Too many choices

The other day I was at the grocery store trying to buy some salad dressing. You’d think this would be a fairly straightforward task: pick the type of dressing (ranch, Italian) and the brand (Kraft, Newman’s Own) and put it in your cart. But as I stood there staring at the vast array of possibilities – regular, low-fat, organic, lite, fat-free, garlic, spring onion, extra thick (and that was just one brand of ranch dressing!) – I had the overwhelming desire to buy none, and so I did.

I’m not the first person to remark on the problem of too many choices, but I thought it made sense to talk about it here since I’ve spent a couple of blog posts talking about how we often think we have too few choices.

What struck me about this endless aisle of glittering salad dressing bottles was I had just come from the beverage aisle, where I had failed to find any palatable hot chocolate mix. I know I can make my own, and I have, but I don’t like my version as well as I like the Ghirardelli mix, which I used to be able to buy at World Market, but now no longer can, since they stopped carrying it. So I stood in the grocery store aisle, perusing my options, perfectly willing to try another brand but unable to do so since there really weren’t any choices. I don’t think any chocolate you mix with hot water counts as a drinkable beverage, and that immediately let out Swiss Miss and the store brand. (Let me just say that my daughter is a fervent aficionado of Swiss Miss, so it’s just me, not the brand.) Those were my choices: Swiss Miss and the store brand. This in the same grocery store with at least 157 different kinds of salad dressing.

I’m assuming there’s a reason for this – people buy more salad dressing than hot chocolate mix, for example – but I was so annoyed by the whole process that I wanted to abandon everything in my cart and just let someone else deal with it. Unfortunately, there is no one else to deal with grocery shopping at my house (if I left it to Jess, we’d live on ice cream and burritos.)

Why was I so frustrated? The main problem was that I had to spend so much time in consideration of two small items on my grocery shopping list — a shopping list that probably had thirty things on it. If I had to negotiate every single item like this, it would take me the whole day, and I still wouldn’t get what I wanted (such as drinkable hot chocolate mix.)

One of the reasons people fall into habits is because it cuts out all of the decision-making. If I always get organic Newman’s Own ranch, then I just have to reach for it on the shelf and not even think about it.

But at the same time, not even thinking about it is the kind of lack of consciousness, lack of mindfulness that I try not to spend too much time doing. Auto-pilot may help me get dressed in the morning without dithering too much about whether I should shower first or brush my teeth, but if I just zone out the vast majority of my day instead of consciously choosing and deciding, that’s not a good solution either.

I don’t have an answer to this dilemma, which is why several times a month I stare at the salad dressing aisle and go home without anything to put on my romaine.