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Pop Culture Corner: Choosing What’s Next

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It’s hard and I don’t like it.

ILLUSTRATION - Button for the direct start of the apps of the streaming providers Amazon Prime Video and Netflix are shown on a remote control. Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa
ILLUSTRATION - Button for the direct start of the apps of the streaming providers Amazon Prime Video and Netflix are shown on a remote control. Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa
Photo by Rolf Vennenbernd/picture alliance via Getty Images

I hate it when I finish a TV show, book, or game.

I’ve always hated finishing a large piece of entertainment. However, it used to be solely because of the hole you feel inside after finishing something that you loved. It didn’t always happen, of course, but when it did that feeling of nostalgic longing, that feeling of very specific loss, couldn’t ever be fully replicated again. You can only see, play, read something for the first time once, after all.

But as I’ve grown older, there’s another factor at play that I’ve only recently discovered: I hate finishing something because it means I have to figure out what the heck to do afterwards.

There’s a story that has always stuck with me about President Obama, and it came from a 2012 interview with Vanity Fair. In the interview, Obama mentions that his closet is full of the same black and blue suits, and he just picks one for the day because it’s just another decision he doesn’t have to make:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

I am not the President of the United States, and I do not have nearly the amount of responsibility that position, or any other position where the lives of others depends on me, matters. I write words for a living. My most stressful moments in my life are when I play difficult, exposed french horn passages on a concert stage for an orchestra; those are rare these days, anyways.

But I do empathize with Obama’s desire to cut down decisions because, like he mentions, needing to make lots of decisions has been shown to be exhausting—it’s often called “the paradox of choice.” No matter if we work as a first responder or as a live musician or as a writer or an accountant or a plumber or whatever it may be, decisions add up, and many have to be made regardless of how we make our money. One of these everyday decisions that constantly haunts me is choosing what meals to eat for the week, and you can’t just stop making that decisions or you’ll starve.

It’s this overkill of possibilities is what drives me insane, and it’s why I’ve come to dread finishing things. I tend to have only one or two long-term pieces of media I personally consume (and by long term I generally mean something that takes 10+ hours to finish). But every time I finish something, I go down this tree:

  • Should I read something, watch a show, or start a game?
  • What kind of experience do I want to have? (IE, genre, length, style, etc.)
  • Which streaming service or gaming platform should I choose?
  • Do I pick something out of my backlog or experience the new hotness?

And it’s not just that I have to make these decisions, but that there’s a complexity to them. It’s not just “turn on ABC or NBC.” Books, shows, and games are so different as mediums, and bringing genres and specific titles into the mix creates a nearly infinite amount of possibilities. I hate it. I really do.

Now, have I learned anything from this struggle to impart to you? I have three suggestions, though mileage may vary.

First, try exporting the decision to a third party that simply doesn’t care. Pick three things and go to your partner or a friend and ask them to pick for you. You can describe the choices with as much or as little information as possible. Best of all, this is a sneaky way to determine what you really want to do, as if you’re disappointed that one of the options wasn’t picked, then you have your answer.

Second, create a list ahead of time of stuff you want to do, and then check stuff off as you go. Maybe create an Excel document—linear visualization can help you process what’s on your list. And like I said above, this can also be a way to determine what you really want to do. If you find yourself skipping something a bunch because you’re never in the mood for it, maybe take it off.

Third, respect your time. If something isn’t doing it for you, stop. Move on. It’s hard for me, too, because I feel an obligation to try to finish something. But if you stop, it doesn’t mean it was bad. It just means it wasn’t for you at that moment, and that’s ok.

And if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t have a problem with picking new stuff? I envy you. Go and enjoy the world.