Do you know anyone who wants a more complicated life? Probably not. In spite of all our time-saving gadgets, and the ease of getting information, most people I talk to crave more simplicity in their lives.
We have at least two major magazines, over a thousand books, and almost 60 million search-engine hits that promise to help us simplify. We have smart-phone apps that promise to make it easy to find your friends, share your photos, keep track of calories and exercise better. Our new cars make it easier and safer to back up, change lanes and keep track of service. So why do we still feel so overwhelmed?
Some people think it has to do with information overload, multi-tasking and a sense of false urgency created by 24/7 access to news, email and texts. A recent Northwestern University study, however, showed that people felt “empowered and enthusiastic” about having so many sources of information at their fingertips. So what gives?
Maybe there are times when we want and need a lot of information, and having it makes us feel better. But there are also occasions when we really don’t want to know every detail, and we just want an easy way to make a decision. Each person is different in the amount and complexity of information they want, and when they want it.
A good example is food nutrition labeling. For some it is incredibly empowering to know the number of calories, and the specific percentages of each nutrient, in an item of food. For many, though, nutrition labels are confusing and don’t help them make better choices. Research on some restaurant labeling laws, in places such as New York City, has shown that most people do not change their ordering behavior even when calories are posted.
A lot of talk in prevention circles has been around “making the healthy choice the easy choice”. Bon Appetit Management, a food service company serving many colleges, may have just come one step closer to that goal. It is piloting its own “well-being” score that aims to cut through all the confusion around food labeling, and just make it simpler to tell the difference between one option and another on a menu. It’s a simple arrow, with more or less green, depending on how healthy the item is.
Maybe sometimes all we want is a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. We can only hold limited information in our working memories at any given time. After that, our ability to integrate ideas and to reason well declines. Trying to juggle too much at one time taxes our brains and makes performance suffer. Maybe for some college students, this new food score will be an opportunity to give their brains a rest, at least at mealtime.
There will always be many important occasions when we need to know everything, when we need to sift through reams of information before making a decision. Sometimes, though, we can choose to give up the micro-management of the choice, and rely on a trusted source or our own instincts. Knowing the difference might take trial and error, but at least we’ll be taking baby steps toward that simpler life.