Leaving your options open sets you back

When I was trying to get on the national volleyball tour, that was the only thing I was focused on. So eventually, I played professional beach volleyball. When I was trying to get my memoir published, I was focused on that more than anything else, and eventually, University of Colorado Press came through. And when I was running my last startup, I was always focused on funding. That’s why my company never failed.

But now I have a new company that is well funded. And I have a blog that allows me to feel like a published writer every time I hit the publish button. I have reached so many of my goals, and it’s time to pick another.

I’m pretty sure the reason I don’t have a big goal right now is that the idea of having one makes me exhausted. I’m scared it will be too much work. I’m scared I don’t have the energy. So I don’t let myself commit to something big and difficult to do. The problem, though, is that not committing to a goal is as exhausting as committing to a goal. And here’s why:

1. Options open makes you lazy.
We have a limited amount of willpower, and if all our options are open, we have to use our willpower constantly. We are much better off removing choices and creating routines that preserve our willpower. I eat too many calories every morning at breakfast. Mostly it’s because I know I have to wake up and write. And like all good writers, I’m terrified that I’ll suck when I write so I am scared to write.

If I planned what I will eat each morning, then I wouldn’t exhaust my willpower with food and I’d have more willpower to get myself to write. (It’s an endless process—if I took away the choice of not writing then I would not exhaust my willpower writing and I would have more energy to argue with my kids about doing their chores before video games.)

I talk to so many people who say they don’t know what they should do next. But actually they just don’t have the guts to close off options. The key to committing to a goal is to understand that you will not be trapped, because taking options away from yourself actually opens up more possibilities for yourself. 

2. More options creates anxiety.
Throughout history, tons of options for survival made humans increasingly adaptable to the point that we relied on it to outlast all our evolutionary competitors.  Chip Walter warns, in his book Last Ape Standing, that our penchant for keeping survival options open has driven us to insanity as survival comes more and more easily. The extreme adaptability that served us so well in evolution is, today, a source of anxiety; at any given point we could choose one of a million options for our life. But the overwhelming number of options only makes us stressed, depressed and anxious.

Walter shows how social, cultural and technological leaps give us so many choices that we do the evolutionary equivalent of imposition – that is, we choose nothing and simply gaze at possibilities.

If you’re wondering what that looks like, I’ve provided a photo for you up top. That’s me, at my son’s dance recital rehearsal. I volunteered to be the mom in charge of the boys  in my son’s class:  get their costumes on backstage, keep them quiet, get them to stage-right five minutes before they go on.

The dance recital is interminable, so I figured I’d have tons of time to get work done while we were waiting. But when it came time to decide what was most important to accomplish in those two hours, the choices were overwhelming because I had no commitment to really going after anything.

So I went to sleep. My son took the picture (and then lead the group to stage right without me.)

3. Noncommitment is like multitasking: pointless.
Multitasking is the act of refusing to prioritize one thing over everything else. It’s non-commitment on a micro scale. It’s easy to see it doesn’t work. That’s why texting and driving is illegal. It’s why Twitter does not allow cell phones in company meetings.

The problem is that most of us think we are special. We think we can multitask in a productive way. Psychologist David Strayer does research that will at least take that particlar possibility off the table for you: Only 2% of the human race can multitask without compromising their ability to do either task. It’s something you are born with. “And,” he says, “that 2% is not me or you.”

When we refuse to commit to a goal we are ensuring that we do not reach any goal. Just as we trick ourselves into believing we can multitask, we trick ourselves into believing that we can reach goals we don’t commit to.

4. We display irrational behavior when we have too many choices.
Dan Airely studies this phenomena in a wide range of scenarios. For example, he offered six types of jams for sale and then he offered 24 types. He sold more when there were six types because people hate deciding anything when there are 24 choices. You may have conducted a study on this topic yourself. You don’t want to be tied down to a life partner so instead you keep picking terrible people to have relationships with in the name of keeping your options open. (The book that contains examples of his studies is a fun read: Predictably Irrational)

I see the same problem in my career coaching clients. I know, for instance, when I’m coaching a never-been-married 38 year-old woman who is in a career that she hates, it’s a pretty safe bet that she doesn’t want to commit to a love interest or a career and so she chooses bad samples of each in the name of not being tied down. (It’s also a pretty safe bet that that woman is an ENFP—it seems that every ENFP I coach has this problem to a degree.)

