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Is More Every Really More?
How “more” of everything is filling up our lives—and how to fight back against the cult of busyness.
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Lately, I’ve been attempting to de-complexify my life.
No, that’s not a word—and sure, I could have said I’m trying to simplify things. But that doesn’t capture the fact that my life feels utterly—and unnecessarily—complex. Slowly, I’ve been accumulating more. More responsibilities; more obligations to make money as inflation lingers; more hobbies I feel pushed to give attention to, lest I no longer have stories to tell about what I do outside of work.
I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling. Almost everyone I know has a side hustle to make ends meet. And outside of work, the rest of our attention is being fragmented further. There are apps designed to limit our access to social media or find subscriptions we might have accidentally signed up for and remind us to unsubscribe from. Things seem to pile up without us ever noticing, one $5-a-month subscription at a time.
The Anxiety of Indecision
I keep thinking about what it would be like to do less: to have less on my plate and fewer things to do. When I ruminate on this idea, I think back to a restaurant where I used to work. It was an all-day space that served a staggering number of dishes, plus at least five to seven rotating specials and a selection of à la carte meats and cheeses. I dearly loved this restaurant (it’s since closed), but having so many dishes on the menu was grueling.
I wasn’t even a cook—I was a food runner and expediter. But I still remember how overwhelmed I felt attempting to remember the intricacies of every dish—which needed finishing salt, or a zest of lemon before going out to the dining room. Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if we’d done less; if it might have worked better, if it’d still be around. And then I wonder what would happen if all our favorite places did less.
To start with an important distinction: I don’t mean to imply businesses should be doing less good. There are many instances where our favorite people and places could do more—more anti-racism training, more internal support for workers, more money paid to hourly employees. I’m also not criticizing those forced to work multiple jobs just to survive. Instead, I’m speaking to things—all that piles up, that needs attention, that clogs our brains. The things that, when we zoom out, prompt us to ask, “Do we really need all of this?”
A few hours before I sat down to write this piece, an Ottawa-based roaster called LULO Coffee showed up on my Instagram feed. It posted a few slides explaining how it sources coffee and that one of its tenets is to “focus sourcing from fewer countries.”
“Limit # of sources in order to increase purchasing commitments, consolidate shipments, gain better understanding of place and people,” the post read.
This really hit me: So much of coffee—so much of every industry—is based on generating excitement through novelty. We go to a restaurant when it announces a new dish, we buy clothes when brands release new items, and we may purchase from roasters when they share a fresh coffee drop.
That said, coffee is still better than many industries when it comes to de-prioritizing newness. Many specialty roasters buy coffee from the same farms every year, and I’m thrilled when roasters celebrate the return of a coffee, a seasonal offering that comes and goes annually. But there are other times I go on a roaster’s website and I think, “There’s no possible way I could choose from all these coffees.”
The truth is, humans struggle when confronted with too much choice. I learned more about how frustrating having a bevy of options can be in a piece I wrote for TASTE about the grocery chain ALDI. Unlike most grocery chains, which have upwards of 30,000+ stock-keeping units (or SKUs), ALDI has around 1,800. In the piece, I talked to my sources a lot about tomato paste: While most grocery stores would have at least a few different tomato paste brands, ALDI might just have one. If you need tomato paste, that’s the one you’re grabbing.
In the piece, I also referenced Barry Schwartz’s book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.”
For TASTE, I wrote:
Throughout the book, Schwartz argues that the tie between liberty and choice is one Americans take too literally, and that the overabundance of options—particularly in low-stakes situations—is overwhelming, hinders our ability to make good choices, and makes us sad as we stew in guilt over having made the wrong decision. And where does most of that grief take place? Inside grocery stores. “Americans spend more time shopping than the members of any other society . . . when asked to rank the pleasure they get from various activities, grocery shopping ranks next to last.”
Along with revisiting “The Paradox of Choice” for that piece, I distinctly remember reading it in high school during my peak college application-freakout mode. I had dozens of books on colleges, and the list of schools I was applying to was a mile long.
By the end of reading Schwartz’s book, I had whittled that number down to four.
