Hurry, Hurry! Shop, Shop! A Metaphor for Life?

Shoes on sale are displayed at a store as the busy holiday shopping season begins in Chicago, on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. If
Shoes on sale are displayed at a store as the busy holiday shopping season begins in Chicago, on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. If the economic downturn has taught retailers anything, it’s that a 50 percent off sale isn’t enough to lure finicky American shoppers into stores these days, so this holiday season, shoppers will find that retailers are doing all kinds of things to make it easier for them to part with their money. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Santa, make it stop! My inbox, which has exploded exponentially every day since Thanksgiving rolled over into the Season of Shopping, has sent me on the fast track to crazy town.

Among the fifty-odd messages that popped up since I went to bed last night are emails from everything from Bloomingdales to the Stanford Wine Club to Toys "R" Us, each and every one of them with urgent subject lines, imploring me to get on the stick before it's too late:

Final Hours: 30 percent Off!
Friends and Family! Sale Ends Today!
1 day only: Free Shipping!
Shoes and Bags, Starting at $49.99
Up to 35% Off! Cybersale ends today!
Top Foodie gifts!
Last minute holiday deals!

Last minute? Gulp. The silliest offer, who knows how they found me, was for a half-price gift certificate at the local batting cages. Go figure.

So crazed was I the other day, in fact, that I misread an email from a local retailer that one of my kids happens to love offering a 24-hour, 40-percent-off sale. I rushed to the mall, only to find out that the sale was online only.

You would think that a smart person such as myself -- and one who genuinely enjoys Christmas shopping -- should be immune to all this insanity. And yet, I succumb each year to a ridiculous sense of panic starting a few days before Thanksgiving is in the books: All these options, all these sales! Get it together before it's too late. Decide, decide, decide!

As in shopping, so in life? As we've written before, choices are hard, and time pressure makes the decision-making process a hundred times worse. Add in the constant barrage of information (thank you, Interwebs) and we're headed for a serious case of analysis paralysis. In fact, what we learned in the research for our book is that the greater the number of options, the less likely we are to choose one, whether we're Christmas shopping or, more importantly, trying to figure out what to do with our lives.

It's not unlike choosing between the red sweater for Aunt Jean or the blue one -- or no sweater at all. Because, as we learned from Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, one of the insidious effect of having too many choices is that you naturally expect that one of them will be perfect. And so you search and search until you find it.

Or you don't. Cue the holiday shoppers wandering through the mall with the thirty-yard stare.

This analysis-paralysis business is especially strong for women when it comes to career decisions. Consider the newness of it all. Back in the day, college-educated women were routinely told they could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. (Until, of course, they stayed home to raise the children). Now, young women know from the earliest age that they can do or be anything -- with or without kids. That freedom is what we've fought for, but with it comes a mountain a stress. There's an added wrinkle, too, which is what I hear from so many of my female students: Before they're legal to order a cocktail, they feel pressure to decide on their life's path: Choose the right major! Get an internship! Build a resume!

Before it's too late.

But anyway, back to me. As background, I rarely start Christmas shopping until I get fall quarter grades turned in, sometime around the second week of December. And you know what? Santa always comes. I know this, truly I do. And yet: With stacks of final papers awaiting my red pen, I am making a list and checking it twice, in a total twit because, you know, I haven't bought one thing. And with all those emails, all those sales, all those choices blinking at me from my computer screen, I can't help but thinking that the perfect gift, at the perfect price is out there waiting for me. But I had better act now.

So here I sit, with a terminal case of the head spins. That cute little pencil skirt? You can never have too many. Or, um, can you? The Northface half-zip? But wait, doesn't he already have one? So maybe the cashmere V-neck would be better after all. Just not quite sure of the color. Good price, though. Sigh. At least for today.

But hold the phone: What about the batting cages?