The Advantage of Fewer Choices

Stonington_harbor_Sept13I’m a little slow sometimes picking up on popular trends. I recently ran across the terms satisficer and maximizer and realized, to my dismay, that I am a full-on maximizer. It drives Sam crazy. Stick with me for a minute. There’s a reason I’m telling you this.

The terms satisficer and maximizer were popularized almost a decade ago when psychologist Barry Schwartz used them in his bestselling book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.

Simply put, a maximizer is a perfectionist who exhaustively explores every possible angle before making a choice. A satisficer (satisfy + suffice) makes an acceptable choice and does it quickly. Not surprisingly, the cost of being a maximizer is stress and anxiety. The extra effort plus the time consumed often outweighs any possible improvement in the final outcome.

I like to think that I only “maximize” when the decision is significant in terms of cost or impact. But the fact is I spend a bit too much time scanning the toothpaste and orange juice displays at the grocery store. And I spent three weeks researching airline tickets for our upcoming trip to Paris, investigating every single option and then going back around in an endless maze of checking and re-checking. Sam, who is a satisficer, was perplexed by my behavior.

In the end, I came back to the first option: we’re flying out of Boston. (In my defense, and as Sam has noted, you can’t get anywhere directly from the coast of Maine, so indeed there are a number of options for how to get to Paris.)

So where is this riff going?

Fewer choices but good ones

To the simplicity of our life in Stonington, ME and why living here might be a better option for someone who is a maximizing, ruminating perfectionist. In this coastal town of just over a thousand year-rounders, there are not very many choices for things to do once the flurry of summer activities is over.

With so few options, it’s easier to decide.

For example, during the summer it was almost impossible to get a reservation at either of Stonington’s two upscale restaurants. On a recent early fall night, we walked down to Main Street and, with no wait, got two seats at Aragosta, the newest addition to Stonington’s fine dining scene. Arigosta means lobster in Italian. This little bistro overlooking the harbor features farm-to-table food from local purveyors. The lobster ravioli is divine.

Then we continued down Main Street to the Opera House, our local hub of culture and entertainment, to go to the movies. There was no choice. Only one movie was playing. But we were in luck. It was Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the new box office hit. The movie is a fictionalized drama based on the life of a black butler who served for 34 years at the White House and witnessed the most notable events of the 20th century. Oprah plays his wife; I’ll wager she’ll get Best Supporting Actress for her role.

So, there are limited choices in Stonington but good ones so far. The restaurants will soon pare back to being open only two or three evenings a week.

Back in DC, a never-ending wave of choices

Our life in DC, in contrast, consisted of a never-ending wave of choices: restaurants, movies, black tie fundraising events (ugh), concerts, plays, etc. For a maximizer, it was overwhelming.

Sam was often tired after work so we stayed home and did none of the above. Except walk three blocks to our cozy neighborhood tavern where we could chat with the bartender. Maybe we’re “neighborhood” people and Stonington is just our new small neighborhood.

So far (and I say this as a satisficer), this smaller, quieter, exceedingly beautiful place is a wonderful alternative.

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