So what can you do? You can’t change thoughts and feelings. You can only limit your options. 

The only way to be a writer is to write. If I waited until I was excited to write, I’d never write. Because even when I have something great to say, if I have the option to procrastinate, I will take it in the hopes of finding something even greater to say later on.

So I tell myself I have to write. I don’t have a choice. I don’t get rid of the feeling of fear that everything I write will be terrible. I accept that feeling and manage what my choices are for responding to it. I’m a good writer because I have successfully convinced myself that there is not an option to be too scared to write. I can just write scared.

It’s how I’ve accomplished everything in my life: I went to the volleyball courts in LA even though I had no idea how I was going to get someone to play with me. I pitched my company to get funding even though I could always think of things I needed to do before I pitched the company.

Success comes from taking action. And the only time I’ve taken action to get something big is when I convinced myself I had no other option.

People tell me it’s so impressive that I drive 20 hours a week so my eight-year-0ld son can play cello. I tell them it doesn’t feel impressive because I don’t feel like I have a choice. He’s very talented and he works hard it’s what I need to do for him.

You might tell me that I do have a choice. When we have a choice to not do something big, we don’t do it. Each of us has a challenge to find something big that we want and then convince ourselves there is no option but action. Focused action does not include hedging our bets with something else. Because hedging your bets is like multitasking: everything degrades. And taking action toward a goal we’re committed to is like splashing cold water on your face: it’s difficult and jarring but you feel power to do anything in that moment.

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  1. Ru
    Ru says:

    Hi Penelope, I find it interesting how the post make sense that with no choice, we accomplish more; yet at the same time, we’re advised all the time that “you have a choice in everything! Take charge to change!”

    Totally conflicting mindsets to make you question are choices good for you or bad. Makes me think you’re stuck and this is how you’re trying to get out of being stuck.

    Thx for the lovely post this Friday morning. :)

  2. Wenda
    Wenda says:

    This may be the best piece you’ve ever written — at least the most important for me to read. This is exactly what it means to “show up” and I’m very grateful to you. But right now, I gotta get to work!

  3. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I’m one of those that doesn’t know what to go after. Mostly because it feels that none of it is worth the effort and sacrifice. Or that I have to start from the bottom so I can get in then work my way up.
    It’s true that limited choices helps you focus better.

  4. Amanda INTJ
    Amanda INTJ says:

    This is so true and such a great reminder. I feel like I’ve lived a lot of my life with the “keep my options open” mantra and it hasn’t really gotten me where I want to go, so I decided this year to focus on two goals and two goals only (rather than getting distracted), training for and running a marathon and buying a house. I’m going to the home inspection tomorrow and starting on Wednesday of next week I can start running again (after a brief bout with a foot injury). I must say this approach has worked so much better for me than keeping my options open ever did, I’m more focused, happier and more content. Also I’d like to add that come January 1st, 2014 I had NO idea how I would ever achieve either of these goals but focusing and not getting distracted by other options has made all the difference.

    Thanks again for the reminder and thought provoking post.

  5. Brenda Nichols
    Brenda Nichols says:

    I also think this is one of your best pieces. Flows well, with good tangible advice. It is also focused on helping others. Thanks.

  6. Ron
    Ron says:

    Spot on post. Most of us barely have the time or energy to commit to one thing, let alone many.
    The only thing I will ad is it’s important to build in a periodic review / gut check to make sure the one thing you commit to is still the right thing for you.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s really interesting. We only think about ADHD in terms of small periods of time, hours, days, nights. But you can also have an inability to focus on long-term things.

      It’s not ADHD when it’s long term, though, I don’t think. I mean, you could be able to focus short-term just fine and still not have long-term goals. But, now I’m thinking out loud…

      I realize that not being able to focus long-term makes a person look like they have ADHD short term. That must be what you’re getting at. Thank you for showing me a different way to look at it!


      • Karo
        Karo says:

        I have ADHD myself. I see myself in this post. ADHD absolutely affects your long-term planning because we are always chasing the short-term stimuli, instant gratification, the next immediate “high” that will somehow stimulate our frontal lobes for just a short period so that we can feel like we are alive. Therefore, planning for the future by limiting the options is a non-topic for anyone with ADHD who goes untreated. We are bad at delaying gratification. That’s why people with ADHD usually end up broke.

