Too many books, too little time

I just watched a great video (about an hour long) of a talk by Barry Schwartz, who wrote a book called "The Paradox of Choice". The gist of the presentation is that having no choice is bad, having some choice is good, but having too much choice is just as bad as having no choice at all. There were several references to research in the video, most of which boiled down to the fact that when you go shopping and you're faced with 50 different flavoured jams, you end up buying none of them. Whereas if you only have the choice of strawberry, raspberry or blackcurrent, you'll be more likely go home with one of them for your breakfast toast.

This got me thinking about books and studying. There's no doubt that every year, more books are published and so the number of books available to read increases every year. On top of this, the book is only one of the choices we have to find information and knowledge that's relevant to what we're studying. Having too much choice could cause some of the reactions mentioned in Schwartz's video. We may become paralysed and end up choosing nothing, or we may make a poor decision because we just don't have the time to evaluate all of our choices thoroughly. Even if you make a good decision, you may feel miserable afterwards because you don't know if one of those choices you rejected might just be better than the one you've got. So how does this relate to books and studying? Well, another thing that Schwartz said was that lots of people like to reduce the trauma of decision-making by using an agent, someone who'll act on your behalf. If you don't have to worry about choosing, then you can concentrate on more important things. Here's a couple of things that I thought might make life better for students and faculty in any university or college.

First, reduce the choice of books.

Librarians already reduce the choice of which books to buy for your library, by looking for recommendations, in other words, using an agent. Agents could be the faculty and students, the Financial Times book reviewers, and librarians at other academic institutions. You can reduce the choice of books to read by using an agent too. Ask your professor or librarian to recommend a book or an author. You can also ask me - although I haven't read every book, nor everything on the Internet, I can do a bit of research for you and come up with a recommendation. You can also check the references in textbooks and other things you've read.

Second, as a professor, I can also think of a couple of suggestions to make studying more enjoyable.

Remove the choice from some assignments. Tell students exactly what the assignment is, what company/industry/market or whatever they have to write about. Students then spend less time worrying about choosing the subject of the assignment and more time doing the research and writing.

Reduce the choice of reading for assignments. For every student assignment, create a recommended reading list. Students then spend less time finding something relevant, and less time worrying that what they've found is right. They then spend more time reading the right websites/books and writing the assignment.

So, next time you're faced with an overwhelming number of things to choose from, stop and think if you can reduce the paralysis, time pressure and miserable feelings by using an agent.