Decision Fatigue

A pair of feet stand at five arrows all pointing in different directions
There are so many choices

I don’t know if it’s because I’m officially a ‘highly sensitive person’ (according to the book Quiet by Susan Cain) or that I’m an introvert, or what, but I seem to need a lot less stimulation than other people. I know that if I let it go too far, then I risk depression, but generally I am a happy person when my life is filled with routine and order and when I don’t have to deal with many changes.

One of the places where this shows up is at breakfast time.

You see, I eat the same breakfast nearly every morning. I soak oats in milk overnight, I add some stewed pears and some Greek yogurt and I’m good. It’s delicious, nutritious, and filling. 

Moz, on the other hand, could not bear the thought of eating the same thing every single day. He doesn’t much mind what he eats as long as there’s some variety. Some mornings toast, sometimes an omelet, sometimes cereal, sometimes fruit and yogurt. Variety.

The thing is, I try to limit the decisions in my life as much as possible, because in my line of work I need to make decisions every day. Many decisions. 

If I’m writing a novel, I need to decide what the characters are doing. How they feel. What arguments they have. What the threat is. And so on. And at the moment I am making decisions about a whole world. What does it look like? What’s the currency? What kind of activities are available?

If I’m editing, I need to decide on the right word, the right turn of phrase, the exact place to put a comma. 

And because I work for myself, and my time is my own, I have to decide what to do with it.

I don’t need to be bothered with deciding which breakfast cereal to eat in addition to all the other decisions I make.

I asked google how many decisions the average person makes in a day and the answers ranged from 70 to 35,000. I guess if you look at the very detailed and subconscious choices you make, e.g. whether to start walking with your left foot or your right, the answer could come to 35,000 (one choice every two waking seconds of the day). But in terms of the choices that contribute to decision fatigue, I’m going to go with Sheena lyengar’s research that estimates that we make about 70 decisions daily. 

Our ability to make decisions decreases with the number of decisions we make. And once we run out of oomph we are inclined to make mistakes, like procrastination, or impulse buying. You know this if you’ve ever gone to the grocery store at the end of a long day. 

One way to limit decision fatigue is by limiting decisions. Here’s a few ways you can do that easily in your daily life:

  • You can limit the clothes that you wear. Steve Jobs apparently wore the same clothes every day (not the exact same clothes, we assume, but different sets of the same colour and style of clothing) so that he didn’t have to think what to wear.
  • I’m not as extreme as Steve Jobs, but I try to wear shirts and trousers or jeans that are grey, black or navy and then add a colourful jumper or scarf. And (don’t tell anyone) I often wear the same outfit twice in a row. I have specific outfits for when I’m leading church or giving a talk. I know that they look good, so I don’t mess with them. I don’t try to choose what to wear every time. I just put the suit on, and get the thing done.
  • You already know that I limit choice in what I eat. I haven’t gone all the way to a weekly meal plan yet, but some people swear by them as ways to help with the choices when shopping and when cooking the evening meal. For a while we invested in one of those meal plans where a box of groceries and a couple of recipes get delivered to your house each week. That got us through some tough times and meant we ate a lot less takeaway food. We only had to decide each week between the two delivered recipes (though even that choice was too hard sometimes).
  • One of the stories in Sandra Felton’s The Messies Manual is about a woman who struggled to choose what to eat at a restaurant. She made it easier for herself by deciding to limit her choice each time. One time she would have a fish dish, the next, poultry, the next red meat. That way, she didn’t have to choose from the list of every dish on the menu, but only two or three dishes.
  • You can limit decisions by having a schedule or routine. You might not be able to schedule your whole day like I can, but you can have a morning routine that you just do automatically. And you may be able to schedule things like exercise or grocery shopping.

I’ll show you what I mean by this by explaining how I schedule my gym visits. At the moment I am trying to get to the gym to do 30 minutes of vigorous exercise six days a week. But if I didn’t schedule it, I’m sure I wouldn’t feel ‘in the mood’ most days and I wouldn’t get it done. It would be a decision I would struggle with. 

So I go with a routine:

  • On Mondays my exercise is a lunchtime thing. I head to the gym at around 1pm.
  • Tuesdays I go on my way back home from my writing group, Creative Space. I put my gym clothes in the car so I don’t have to go home to get changed. If I did go home I would struggle to get back out the door to go to the gym.
  • Wednesdays I go first thing: breakfast, put on gym clothes, exercise.
  • Thursdays I go and write my novel at a cafe first thing, then gym on the way home, clothes packed as on Tuesdays.
  • On Fridays the gym comes after my coffee visit with my Mum. That visit generally falls at about lunch time so I pack a muesli bar as well so that I can’t talk myself out of going if I’m hungry.
  • Saturdays and Sundays are a bit more fluid, but I will try to go first thing on a Saturday and I go after church on Sundays, especially if I’m leading.

I still don’t make it to the gym every single day, but you can see how I’m making it easy for myself by scheduling, linking the gym with other activities, and packing what I need so that I get rid of excuses. This is a schedule for an ideal week, and no week is ideal. But if I didn’t have this picture of what I’m aiming for then I think I’d be hitting nothing most days and not exercising at all. Without the schedule, each day I would have to decide, ‘do I want to go to the gym?’ And the chances of the answer to that being ‘yes’ are much smaller if I’m deciding afresh every time.

If you’re struggling with decision fatigue, or finding it hard to make the myriad choices that are required to get through the day, then I encourage a little bit of planning. See if you can cut down the choices you have to make by meal planning or just deciding to limit your breakfast to one type of food. And work on a schedule for the activities where you need willpower. 

Why other areas can you see that you can pre-decide? Do you have a special way of dealing with those ‘extra willpower needed’ activities? Do you like a daily schedule or are you a more spontaneous person?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s