Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things. – George Carlin
Do you ever catch yourself getting really annoyed by things that don’t matter at all? I do. It happens literally almost every day. Some jerk who doesn’t know how to drive, or spilling a sauce on my shirt, or not being able to open the pickle jar (“just like in those commercials, honey!”). There are always a bunch of small inconveniences just waiting to get under your skin if you let them. But that’s not what I want to talk about in this post.
Not sweating petty things also means that you shouldn’t make every decision an excruciating process. Some decisions really don’t matter at all, but we still agonize over what is the ‘best’ decision. In fact, there has been some research in recent years that suggests that having too many choices makes it harder to be happy with the choice you end up making. For more on this, you can watch psychologist Barry Schwartz’s TED talk. But in case you don’t want to spend 20 minutes watching it, I’m going to give you the Cliff Notes (there’s also a good article about this stuff over at Raptitude).
In our modern western society, we are faced with a barrage of small choices every hour of every day, and most of them don’t matter one bit. Would you like this in red, or blue? Are you going to wear the button-up or the polo? Shorts or jeans? Sandals or tennis shoes? Big bowl or small bowl? Etc, etc, etc.
In his talk, Dr. Schwartz says that in his average-sized supermarket there are 175 salad dressings. That’s ridiculous. Who needs 175 options for salad dressing? Dr. Schwartz goes on to say that we have maximized choice in every aspect of ours lives under the assumption that more choice = more freedom = better satisfaction. Surely we all understand the benefits of more choices, so he describes the negative effects in his talk.
1) Paralysis instead of liberation. Having too many options can result in making it difficult to make any choice at all. We feel like we don’t know enough to have an informed opinion. To support this, he cites a study about 401(k) investing. Turns out that for every additional 10 fund choices in the 401(k) plan, participation drops 2%. That’s pretty crazy, but not very surprising. Trying to choose the best investment out of 5 funds is way easier than choosing the best out of 15.
2) When we do make a choice, we end up less satisfied than if we had fewer options. It’s easy to imagine that there was a better choice, so we doubt ourselves even if we make the best decision. It’s not hard to think you chose the best of three salad dressings, but the best of 175? Not very likely.
3) Escalation of expectations. You can get something better, but end up feeling worse because you expect to get something perfect. Dr. Schwartz sums it up nicely with the following, “When it comes in a hundred flavors, dammit, one of them better be perfect.”
4) Shift of responsibility to you when you are dissatisfied. If there was only one option, then it’s the company’s fault for providing such a terrible product. But if there are 50 options and you choose one you don’t like, then it’s much harder to blame anyone but yourself.
These really ring true for me. Sometimes having to choose between 1,875,342 options all the time is exhausting. Have you ever been to a restaurant with a huge menu and been like, “Aw man! I’m never going to be able to order.” Happens to me all the time. I’m pretty good about making quick decisions about most things, but sometimes a big menu can stop me in my tracks. There are probably a dozen things on the menu that I know I would like perfectly well, but I spend way too much time and energy making the decision.
But knowledge is power. And knowing that all these choices can have negative effects on my psyche makes it easier for me to make snap judgements about trivial things. The reason for this post is to let you guys in on the secret. All those little choices don’t matter, and they can be a huge pain if you agonize over them. So the next time you realize you are making a big fuss about a tiny decision, just choose any option and be done. Perfect is the enemy of good, and a lot of the time perfect doesn’t even exist. It’s totally fine to take the good and move on with your life.
So, in the future, don’t stop to pet the sweaty things.