Unlike most of my mom peers, I resisted joining Costco. Too commercial, I said. Prevents me from supporting my local retailers. Forces me to hoard bulk quantities of planet-destroying consumer goods in my New York City apartment. But a year or so after a friend shared her shopping strategy of buying mass quantities of organic milk and other staples for her small children (mine are four and six), and how that freed her from all but an occasional stop at her local market, I moseyed over to my wholesaler and signed up.
And my life has never been the same.
Sure, ounce-per-ounce, the shampoo is a steal compared with buying it in smaller bottles at the drug store. And the giant sacks of raw sugar save me, like, four cents per cup of joe. That’s all swell.
But what I really love — why Costco adds true value to my life — is that there is little choice. When shopping at my local middle-market grocery store, if I want butter, I must stand in the chilly dairy aisle and contemplate whether I want salted, unsalted, light, name-brand, generic, whipped, spreadable, sprayable, Irish, Danish or organic — and a half-a dozen brands for each sub-variety.
I stand there in that chilly aisle, one hand on my hip, the other scratching my head as I feel overwhelmed, confused and fearful of making the wrong decision.
At Costco, the choice is five pounds of salted butter or five pounds of unsalted butter. I grab the shrink-wrapped mega-package of salted and merrily shove my giant cart on to the 40-pound sack of kitty litter — one of two options in the category. Costco makes my life easier not so much that it saves me money, but because it saves me time. My time is more precious than money. Also: reducing my butter choices from a bazillion to two reduces my stress and frees up headspace.
It’s not just me. The phenomenon is so prevailing that sociologist Barry Schwartz wrote a whole book on it: “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.” In a review, Publishers Weekly wrote:
Schwartz, drawing extensively on his own work in the social sciences, shows that a bewildering array of choices floods our exhausted brains, ultimately restricting instead of freeing us. We normally assume in America that more options ("easy fit" or "relaxed fit"?) will make us happier, but Schwartz shows the opposite is true, arguing that having all these choices actually goes so far as to erode our psychological well-being.
Consider that the number of items carried at the average American grocery store has ballooned 500 percent since 1975 to 48,750 items, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Also consider the studies on choice conducted by Stanford and Columbia researchers that have found, among other things, that when people have too many choices they make bad decisions — for example relying on brand reliability or lowest retail price when selecting products. Shoppers are also less satisfied when they make a good choice, because they harken back to the zillions of other options that could have been superior to the one the selected.
Once you recognize how excessive choices are a mental health landmine, you start to see this pressure everywhere — from mundane daily choices to giant political ones. When I became a divorced mom about four years ago, I found myself feeling enormous guilt and stress around whether or not to hire the occasional evening babysitter — whether it was for a professional event, date or evening out with girlfriends.
Every time an invitation presented itself, I found myself thrown into fits of anxiety: If I hire a sitter, does that make me a selfish, negligent mother? If I forego a social or business opportunity to wrestle my young children through the rote dinner-bath-bedtime routine, am I succumbing to a life of drudgery and resentment?
Eventually I settled on a self-imposed rule: I can hire a sitter once per week without shame or guilt. Everything else must be scheduled around my daytime childcare hours or the times my kids are with their dad. Once I embraced this law, I was relieved of the constant choice. I occasionally got out during the week, free from any negative feelings about the matter and void of having to make a painful decision.
Apply that same thinking to any number of frequent decisions you make — whether to go for that career-boosting out-of-town meeting or attend your son’s basketball tournament, invest your bonus in a home renovation or Roth IRA, cook tailgate or rigatoni for dinner, or hang the toilet paper with the end streaming over the top or the bottom of the roll. Ours is an era of enormous abundance and internal battles are the price we pay.
Which brings me back to Costco. I am now a loyal Costco fan. I am also a fan of examining every angle of your life to see how you can simplify it. Yes, declutter your kitchen and give away clothes you no longer wear, but also examine your daily routines and find the strife inherent in navigating our world.
The next time you find yourself overwhelmed by decisions, take these steps:
- Ask yourself: How can I eliminate all but two choices within 60 seconds?
- Without thinking too hard, which option seems most practical?
- Commit to that choice.
- Exercise that choice, guilt- and stress-free until that decision no longer works for you — or forever. Whichever comes first.