The Simple “Rule of Five” My Neurologist Friend Swears by for Erasing Kitchen Clutter

published Apr 8, 2023
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Young woman making herself some tea in her small kitchen at home
Credit: Pekic / Getty Images

I’m tired of making decisions. If I never hear, What’s for dinner? again, it will be too soon. I recently complained to my neurologist friend about my decision fatigue while trying to choose a tea from a dozen options in my cabinet. She told me I had to try her Rule of Five. To avoid choice overload, she never has more than five options for anything in her kitchen. Five protein choices. Five snacks. Five types of tea. Anything more than that, she argues, adds unnecessary complexity to a routine mental task. 

Researchers at Caltech agree, though they’re a little more generous; they found the sweet spot for most choices to be between eight and 15 items. More options may seem better initially, but there’s the invisible cost of mental labor to consider. When faced with 24 options, the decision requires more of our time and attention, with little increase in reward. I’ll have a hot cup of tea whether I have to choose between five or a dozen. 

This model of reduced choice is what makes it so pleasant to shop at Trader Joe’s instead of a big box store. I leave with everything I want, while spending just a fraction of the mental effort and time. (The samples don’t hurt, either.)  

My neurologist friend notes that five isn’t a magic number, it just works for her space. She can fit five cereal boxes in her Texas-size pantry. For me, the magic number for cereal is one. You might have a totally different magic number.

The more I thought about this idea, the more it came to me. I never thought about asking myself whether or not my food sparked joy; food for me was something I had to hold onto (or use) until it expired. Inspired by my friend’s system, I promptly removed all the excess from my kitchen, gifting it to a neighbor on my local Buy Nothing Facebook group so I didn’t have to deal with the anxiety of wasting perfectly good food. 

Now limited to five, I only own teas I absolutely love to drink. When my children pack a lunch, they see five snack options at once, and choose easily. And now, when the kids inevitably ask what’s for dinner, I don’t feel overwhelmed. I just pick a protein, effortlessly. 

What’s your magic number? Let us know in the comments!