  7. John
    John says:

    This is the finest, most important post you’ve ever written.

    (And you’ve written a lot of great ones.)

    • John
      John says:

      By the way, every line was like a punch in the gut for me. But at least now I finally understand why my life fell apart.

      • Mel
        Mel says:

        As I was reading this, I was thinking the exact same thing but was going to keep it to myself because maybe, I thought, I was being melodramatic, or that such a simple-seeming blog post could explain why I threw away so many opportunities that got me to this point in my life (professionally: so-so, could be better, personally: a complete f*cking disaster).

        Thank you PT.

        • Mel
          Mel says:

          meant to say: such a seemingly simply blog post couldn’t possibly explain why life is currently a well of disappointment. but it does explain why. punch in the gut indeed.

    • Joanne
      Joanne says:

      This is definitely my favorite. It really turns every cliche and piece of conventional wisdom on its head.

  8. terese
    terese says:

    It seems that Aspberger’s might play a big role in your perspective on this topic. Keeping options open is a lot like open ended questions for Aspberger’s folks. Too much information to sort thru – impossible to find where to start. I think this info is spot on for Aspberger’s folks. I like open ended vacations with days to wander and explore the countryside. But I guess that is the whole plan – wandering. So, bottom line – I can’t decide if I agree with all of what you said or not!

  9. Lee
    Lee says:

    This post hits home in a big way today. I’m totally stuck in this spot.

    I just took a new job that is a little overwhelming and not in as fun of an atmosphere as my old job. I’m constantly comparing it to the old job and wishing I could go back despite the fact that the new job is a good job and pays way more than the last one. On top of this, I am waiting to hear back on another job that I interviewed for, hoping that I get it and it’s better than this one.

    In the mean time I can’t concentrate on anything and am not really into this job.

    My personal life is the same way. Been with someone for years, but don’t want to commit to marriage. I’ve moved around a bit, but don’t want to commit to living in one place.

    Basically my entire life has been a mess of too many options and I never just pick one. Even now having taken this new job in a great city, I’m questioning it and wanting to change my mind.

    Thanks for the post. Very insightful.

  10. CJ Myer
    CJ Myer says:

    Good stuff. I’m going to use your statement: “Success comes from taking action. And the only time I’ve taken action to get something big is when I convinced myself I had no other option.” as a quote to help me on a post I’ve been working on on my blog.

  11. Benjamin
    Benjamin says:

    Thanks again for another great “wake up” post. Along the same lines, we can spend so much time and energy focusing on preparing and planning to do something that, in the end, we find that we were simply afraid or unwilling to commit. As an old-time gambler friend used to say, “scared money can’t win.”

  12. Sya Warfield
    Sya Warfield says:

    Penelope, this is fantastic! My fear of commitment is often incredibly strong. It leaves me feeling distracted and overwhelmed. I make lists, mood boards and everything else to stay on track. Your article makes some really good points. I’m also 38, unmarried, and definitely ENFP (which I’ve never heard of before). Some light has been shed on this topic. Thank you!

  13. Chris
    Chris says:

    Remarkable writing, with great data.

    A few years ago I decided I was going to learn to speak Italian before taking a trip to Italy. While I don’t have Italian blood I do have marinara running through my veins: I LOVE pizza, wine, bread, espresso, plus my chest is super hairy.

    I researched the best way to learn the language – I could already envision wooing a voluptuous Italian woman when I was there – and settled on purchasing Rosetta Stone. So I would get home from work and usually have plenty of time to focus on learning Italian.

    Do you think I ever learned one word? No.

    I had the best product, I had the time, and as most who know me can vouch, I’m extremely self-disciplined.

    My problem was what Penelope calls willpower – we all have limited energy to complete our t0-dos, and in the grand vision for my life learning Italian wasn’t really all that important.

    So now the three questions I ask myself routinely are:

    Is my to-do list short (3-5 things)?
    Am I focusing on the “big picture” tasks?
    Am I actively managing my willpower / limited energy?


    • Derek Scruggs
      Derek Scruggs says:

      How about just planning and booking a trip to Italy for, say, three months from now? Then you’ll have more motivation to learn the language. You can probably find meetups in your area to practice, and there are web sites where you can Skype with native speakers.

