Have you ever gone shopping for something requiring heavy decision making like clothes or furniture and by the end of the shopping trip you were thinking, “I honestly don’t care what I get anymore.” Well science has an explanation for this, and it’s affecting your everyday life.
It is most commonly referred to as “decision fatigue”. Decision fatigue is the effect that multiple decisions have on your brain and its ability to make further decisions. Much like your legs get fatigued after a few sets of squats, your mind gets fatigued after a few decisions.
What to wear, what to eat, what to buy; these all seem like very easy tasks that wouldn’t affect us in any way, but they do. The effect is very significant, actually.
Multiple studies have shown this effect. I have seen one example in just about every article I have read about the subject:
A judge was observed throughout the day as he made decisions on whether or not to allow parole to prisoners. He saw multiple prisoners of the same crime and sentence, but as the day ran on and he had made more decisions, he would unconsciously give harsher sentences to those who he had seen later in the day.
The judge was becoming fatigued in his decision making and toward the end his decisions were more difficult, causing him to make more rash decisions.
Importance and Procrastination of Decisions
If you couldn’t care less about a decision, the effects won’t be quite as dramatic, but if the subject of the decision is truly important to you it makes the effects much worse.
For somebody who has never cared about their diet, making a choice of what to eat will have a minor effect. Somebody trying to lose weight by making better diet decisions on the other hand will feel the effects.
“I really want to lose 10 pounds, but those potato chips sound so good right now.” If you were strong enough to avoid the potato chips (or even if you weren’t), the decision exhausted your willpower.
After being strong enough to make the “right” decision multiple times, your willpower is exhausted. Now similar to it being more difficult for your legs to complete another tough set of squats, it will be more difficult to make another good decision.
So the next time you are faced with the choice of grilled chicken or pizza, you are more likely to cave and choose the pizza.
What about your decision of whether to go to the gym or not? You ask yourself in the morning, then put the question off for an hour when you ask yourself again, and continue to hit the “snooze” button on your decision throughout the day.
Your decision to go to the gym is no longer one decision. It easily becomes ten after asking yourself the same question repeatedly for hours. When you consider the dozens of decisions you procrastinate on throughout the day, you have forced yourself to make hundreds of needless decisions.
Preventing Excess Decision Fatigue
Wear the same few or even 1 outfit every day.
Did you wonder why Steve Jobs always wore his iconic blue jeans and black turtleneck? Mark Zuckerberg is known to also wear the same outfit every day. It’s because they are aware of the effect a minor decision like what clothes to wear would have on their ability to make much more important [world changing] decisions.
Try finding an outfit(or a few) that you like and stick to them. Maybe even an outfit that you wear for each day of the week. There is no sense in having a closet full of clothes you never wear just to make your decisions harder.
I don’t have multiple sets of the exact same outfit, but you can almost always expect to see me wearing sweatpants with a plain t-shirt and a plain hoodie when I am at the gym, home or anywhere casual. When I am anywhere more formal, at work, or in most public places you can expect to see me in a plain dry fit polo and some of my nicer sweatpants. Well, you don’t expect me to demonstrate squats to clients in slacks do you? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Eat the same thing every day.
This is easy if you prep your meals every week. Prepare all your meals on one day of the week and put them in the fridge for easy access. You’re decision to eat your healthy meal vs ordering take-out will be much easier if your healthy meal is easier to access than the take-out.
Have somebody else make your decisions for you.
It may be as simple as having your significant other choose your breakfast(and make it for you if you found a good one), or you could go so far as to hire a personal assistant to help you make your decisions.
One of the great often-overlooked benefits of a personal trainer is the ability for you to know exactly what to do without having to worry about making any wrong decisions, which is a big obstacle for most people.
A personal trainer not only makes the decisions of which exercises are best for you, he also makes your decision of when and when not to go to the gym. You can’t snooze your decision to workout all day if you have a trainer making sure you show up at a specific time.
Have a schedule and stick to it.
If you have a schedule then you already know what you need to be doing at what time of the day, without and choices. 10am is scheduled for gym time? Get to the gym at 10am. 5pm is scheduled for family time? When 5pm rolls around, don’t try to decide whether you can afford a few hours of family time or not. It’s already scheduled, so do it. If it wasn’t important, then you wouldn’t have scheduled it.
Make a to-do list every night.
Every night you should write down what you need to get done the next day. The night before is best so you don’t have to make the decisions the next day when you are more likely not to do the task. Aslo, if you try to make this list in the morning, you are just starting your day off with by fatiguing yourself.
Make your hardest decisions in the morning.
Go to the gym as early as you can. The longer you put it off and give yourself the choice, the more likely you are not to go.
Make any other tough choices within a few hours of waking up to ensure the most rational choices.
Make the decision the first time and don’t think about it again.
If you are asked a question, give your answer then and there. Don’t say “Let me think about it.”
Don’t ask yourself to make the same decision more times than you need to.
I got the idea for this tip from my favorite personal training author, Jon Goodman. His tip was to always take care of your emails the first time you open them. Never leave an email without deleting, or filing it so you have to come back to deal with it later.
I am a minimalist. I will write an article specifically about this, but for now I just want to say this.
One of the major reasons I choose to be “minimal” goes along with the theme of this article. Having too much stuff causes the same effect as making many decisions. For one, when you have a hundred unnecessary options of what to wear, you cause yourself unneeded fatigue. We already covered that.
But even when it doesn’t come down to choosing between your plethora of “things”, the built up clutter in the average home causes a ton of unnoticed mental fatigue in just the same way that decisions do. To avoid constant stress and fatigue clear your daily life of anything that is just there taking up space without any real purpose.
Yes, I know that old t-shirt reminds you of that time your friend blew milk out her nose at the carnival [or whatever your story is], but is the slight sentimental value you are getting from it really worth the added stress the clutter adds to your life?
My point is…
Simplify your life to be more productive. Create systems, schedules, and methods for the things you do on a daily basis to take your productivity to a new level and your stress to well… a new level… but in the opposite direction.