The ability to make our own decisions is one of life’s greatest freedoms, but boy do we all abuse it at times. We spend so much time figuring out what to wear, what to eat, which movie to watch and where to go on vacation that we end up with what psychologists refer to as “decision fatigue”: the deteriorating quality of decisions made by a person, after a long session of decision making.
Decision fatigue has many effects. We may end up avoiding making the decision at all, for example – which isn’t so terrible if it’s about Phish Food vs Karamel Sutra, but could have slightly larger consequences if it’s about staying in your job vs quitting to start up your own business.
Decision fatigue can also warp our judgement. You know all those politicians who somehow find the time to sleep with their secretary/intern/campaign worker? Apparently they can blame it on the fatigue that stems from the burden of day-to-day decision making.
At the very least, decision fatigue makes us too tired to think properly about the decision at hand – even an important one – so we’re more likely to take an “Ah f*ck it” approach to things: we splurge on clothes, buy junk food, and (if we’re a court judge) say “Parole DENIED!” to the prisoner who appears later in the day.
So what can we do about it?
The easiest solution is to do away with the trivial decisions in order to focus better on the bigger, more important ones. Obama once explained why he only wears blue or grey suits: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Steve Jobs famously always wore a black turtleneck with jeans and sneakers. And Albert Einstein reportedly bought several variations of the same suit so that he wouldn’t have to waste time deciding what to wear each day.
Ivanka Trump, meanwhile, gives her kids just two choices for breakfast each morning, explaining “… we each have a finite supply of mental energy each day, and mundane, ordinary decisions tap into that reserve”.
Heuristics – or “rules of thumb” – are another way to beat decision fatigue, and Rob and I have a bunch of them that we rely on daily. For example, “If the menu has pictures of the food, don’t eat there”; “Never buy the ‘value’ ketchup”; “Only ever buy machine-washable clothes”; “Book the more convenient flight as long as it’s no more than £20 per person more expensive than the cheaper one.” You can read more of our heuristics here.
Want some more ideas?
- Shop at Trader Joe’s.
- “Pick one and make it great” – i.e. remember that it’s less about the decision than how you choose to follow that decision up.
- Try making quick decisions on smaller choices that don’t matter as much – and give yourself a time limit on how long you’re allowed to ponder.
- Read this fab blog post from Buffer (there are lots more tips in there too).
…And let us know in the comments if you have any of your own tactics for overcoming decision fatigue!