I’ve been thinking about doing less for a long time—LULO Coffee’s Instagram post was a moment of kismet and affirmation that this topic is worth exploring. Along with general malaise over my never-ending to-do list, this idea has been popping up in other conversations. I was on a reporting trip a few weeks ago, and the person I spoke with owns a roastery that offers a lot of different coffees, and they acknowledged that this was part of their business model.
Although choices can be overwhelming, the point is not to admonish a hefty catalog of offerings because there’s no virtue in either stance: you can have a zillion coffees on your menu or just a select few. Either way, one is not inherently better than the other.
Despite all that grief and anxiety, we still tend to assume more is better—economists included. “Choice is viewed by many economists and some policy makers as always beneficial,” writes George Loewenstein in a paper titled “Is More Choice Always Better?” Loewenstein’s analysis focuses primarily on how expanded choices can hinder us, particularly when we lack the knowledge or context to fully evaluate our options: “When people are forced to make decisions for which they lack the requisite expertise, the consequences are likely to be lost time, bad choices, anxiety and self-recrimination.”
Loewenstein’s work focuses on how we feel when making decisions. Despite his research—and other reporting on the subject—I found lots of other articles that assert the contrary: that having choices helps people make more “sensible” decisions (whatever that means) and that people are more likely to express dissatisfaction when they feel they haven’t been presented with enough choices.
But that’s not what I wanted to know. I wanted to know if we’ve collectively internalized the notion that more choices are better. Do we immediately code a menu with 20 dishes as superior to one with five or six?
I couldn’t find any data on this—but I know that we have started coding busyness and a lack of free time as a virtue. A 2017 “Journal of Consumer Research” article found that busy schedules have become a status symbol. “While research on conspicuous consumption has typically analyzed how people spend money on products that signal status, this article investigates conspicuous consumption in relation to time,” the abstract begins. “The authors argue that a busy and overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, has become an aspirational status symbol.”
“Feeling busy may make us feel scarce and in demand, and therefore more valuable and important,” the study finds. “The consequences of such feelings may have important marketing, and even health and public policy implications related to our own well-being.”
Being busy is better, and having more is better—I doubt these maxims sound surprising to most of us. Among the obvious ills they conjure—from the drive for limitless profit to toxic productivity culture—I wondered if they also warped our understanding of ourselves. Do we routinely misunderstand our capabilities and stretch far beyond what we can actually do in this push for more?
The Battle with Busyness
The root of this article comes from my own creeping sense of dispassion. Sometimes, after writing a piece, I’d read my words and think, “Did I try hard enough? Did I pursue this idea fully? How much do I care?”
The thing is, I know I care. Even drafting this piece reminds me that I’m good at—and dedicated to—writing on the topics I care about.
But my schedule has clouded that innate understanding. I have been busier over the last two months than I can remember. As a result, I haven’t been responding to comments or emails from readers in any sort of timely manner, and have felt more anxiety and disconnection with my work. For a moment, these feelings and fears made me think I didn’t care.
And that’s the danger inherent with thinking more = better. We cannot care about everything. I wrote about this tension from the consumer end—we simply do not have the time to ensure everything we purchase and consume aligns with our values. But then there’s us as humans, as people who make things, work, and contribute to our communities. We cannot do it all, and the idea that we think we can robs us of the joy and excitement we should feel when doing what we care about. It also constrains our ability to give attention and care to the things we are interested in and invested in.
I’m still working a lot, but I’ve taken small steps towards shedding obligations. I canceled a bunch of those $5-a-month subscriptions and am trying not to take on writing assignments where the pay-to-work ratio feels off. But it’s still so easy to take on more than we should and believe—maybe out of the necessity to survive—that loading our lives up will make us feel better.
With all that said, I plan to take all of September off, just like I did last year. I’m unsure if the time off will help me deeply recharge, but I do hope the time away feels like I’m temporarily shedding a layer, worrying about one less thing, and practicing adopting a “one in, one out” policy on my workload.
But I constantly have to remind myself that busyness is not a virtue, and adding to an overflowing plate does not make one better or more deserving. So, I hope you’re inspired to do less: put fewer things on your menu, take on fewer responsibilities, and let the things you truly care about shine in the forefront.
So I’ll see you October 3rd! Throughout the month, I’ll publish a few guest posts and previously-published (but new to the newsletter content)! And do less, will ya?