  14. Patrick Amato
    Patrick Amato says:

    Wonderful insight. Love being reminded of this truth. I think I read in zen habits that too many paths is like a drop of red dye in the ocean – too diluted to make a difference. Instead, be the drop of red dye in a cup of water…

    Or something like that….

  15. Alicia
    Alicia says:


    This is career/life coaching at its finest. What an insightful post. I will no longer waste so much energy weighing my options but focus it instead on doing! Thanks!

  16. Ella
    Ella says:

    I’m getting married and every so often, I’m struck with the utter commitment of this. I look at my fiance and think, really? I’m giving up all the men in the world for him? I’ll never live in Paris as a single woman or work of the UN travelling to refugee camps. We will probably live ordinary lives. And then I feel the anxiety rise in my stomach and I panic. However, I know myself – I hate limiting choices. It kills me. I wish I could split myself into different people, each one taking a different choice (stay in job, branch out as entrepreneur, etc) and follow that path. Then we could all meet up in the future and compare the results – what a treat that would be! Alas, life is a one act sort of play…

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      You’re not giving up all the men in the world for your fiancé because you would only like a handful and only a few would have you.
      Same with jobs.

      The options are limited, we just have to narrow them down even more as a gift to ourselves.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      I look at my fiance and think, really? I’m giving up all the men in the world for him?

      Are you sure you should be getting married?!

      • Elizabeth Briel
        Elizabeth Briel says:

        Many women feel this way.
        Well, I did. That was nearly a decade ago. I like him even more now than I did then.

        The fear of being tied to one person (chained, even) is something which men are encouraged to admit/joke about in public, but it’s taken for granted that women will happily remain faithful to one person for the rest of our lives, without complaint. Or else it’s not ‘meant to be’. Tosh.

    • Elizabeth Briel
      Elizabeth Briel says:

      Sounds like you may afraid of limiting possible future options for your life and career. Your fiance may be more open to different scenarios than you think.

      Before my husband and I married, I said, “Listen, here’s what I want to do with my life: travel, make art, maybe write.” [It all seemed so simple back then]
      “It may mean spending months apart. I’d love for you to be part of my life, and this is how I want to live it. Hopefully, with you.” It’s not been simple, but he’s been 95% supportive (most of the time, heh).

      As Penelope illustrated in this post, limiting choices really helps you focus on what’s important.

  17. MBL
    MBL says:

    This brings to mind Emily Dickinson’s

    I dwell in Possibility

    I dwell in Possibility–
    A fairer House than Prose–
    More numerous of Windows–
    Superior–for Doors–

    Of Chambers as the Cedars–
    Impregnable of Eye–
    And for an Everlasting Roof
    The Gambrels of the Sky–

    Of Visitors–the fairest–
    For Occupation–This–
    The spreading wide my narrow Hands
    To gather Paradise–

    For me, each time a make a decision a little piece of me dies because of all of the fractilian options that are forever lost.

    I am a married ADD INFP who has never “found my niche.” I am “an artist” who creates only in my mind. That is, unless I have a deadline (when I was in school) and would frantically work around the clock and was finally able to make decisions as it came down to the wire because the option of not making decisions was no longer there.

    In any situation, if it looks like I will make a deadline, I immediately start dilly dallying and rethinking things until the clock says that I am screwed and then I kick back into high gear. The only times that I have remained moderately sane in these situations is when I have embraced the fact that this is part of my process and don’t berate myself the whole time that I am not “accomplishing something.”

    It also has a built in ego protector. If things don’t turn out as well as I had hoped, I can always think “Wow, look what I did in such a short amount of time! Boy is that impressive. Just imagine what I could have done if I had had more time to tweak things.”

    I always lost points on papers for mechanics since I never ever have time to proofread. Such is life. Mine anyway.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Love the poem so much. Every time I read Emily Dickinson I remember to think more broadly about rhyming. I love that you took the time to type the poem into the comments. Thank you.

      And thank you for pointing out that indecision is a way to protect our ego. So true. But I am really sick of people who philosophize about commitment instead of jumping in. And I have so much more respect for people who are genuinely struggling with a goal that’s maybe mismatched for them. The struggle is so much more interesting than the philosophizing about the struggle.

      Oh. I think that was a solipsism, right? I am philosophizing about how philosophizing is bad.


