When Too Many Choices = Paralysis

December 1, 2011

During a recent talk at a study abroad conference, I reminded a group of college students just how lucky we are. Travel has a way of hammering that point home, of reminding us that we’re so fortunate to have food on the table, shoes on our feet and opportunity in front of us. Most people in the world aren’t so lucky.

But something strange happens to those of us who have endless opportunities (which, by the way, includes 99 percent of people reading this blog. Even if you don’t feel fortunate on this particular day, you’ve likely got it better than most people around the globe). We find ourselves paralyzed by all of our choices. We can’t decide which path to take. We freeze in indecision, which sometimes means that often, we do nothing at all.

I’ve written about this before, after reading Undecided, a fabulous book about whether women can really “have it all.” The women interviewed for the book were all ambitious, yet paralyzed by indecision because they had so much opportunity. (First-world problem, anyone?) Each felt so much pressure to DO THE RIGHT THING WITH HER LIFE that she couldn’t decide which way to turn.

I don’t often have this problem because I’m a do-er rather than a wait-er. When I have a lot of choices, I tend to try to do everything — which can have negative consequences, just like doing nothing.

But at the moment I’m finding myself paralyzed over making a certain choice. I know I want to travel in March, but I don’t know where. Initially I thought I’d have a friend to travel with, which made this choice far easier because the two of us had to pick destinations together. Then I thought I’d meet up with a friend in Kenya, but turns out she’s mostly unavailable in March, too.

Which means: I can go wherever I want.

Totally awesome, right? Yet it’s so awesome that I can’t make a decision.

This reminds me of when I was graduating from college, and a lot of my friends didn’t know what was next. We can do whatever we want! I used to tell them. Easy for me to say: I was headed to journalism school. In retrospect, I realize the next step wasn’t as obvious for some of my peers.

Now I’m in that boat: I don’t know what I want. Do I want East Africa? Or Nicaragua? Or somewhere entirely different… say Thailand or Tasmania? I want it all, yet I know I can’t let that prevent me from making a decision.

Have you ever been paralyzed by too many choices? Are there any decisions you’re putting off RIGHT NOW because you can’t hone in on what you want?

If you’re thinking of taking some serious time to travel, check out my eguide How to Take a Career Break to Travel.

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    12 Replies to “When Too Many Choices = Paralysis”

    • Joanna Penn says:

      Glad you’re off travelling again Alexis – if you want to come via London we can do an interview and that leg will be tax-deductible at least 🙂

    • I can definitely relate! I have been known to be annoyingly indecisive. But I have become more decisive over time. Another word for this could be impulsive.

      When I was in high school I applied to about a dozen colleges and couldn’t decide where to go. My high school’s college counselor told me, “Leslie, you have come into this office so many times saying you don’t know where to go to college. So, flip!” She grabbed a green plastic thing from her desk and told me to write the names of my schools on each side. She called her assistant over and told him I was going to decide right then and there. So I flipped the green plastic thing. And it told me to go to Berkeley. And I did.

      Many times since then, I have made big decisions on impulse. The first idea that has come into my mind (move to China, follow a crazy visionary to Chile and get back with my first love, etc…) has very often proved to be a good option. After that initial idea I came up with a zillion more, but pursuing the original one served me well.

      So, based on my experience, I’d say that if your initial idea was East Africa, go there. The other places will always be there. But if there is something specific pulling you toward another region, especially if it can give you more perspective on your previous travels in Africa… well… it’s a big world out there!


    • Andrea says:

      Great post. These are first world problems, without a doubt, and yet that doesn’t make the concept any less true.

      And you know what’s fascinating? Paralysis from an abundance of choice trickles down to the most mundane of decisions. Which is why I shop at Trader Joe’s.

      The abundance of choices in a typical grocery store overwhelms my senses. I love how so many staples — bow tie pasta, tomato sauce, toilet paper — come in the Trader Joe’s brand only. It’s so much easier not to choose!

      It also reminds me of stories I’ve read about taming horses, and how a wild horse’s stress level comes down considerably, even more so than when he was free, once he has accepted his new confinement.

      Where you can figure out your boundaries or limits, you find peace and freedom within them.

      Good luck deciding where to travel next! 🙂 Can’t wait to see what place ultimately chooses YOU.

    • Alyssa says:

      I totally suffer from this, too. What I usually do is stop and remind myself that I’m young, and there’s plenty of time to do it all 🙂

    • I’m such a planner that I actually get so excited when something new comes up so that I can plan it! Let me make the decision for you, go to Argentina and Brasil!

    • Tracy says:

      No matter what you choose it’s going to be a great trip! I’ve been to Nicaragua 10 times, and it’s one of the most friendly places in the world. In lake Nicaragua there’s 350 small islands, and each of them has something unique – like one is solely inhabited by monkeys.
      I lived in Mozambique for 7 months and it really has a taste of everything. I stayed in Inhambane, which has a Portuguese colonial town, rural bush, and the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen with a relaxed, international night life.
      I loved Kenya too, but I’m partial to Mozambique 🙂
      I hate to offer another choice to paralyze you further, but the most incredible place I ever visited was Vieques, an island of the coast of Puerto Rico. They have two bioluminescent bays (water that lights up neon green when you touch it) and wild horses running around.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Oh wow! Thanks for this. Will def add Vieques to my list! Never even heard of it. Right now I’m leaning toward Nica… Will let y’all know. So glad you chimed in!

    • Colleen says:

      Hmm, well one fun thing I like to use when making travel decisions is looking up the locational astrology and picking a place with interesting influences. there’s free locational maps at astro.com, plug in birth info and click. I went to Iceland once because I had this Venus influence there that said I’d have a fairy-tale romance. One can never say if it was just my expectations that created what happened, but I manifested exactly that. Anyhow, hokey perhaps, but I like it better than flipping a coin!

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