The overwhelm of "Overchoice"

Overchoice, according to Wikipedia, is a term describing a cognitive process in which people have a difficult time making a decision when faced with many options. The term was first introduced by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book, Future Shock.

This term was coined over 45 years ago, far ahead of its time,  and has exponentially increased, in part due to the tremendous amount of  technological advancements we’ve experienced since then.

 “Overchoice”  or “choice overload” can be part of any big decision but in the world of a high school student it doesn’t get much bigger than entering into the college planning process.

Many of my students have shared with me that while they were extremely excited about college and being able to make their own decisions about what classes they were able to take, it was also terrifying.  They realized that their entire school career up til now was basically ALL planned out for them.  Each decision was based on “getting into college”.  Each class led to the next class.  Standardized tests were taken to get good scores for college.  There was a structured, mostly inflexible path that they had been following with respect to their academic career.  “What if I make the wrong choice” was the predominant question they asked me.

In fact, it is this fear of making the wrong choice that often contributes to shutting down and feeling stuck.  Seemingly simple questions like “What college do you want to go to” and “What are you majoring in” can open up a Pandora’s box of choice overload because what you are really asking teens is “Who are you” and “What do you want”.   These questions are difficult enough for an adult, let alone teenagers grappling with  major life choices for their future that, for the most part, have been answered for them by following the structured pathway of “pre-college preparation”.   

The great news, and YES, there is great news,  is that the college planning process is a fantastic opportunity to learn skills and tools that build a foundation that will help your children throughout college as well as throughout their entire lives! “Who am I” and “What do I want” are foundational questions that come up during numerous times of transition in our lives from choosing your first career to becoming an empty nester to planning retirement.

And, as with any big decisions, the best way to start is to diffuse the stress, so you can start to think in a more creative, solution-oriented way.

Here is a 3-step process you can use – both for your teen AND for you:

1.       Think about a decision you made that you are proud of – or you feel worked out well.  

2.       Describe the situation.  How did you handle it?  What did you do well?

3.       List all of the things you just described that you did well and that you liked about what you did.  How can you use these things to help you with the decision or choice you are making?

When we get into overwhelm, we tend to think about all that can go wrong, so thinking about what we’ve already done well is a great way to quickly restore confidence.  It also shows your teen that they ALREADY have the ability to make a good decision.   

And, once the stress is lifted and they realize that they already HAVE the superpower of making good decisions, they are able to think much more creatively and come up with ideas and solutions for the choice at hand!  Try it the next time you have a difficult decision to make!

As a coach, I have the tremendous joy and honor of helping my students to build these skills and tools as part of their college planning and application process! 

I love to watch the spark of excitement in my student’s eyes as they begin to take ownership of the process and build their “choice-muscle”. 

A favorite story is one of my students who was frustrated at being asked “What are you majoring in” at family gatherings.  The holidays were coming up and she realized that the enormity of the question was what was causing her to completely shut down.  After going through the exercise above, she realized that she had many opportunities where she had made decisions that she was proud of and knew that she would continue to do so.  And that college would be a wonderful way to continue to discover information that would help her to know the answer to that question, as well as many others!

Diffusing the stress also helped her to creatively come up with her answer to:  “What are you majoring in”  that she used at family gatherings and upcoming holiday parties:  “I’m in the process of discovering that” she would happily tell friends and relatives and the best thing is that she totally was!!