      • MBL
        MBL says:

        I think that might be closer to metaphilosophy (philosophy of philosophy) rather than solipsism (the extreme form of scepticism which denies the possibility of any knowledge other than of one’s own existence.)

        My very favorite example of solipsism is Tolstoy’s account of sitting very still as a child and then turning around very quickly to try to see if he could “catch” nothingness behind him before it realized that he was looking.

      • Tracy
        Tracy says:

        Haha, you sound just like my husband. He is always telling me the same – that I spend way to much philosophizing about doing something than just doing it. He’s right – but only to a certain extent ;-). He is such a black and white thinker. I’m getting better at getting things done (rather than discussing the todo list in depth)… but there will always be a part of me that needs to do it – I find it so fun discussing things at length with someone smart. So I rebrand it ‘strategizing’ and do it when I can get away with it.

    • Joyce
      Joyce says:

      Hi! Fellow INFP here and have the same problem. My papers are fine in content and mechanics but submitted months after the deadline. But when I interned at an office, I was able to submit pleadings a few days or at most one week after they were assigned.

      Gretchen Rubin has categorized people into 4 types according to their habits: Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, and Rebels. Anyway, I’m an Obliger because while I have problems meeting my own goals, I can easily meet the tasks or requests set by other people. The solution for Obligers is to create external accountability for our own goals.

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        I definitely think that external accountability is vital for me. Unfortunately, I don’t view as “real” the ones that I have contrived in an effort to light a fire under my a.. . In my head I think “I made them, I can revise them.”

        I think, in general, INFPs can be really good at talking their way into and out of things. This isn’t necessarily a good thing!

        I’m glad you’ve found a good system!

    • NS
      NS says:

      Here’s the paradox: too much choice paralyzes us, no surprise to anyone who has ever stumbled into a Super Stop & Shop and tried to buy eggs. Dr. Iyengar is the author of a now-famous academic study that describes this paralysis.

      In the mid-’90s, when she was a doctoral student at Stanford, Dr. Iyengar, now 40, conducted her jam study, in which research assistants set out pots of jam on tables in a supermarket — different flavors in groups of 6 and 24 — and offered samples to shoppers. What she discovered was that many of the shoppers who visited the table with the smaller sampling ended up buying jam along with their other groceries, as compared with a mingy few among those who visited the table with the greater selection. The study — more is less! — made Dr. Iyengar a darling of corporate America and a celebrity in social science circles.

      In her book, she described the magic number — seven — at which “more” turns into less, inspired by a 1956 study that showed that our senses can easily discern anywhere from five to nine objects of perception, like sounds, colors or lights — any more, and we begin to make errors.

  18. home school mom
    home school mom says:

    In a weird and pathetic way I was encouraged that you said the other day that you were getting fat because most of the home school moms I know struggle with this to some degree or another. It only made me feel encouraged because you are so accomplished and driven and rich, so if you have that problem, it is no wonder I do! So anyway, I think your next project should be doing the Whole 30. Your entire family will benefit. When I keep my weight down and take care of myself, I feel so much better about everything. Sorry that is sort of superficial, but it is true for me.

  19. Julia
    Julia says:

    Nailed it. I wish every single person would read this, and I’ll return to it again and again. Thank you!

  20. Win
    Win says:

    I am a 65 year young person who has a problem with alcohol. Quit numerous times but always started again. I tell myself every morning that I will not take another drink. I tell myself every afternoon that I just want one (6? ) more. Round and round and round. How do I take the challenge to just focus on getting out of this rut? I think your post makes so much sense but but how do I really get to the spot where I truly want to change for good.?
    I love to read, and especially books about people who have had drinking problems and overcome them, at least until they sold the books. Thank you for at least getting me to think about all of this. 24 jars of jam? Maybe I was one of those people that sampled them all and still can’t decide.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      As a young person that has struggled with change and the question of how to get there…

      It’s a slow process of letting go.

      It’s very easy to not change, excuse yourself, distract yourself. You say if only I had more motivation, more time, more willpower.

      Then you find yourself years down the road in the same position, because no one will find that inner strength but yourself.

      It doesn’t happen overnight. it’s a muscle that you grow- your willpower muscle.

      I would suggest going to AA aND getting a sponsor as I’ve heard this helps a lot.

      It’s taken years to develop this habit, it will take years to rewire and reverse the habit.

      The good news is that you can change it. Take a day at a time and draw a map in the right direction and stop giving yourself such a hard time emotionally (just a hard enough time to go in the right direction).

