It's a Mann's World: Choices, choices, choices...

Olly Mann 5 August 2021

Amidst a return to so-called normality, Olly Mann finds that less choice really is more 

So, ‘freedom’ is here. Or, at least, coming into view. As fewer rules restrict our movements, our meals, our hugs and our holidays, we must revisit the perplexing questions that once formed our internal monologues. What do I fancy for dinner tonight? Shall I go to the movies? Do I greet my colleagues with a kiss, or a handshake?

The frustration of these decisions no longer being delegated to government health officials is that one must start choosing. Which overpriced coffee shop do I want to buy my latte from? What excuse can I use for getting out of that birthday party? Which newly-reopened soft-play centre is least likely to be crawling with germs?

As one of Thatcher’s children (generationally speaking; I’m not actually Maggie’s love-child), I was brought up to believe that freedom and choice are somehow inextricably linked (even if, as with privatised water-boards and train companies, the ‘choice’ on offer is entirely illusory). But too much choice is dizzying. Look at how many competing postal services we now havethat’s of theoretical beneficial to consumers; but, as a citizen who just wants to send a parcel occasionally, it’s confusing to decipher which one to use.

"But too much choice is dizzying"

It’s also time-consuming. That hour I spend each year choosing a new energy company (because I know I’ll be financially punished for simply renewing my contract with my existing provider) is not a fun hour. It’s an obligation. Spending my ‘free time’ choosing stuff doesn’t always feel particularly freeing.

I suppose this is the appeal of organised holidays. You know the kind of thing: ‘Day Five – Niagra Falls’, ‘Day Seventhe drums of New Orleans’. I used to find the idea of having some Sergeant Major figure diarise an itinerary for me completely repellentit’s supposed to be time OFF! But now I understand why people opt for these vacations. Letting someone else do the choosing can be more relaxing than having to choose.

Intrigued by this paradoxthe less choice I have, the freer I sometimes feelI’ve been conducting a thought experiment. I’ve been deliberately restricting the choices I allow myself to have. For example, when presented with a four-page menu in a restaurant… I’ll only allow myself to consider the first few options on each page. I know, it sounds nuts. But it’s actually quite liberating. I used to spend the first ten minutes of every evening out being irritated that I couldn’t properly sit back and talk to my dining companion because I hadn’t properly perused the menu (whilst being simultaneously annoyed that I couldn’t properly read the menu because I was attempting to engage with my friend). These days, I just glance down, quickly select the best-sounding options from my self-imposed set menu, and get on with chatting and eating.

"I’ve been deliberately restricting the choices I allow myself to have"

In so doing, I find myself trying new things. The other night, for instance, I ordered a smoked chicken salad as a starter. This would NEVER have happened had I permitted myself to glance further down the list, whereupon I would have spotted the avocado and crayfish cocktail; a sure winner. But guess what? The chicken salad was delicious. And although I’m sure the crayfish cocktail would have been wonderful too, that would have been less surprising, because I would have been expecting to enjoy it. So, far from curtailing my freedoms, restricting my choices can sometimes lead me to a wider range of experiences.

The same applies to home entertainment. I’m generally happy to live in a world of on-demand media, but still readily identify with Bruce Springsteen’s song, “57 Channels and Nothin’ On”. And he wrote that in 1992! I can now access THOUSANDS of films and TV series from my remote control; yet, despite this, after ten minutes of scrolling through apps and menus, I will more often than not find myself watching whatever Channel 4 happened to have scheduled at 9pm. So, now I’m deliberately restricting my choices. Before I even turn on the TV, I ask myself: ‘what do I want to watch?’. I think of a programme. And I turn it on. I don’t get distracted by other choices being flung my way. I just watch the thing I intended to.

Someone's hand pointing a TV remote at a screen

This monk-like devotion to a simpler set of possibilities came in handy when our Summer holiday to Lanzarote was Covid-cancelled (for a second year running). I didn’t fret. I didn’t start scanning a million TripAdvisor reviews for the ‘best’ staycation substitutes, or compile a giant spreadsheet of potential alternative accommodations. I simply went on Airbnb, entered our requirements, saw what properties in England were still available for the week we had booked off work (there were three, in the whole country), and immediately reserved the one I could afford. (A farmhouse in Suffolk. Not quite Playa Blanca, but heyit has a hot tub). In so doing, I saved myself days of anxiety, wondering if I’d made the right choice. As I hadn’t allowed myself to look elsewhere, there was no choice. Now I can focus on enjoying our holiday.

At least, that’s how I’m choosing to see it.

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