The Absurdly Subtle Art of Picking a Place to Eat

essay self-improvement social-observation

…it’s already noon?

Ah, the lunch break. The ubiquitously celebrated opportunity to devour a few delectably taste-filled calories prior to returning to a 9–5 job is a daily occurrence that most employees look forward to with total and utter delight — until, of course, one realizes that one must decide on a place to stuff one’s face.

Sometimes, to make the situation even more complex, one must decide how to please a whole group’s abundance of different culinary preferences in one fell swoop. The task becomes increasingly difficult with each additional coworker, family member, or friend added into the fray.

We all know the feeling of heading out of the office with 3 or 4 coworkers in tow, trying to kindly, yet efficiently, figure out where to go eat.

“Susan likes Mexican food, maybe we’ll go to Chipotle? But their food has so much salt, and Mary’s been trying to cut back recently. Brian says he’s up for whatevs, but I know he’s trying to be polite and actually loves Indian. What’s the name of that new Hawaiian place? Dammit! Maybe we should just go to McDonald’s…”

The amount of latent time that I spend every week on the problem of deciding where to consume food and what to eat when I arrive at a given establishment quite frankly pisses me off, and I think it’s indicative of a far deeper and more difficult problem in American society.

Eating is something that nearly every living organism needs to do to survive. Luckily for us humans, it’s superbly easy in this day and age to maintain a balanced, healthy diet (provided you’re one of the lucky ones that can afford food). Grocery stores and restaurants are plentiful, and with a meager amount of cash, almost anyone can go grab quality sustenance. So why, then, do we struggle so much with making decisions on what to consume? I posit that it’s because we possess preferences.

Preferences make things hard. They transform an essentially solved problem (eating healthy food) to an extremely difficult, continually evolving unsolved problem (eating food that aligns with individual or group preferences). To illustrate, I’ll give you a scenario.

I’m Bill. I want to be healthier, so I found a diet plan online that tells me precisely what to eat, when to eat it, and how much it will cost per week. I’m psyched about this new plan and its potential to transform my life, so I excitedly rush out the door and over to the nearest Whole Foods. As I roll my cart down Aisle 2 to grab the first item on my list (superfood-hyper-organic-ultra-non-gmo-delicious protein bars), I glance at the vast array of artistically-packaged boxes and acquire my target. But right next to it is an identically priced box of bars that have more grams of protein per serving, fewer carbs, AND are chocolate-flavored. I adore chocolate. Maybe I oughtta buy those instead?

I end up sitting in the protein bar aisle for the next 10 minutes, attempting to figure out which bars are precisely the best, when in reality I would enjoy >70% of those available. I finally decide on a lucky contestant, and then move onto the next item on my grocery list of 27.

Bill is so clearly a time-wasting fool, yet this behavior is something that I would guess damn near every single person reading this has done. The deeper, more underlying problem that has surfaced in the most benign of forms is that of completely and totally undervaluing time in order to achieve a greater alignment between one’s preferences and one’s decisions.

The same thing happens when you and your coworkers are deciding where to eat, or when you’re picking which Netflix show to watch, or which pair of shoes to buy on Amazon. You don’t think about it in the heat of the moment, but the vast majority of restaurants available will have some satisfactory dish for every person in your group, Netflix has an algorithm designed to automatically deliver you the content that you will enjoy most when you go on their website or app, and Amazon has a vetting system that ensures you only see the best of the best products.

But… we’re still operating under the assumption that’s it’s a good thing to align one’s preferences and one’s decisions — I think that’s a poor assumption.

Let’s say that you end up randomly choosing a crappy restaurant, or you watch a show or read a post that doesn’t jive with your normal preferences. It’s easy to overlook the fact that you’ve presented yourself with an opportunity to grow. Growth is induced by undergoing small bouts of stress, and always doing what you already know you’ll enjoy is certain to result in personal stagnation and boredom.

Perhaps you’ll fall in love with the eel sushi at the restaurant you randomly chose, will be inspired to become an entrepreneur after watching a terrific documentary you clicked willy-nilly on the front page of your Netflix account, or will lose 20 lbs through a newfound adoration with running in the minimalist running shoes you haphazardly picked out on Amazon.

We consistently undervalue the time we spend deciding, underestimate the amount of satisfactory options available, and overvalue the pleasure of an experience that aligns well with our preferences. This brings about a slew of instances wherein we waste an absurd amount of time attempting to figure out ‘which one’ when we would, in reality, be satisfied by most, and likely grow in the instances in which we aren’t satisfied.

Spend less time choosing, and you’ll be rewarded with more time experiencing and growing.