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      “I tell myself every morning that I will not take another drink. I tell myself every afternoon that I just want one (6? ) more.”

      Have you tried Antabuse? I knew someone who took it 20 years ago but don’t know about its current use.

      If you drink alcohol after taking Antabuse you will immediately feel sick. It offers immediate negative feedback for alcohol consumption and, more importantly, allows you decide in the morning to not drink that day. Once you have taken it, you don’t really have the option to drink later on. (Actually, per Wiki, it can potentially stay in your system for up to two weeks.) But there may be reasons for not taking it, just a suggestion.

      Win, I wish you they very, very best of luck.

      Hey, does anyone know of a Carbabuse med? Other than a pair of jeans that used to fit…

  21. Darrel Crane
    Darrel Crane says:

    I think goals of being a mother and a wife are pretty big right now. Too soon the boys will be gone and you will have more time and energy to tackle other things.

    There are a finite number of moments with your children and when they grow, they are gone. It can be very mundane and boring, but they are important moments.

    Just my two cents.

  22. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    This is great advice regarding being productive.

    I noticed that you successfully fell asleep during the day. That’s a good sign you’re tired.

    I’m thinking half of being productive is getting good at resting. The the other half is broken up in this neat and useful tricks (like narrow things down, don’t be a salve to email, don’t let people dictate your schedule, etc.)

    And sadly no one talks about it.

    One of my main focus/goal for the rest of the year is getting a hang of resting; getting pockets of true mental and emotional rest through the day. I last longer and stronger that way.

    It’s ridiculous that I had to get to 27 to realize that.

  23. SuperD
    SuperD says:

    When we take away options — aka when we truly commit to something— it also makes us happier. Dan Gilbert would instruct that when we lose options our ‘psychological immune system’ kicks in and feeds our mind all sorts of (self-serving) reasons on why our position is great, or why we made the right choice. We end up believing these things. Robert Cialdini gets to about the same answer but comes at it from the ‘Commitment / Consistency’ principle.

    This can lead to perverse outcomes, though. One of these two researchers cites interviews with battered women who stuck by their abusive husbands, and invariably were convinced that this was a great outcome because x, y, and z reasons. (There is no doubt a rather grim survivorship bias to such a survey though.)

    In some ways this really just may be getting back to Nietzsche bit about the man who has a lame leg and insists that he’s proud of it.

  24. AP
    AP says:

    This was a compelling post to read since I am at the point with my new business where I need to decide to give up my “other options” (a.k.a., my day job). I am doing neither very well (can’t multi-task to save my life), but can see very clearly that if I focus on the business I started, it would continue to grow (and grow because of me, not in spite of me) and I would be happier and more successful. Thank you for giving me this kick in the head. I need to decide to either sink or swim.

  25. Andy
    Andy says:

    What a wonderful post!
    I found my self in it.
    Today I was telling my partner that I feel trapped.
    I chose to study interior design, but I don’t like the university, or the teacher, or how they teach. In foundation year I took interior design as a discipline choice and they killed my creativity (“it’s too artistic and theatrical your design” they used to say to me). I really hated them, I didn’t want to go at all. My other option was Fine Art, I love painting, and sculpture and it’s a away to express my self.
    And now I feel that I made a mistake, I feel trapped in my decision.
    The reasons I chose interior design were because I have very high spatial imagination (according psychometric test), it’s more likely to find a job and for the prestige.

    It is strange, I think, how our mind work. the last month (after the first year was over, and I had made my decision), I felt depression and a vainness. And yesterday I realise that my mind was trying to tell me that I chose interior design for the wrong reasons!

    And now I’m confused, I have two choices and I don’t know what to do, I’m stressed, and sad. I feel physically sick every time I think what to do.

    so yeah. it is very nice to eliminate your choices, so you can feel better, but I don’t know if that is always possible…


    • Elizabeth Briel
      Elizabeth Briel says:

      Every discipline comes with potential regrets. Many artists finish their degree programs more confused about their work – and life – than when they started. Often, it’s only after finishing school that they begin to develop their work. Or, in an MFA program.

