Expanding Minimalism’s Reach

If our government’s closed, why are politicians still appearing on my television? I guess once you get in the habit of working really hard for what’s in the best interest of the people, you just can’t stop.

On Fox News I learned the shutdown’s Obama’s fault. Their refrain is “the American people don’t wan’t ObamaCare.” Guess I don’t count. At times like this, all you can do is watch Saturday Night Live.

My vote for most interesting Affordable Care Act article of the recent past, “An Overlooked Obamacare Flaw: Too Many Choices“. The gist of it:

. .  .the typical family will be able to choose from 53 health plans, on average, with a few states, including Florida and Arizona, offering more than 100. “There’s no way people are going to be able to make optimal decisions, except by luck,” says Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore University and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. “If you have 40 or 50 insurance possibilities, there will be less uptake and people will make bad decisions.”

The seminal study of excessive choice was a 2000 paper recounting an experiment at a California grocery store in which two tasting tables were set up side-by-side: one offering samples of six jams, the other offering samples of 24. The “extensive” selection of jams attracted more shoppers than the “limited” selection. But only 3% of the extensive samplers made a purchase after tasting. Of those who sampled from the limited selection, 30% made a purchase.

“An extensive array of options can at first seem highly appealing to consumers,” the researchers concluded, “yet can reduce their subsequent motivation to purchase the product.” Too much choice, they found, can be “demotivating” and leave shoppers confused.

The same dynamic applies to decisions in which a lot more is at stake than deciding what to spread on your toast. After the government passed the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit in 2003, seniors suddenly could choose from dozens of plans that would help lower their prescription drug costs. But many found the offerings so confusing they didn’t sign up, while others mistakenly chose a plan that didn’t lower their costs nearly as much as it could have.

“Decision quality deteriorates as the number of plans increases,” one study reported.

Minimalists focus almost exclusively on decluttering tangible items that often overwhelm—clothes in closets, papers in file cabinets, everything in garages—while ignoring the less tangible, but equally cluttered areas of our lives.

We’re not just overwhelmed by our mindless consumerism and the trail of material possessions that results from it, we’re overwhelmed by a steady torrent of stimuli—whether it’s hundreds of insurance plans, emails, interpersonal interactions, television channels, or advertisements.

Advanced minimalism is the art of narrowing one’s focus and decluttering one’s mind by consciously setting limits. For example, I allow myself to read ten blogs at any given time. That means if you send me a link to your mind blowing blog, I’ll have to decide whether it deserves more of my limited attention than one of my current ten. In the same spirit, I recently deleted some television channels that were more popular with the birdies before they flew the coup.

Social science suggests that if consumers had ten insurance plans to choose among, they’d be much better off. Less is almost always more. This was, in large part, Steve Jobs’ genius—off-the-charts focus. Once he shrunk Apple’s product line, customers weren’t confused, sales caught fire, and the company quickly rebounded.

Another way to impose limits is to lean on others for help. Some of the most popular websites on-line help citizens and consumers narrow their choices to a more manageable level. For example, for bibliophiles, there’s FiveBooks. And for people who want to manage their time better and be more productive there’s Lifehacker. And for consumers overwhelmed by Amazon.com, there’s The Sweethome and The Wirecutter.

My aim is different than the people who write for Lifehacker. They want to help readers get more done. My question to them is, for what purposes? Set limits on stimuli that tend to overwhelm to think about larger life purposes. If we just let any and all email, media images, and the cacophony of modern life wash over us, we’ll live day-to-day without any sense of purpose.

Minimalism must be about more than cleaning out garages. Our goal should be to create silent spaces in our lives, and from them, purpose.

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