.
Here are a few ways I severely restrict my choices:
1. Budget Restrictions: We all have a limit to what we can afford. The problem is most of us browse the Mercedes lot on a Honda budget, just to see what’s out there.
Don’t do it.
From day-one with the house, we’ve told every designer, drafter, vendor and retailer: “Don’t show us anything outside of our budget.” This way, we don’t even see the things we can’t afford, thus, greatly reducing our chances of discontentment.
If your budget allows for TJ Maxx clothing, don’t look at Sax Fifth Avenue. If your budget allows for Wal-Mart groceries, don’t meander the aisles at Whole Foods Market. And by all means, don’t pay more than you can afford for anything, ever—over-spending won’t make you happier. It only multiplies the meltdown probabilities.
2. Number of Option Restrictions: If you can’t find it at this store, you can always go to THAT store. If that store doesn’t have it, you can order it on line. If you can’t find it on line, you can hire someone to make it for you. I think it’s safe to say that there is no limit to what we have available to us, if we just keep looking.
The closest I’ve come to full-blown panic in the process of building this house has been at the outset of selecting a certain item. Something about, “It’s time to choose the tile” makes me feel like I need to breathe into a brown paper bag. It feels so permanent (even though I know it’s just a house). What if I get it wrong? I can never change it! And I have no one to blame but myself!
Listen, I know I’m crazy.
So, I decided early in the process, I wasn’t going to turn every stone trying to view every possible alternative or locate the very best possible deal. Instead, I allow myself a little time to do a some research, and I find the place that has a decent selection with good prices. Then, I only shop there, at that one store.
It might sound restrictive, to those of you who thrive on comparative shopping and bargain hunting. But for me, this single decision allows me to make quicker, less strenuous decisions. And also, breathe easier…no bags necessary.
3. Time Restrictions: Just yesterday, I had to gather ideas for our mantle design to give the guys working on the trim. OK, for the record, I didn’t realize I’d be faced with having to create a mantle design. I guess the Novice-First-Time-Builder in me assumed we’d have a “standard” mantle that would suddenly appear one day. I don’t know why I thought that, because, come to think of it, I have chosen every last detail so far, right down to the stinking shower drains.
But, for whatever reason, yesterday, I was taken aback by this request for mantle ideas. So, I went to my two BFFs (Pinterest and Houzz) for inspiration. After 2 hours of scrolling through 25 pages of custom mantle designs, I knew it was time to self-impose a limit: one more hour. I set a timer, and I scrolled, and I pinned. And when the timer went off, I stood up and said, “Done.”
When Jon came home from work last night, I pulled the preschooler/ice cream trick and said, “Our mantle choices are this one, this one or this one.” And he chose vanilla with sprinkles.
Here’s the thing about house-building and life: Pinterest and Houzz and everything they represent are the best of times and the worst of times. I promise, just as soon as you find something you love, and you make your decision, you will look again tomorrow and find something ELSE you love. Or your friend will look at your Thing and tell you all about the Thing she has that she likes even better than your Thing, so maybe you should consider a Thing like hers instead.
No, you should not. Set the timer, make your decision and call it a day.
The freedom of choice is a beautiful thing. Except when it’s not. It can drain you of the energy you need to make actual decisions that matter. Try limiting your options, and see how it feels. I suspect your anxiety will decrease, your contentment will increase and your ice cream will taste even more delicious.