      You can be an artist any time, and don’t need a university degree to do it. There are many forms of contemporary art, and many ways to get art training: mentoring, workshops, videos, short-term courses. Much of it depends on what kind of art you want to make. Go to galleries, craft fairs, try out different media, take extra fine art courses if you can while in university, while you have those resources available to you at a relatively low cost (renting spaces in printmaking/ceramic studios can get expensive later on).

      But most importantly, just make art, today. Now.

  26. pasha
    pasha says:

    Oh, Penelope! I needed this like twenty-five years ago?! Thank you for putting it all together like this. I’ve figured out some of your points on my own, for my own self, but never seen it all so clear, and in one place.

    Just over two years ago I walked away from my Washington, DC-life and moved to the big island of Hawai’i, not knowing anyone or even where I was going to stay or live. I’d been struck with the realization that I’d never taken a wife, never owned a dog or a house, never chosen a career (just fell into what I’ve been doing for 35-years), never chosen a place to live – was still in DC only because that’s where I had been, and all because I’d spent my life keeping my options open. (Life options are like stock market options – they expire worthless.) I erred living this way beyond my younger years. It doesn’t help that I’m intelligent, creative, INTP, ADHD, and IMHO on the near end of the Aspie scale.

    It’s better, as I see now the end closer than the beginning, to have a bunch of C’s or B’s than just one or two A’s or A+’s.

    Thank you for your entertaining wisdom.

  27. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    What counts as a big goal ? For me it used to always be about achievement (do a triathlon) or something career oriented (get promotion, start own business). Nowadays it is a big goal if I try to change something about my behaviour – be less grumpy, engage and play with the kids more at their level. Not glamorous but big and difficult to do (even harder than the achievement goals) but like you say, I don’t think I can afford not to.

    • Ru
      Ru says:

      Hi Tracy,
      I went through the same phases! Still in the one about habits and behaviours. I realised focusing on self understanding and reduced options actually helped me focus on the task on hand.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I was just asking myself the same question. I think you know you have a big goal when you are positively elated and grateful and jumping for joy that you reached the goal.

      Someone earlier said that right now my goals are really being a mom and a wife. And that’s probably true, but there is no real end to that. And no way to quantify success, and so there is no jumping for joy moment. That’s what’s missing for me: seeing what would make me elated.


      • Jessica
        Jessica says:

        But isn’t that the point of jumping in?

        The leap of faith that, if you do, there will be a worthwhile outcome whatever it is?

        Jumping in involves risk, not a certainty for elation.

        I think having a happy -functioning family is a worthwhile pursuit and if that needs full focus then the outcome effects more than one person in a Multidimensional way… Then, ripple effect to other areas of life.

      • Anna
        Anna says:

        When my kids were young I tore down wallpaper and painted the entire inside of my house. I could have paid it done but I was home with the kids and it gave me something that parenting did not — nearly instant gratification for a task completed. That’s what is missing when “mom and wife” are your biggest jobs. The task may be completed (fixing dinner) but you just have to do it again tomorrow. I was always aggravated when I mopped the kitchen floor. No one cared if it was clean but me, and as soon as it dried it got dirty again.

  28. gordana dragicevic
    gordana dragicevic says:

    yes! excellent post. i wholly share the experience that we are more productive when there are deadlines. in fact work on a project always seems to stretch to fill the time available :)

    but i think not only our own life, but any kind of evolution goes forward only when the options are taken away.
    aerobic life on earth evolved only after anaerobic bacteria made the atmosphere toxic for themselves with oxygen, a by-product of their matabolism.
    apes learned to stand upright when the need appeared to use front legs for holding things, and probably because more food was available above their heads, and walking on all fours meant starvation.
    also, people are regularly most creative not when they are docile, but when there is a pressing need to create a solution. when there are no other options.

  29. Cath
    Cath says:

    Hi Penelope
    Loved this post!! Thank You.

    Also reminded me of some of William Whiteclouds work about thoughts and feelings are not real. See blog link below. This is probably a bit out there for some *&^% However I think it comes down to our relationship with ourselves and learning to love all bits of ourselves, even the demons from our past and how they stall us in life. I’m learning about why I don’t action anything and achieve my desires in life…your post is part of this learning. Thanks Again. Cath

  30. natasha
    natasha says:

    Fantastic as usual. This is also an argument for staying home with your kids rather than juggling both kids and career – the ultimate in multitasking.

  31. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Great post, and I got a lot out of it.

    I’d just like to point out that Iyengar and Lepper’s study has been the topic of a lot of controversy. Another psychologist, Benjamin Scheibehenne, tried to repeat it many times with mixed results.

    I’m not qualified to sort out who is right, but at best results were inconclusive – and do not apply to every situation, regardless. Tread carefully…


  32. James Lewis
    James Lewis says:

    This is a wonderful insight about prioritizing and actually getting things done. It’s true that there’s nothing bad about having too many ideas and concepts in your head about a million other things, but what’s really important is you know how to compartmentalize and know for yourself which ones are worth pursuing. Focusing more on the things that are important to you, and sticking to the things that would develop your personality, career, and stability is the key to actually achieving your goals in life.

  33. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Thank you for writing this, this is exactly what I need right now. I’ve always been the type who gets easily overwhelmed when there are too many options and did not realize how common it was. But to really succeed at something, you have to have razor sharp focus. I think the perfect example of this is the movie “The Social Network.” I loved that movie and was struck by the way Mark Zukcerberg literally eats, sleeps and breathes Facebook. He would definitely not be a billionaire before 30 if Facebook was just a hobby. There’s another phrase I read about called “magnificent obsession”. That’s what we need to find within ourselves, there are very few things we can focus on at one time. I always felt the glorification of ‘busy’ and ‘multitasking’ was bullshit.

  34. Claire
    Claire says:

    Spot on.
    I have long felt that one of the major contributing factors when it comes to modern day problems is too much choice.
    You have just put it brilliantly.

  35. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    The ADHD , aspie decenters are missing the point.

    Focus is the key to success in any area of life.

    Sure aspies and adhd’s have a more difficult time with focus than the average person, but it doesn’t negate the universal fact that focus leads to success.

    Eliminating distractions (i.e. other options) allows you room to focus on your goal/what have you.

  36. me
    me says:

    Like all of your greatest posts, this one was like a splash in the face with cold water.

    Keep writing.

    And splashing me in the face ….

  37. Julia
    Julia says:

    Dear Penelope,

    this post is great! I feel it is a valuable advice for my situation right now: too much on my plate and it feels like I’m stuck and cannot commit but without committing I can’t go further.

    Thank you!

  38. J.B.
    J.B. says:


    As an ADD/ENFP this post smacks me upside the head in so many needed ways. I wish I would have heard this repeatedly while growing up.

    The hardest part for me to get around is the involuntary flow of ideas for new possibilities. It’s so distracting and trying to stop usually makes it worse. For a long time I felt like I needed to go out and accomplish every good idea I had because I had so many while others would have few. It’s a work in progress, but I’m much more able to let the career/project ideas bubble up and then let them go back into the universe for someone else to tackle, knowing that not every idea is for me.

    The only area this doesn’t work for me yet is in writing. I’ve changed the plot line to my novel-in-progress so many damn times because new ideas/possibilities creep up and they’re just too tempting to ignore.

    Thinking aloud here: This tends to be my biggest procrastination point in writing – I don’t want to write because I don’t want to end up reworking the entire plot again, but I still want my work to be good. I feel that if I ignore good ideas/possibilities that bubble up, my work will be poorer than I am capable of. I have forever wondered how other writers deal with the the constant influx of ideas for their material (if they do at all).

  39. Aimee
    Aimee says:

    Hi Penelope,
    Thanks you so much for writing this post!!!!!! You wrote this at a perfect time, for me at least. I’m in a place where I’m realizing that I’ve been completely wasting my time, trying to choose what it is that I want to pursue, whether it be in the arts or health. I graduated a year ago as fine arts/sculpture major and then I realized that it isn’t what I wanted to do. Then I thought I wanted to be a health coach but that doesn’t put a real drive in me, so I went back to the arts. I’m focusing on photography at the moment and it feels good. It’s scary though, because I’m starting to close off all my “options” that were really just distractions and I’m finally noticing it. I’m scared to pursue photography but I think I love it alot and I just have a natural eye for it. Like with the other professions I thought I wanted to pursue, I was concerned with the titles of the jobs but now I’m concerned more with what I’ll actually have to be doing and the fact that everything will never will learned, and so I’m forever a student and that is exciting to me. I know this is a long reply but thank you for doing what you do, and writing whatever you feel like writing because you have been a pretty major help to me. THANK YOU!! and NEVER STOP WRITING!! (please :))

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