You and a friend go to the mall to revamp your Fall wardrobe. You visit 10 different stores, try on 50 pieces of clothing, and end up choosing 15 of them. As expected you have a great time, but when you get home, instead of being reinvigorated by your fun day out, you’re exhausted.
You want to go out for dinner with your girlfriend. You suggest that she picks the restaurant, and she responds with “no, you.”
“Well, I could do Italian, Chinese, Thai, American, or Mexican.”
“I don’t want to do American or Italian.”
“How about Chinese?”
“Chinese is kind of greasy”
“Sure let’s do that”
You’ve made a decision, but you’re somewhat frustrated and mentally tired from the process.
The workday starts and you sit down in front of your computer. “What should I start the day with? There’s that project I need to make some progress on for Bill, and Sheryl wanted me to send her some research on the new proposal, oh and Mark wanted a rundown of the competitive landscape, oh shoot and I was supposed to get Steve that new swipe file on design trends…”
And suddenly you’ve just been reading the news for half an hour.
You became a victim of “decision fatigue.” It’s a psychological phenomenon where as you make more decisions (especially difficult ones), and as you consider more options, you start to get mentally tired making your subsequent decisions worse and more difficult.
In the shopping case, deciding over and over again “Do I buy this or do I not?” drained your decision-making power and mental energy for the day. The back and forth over which restaurant to choose was similarly tiring because of the number of options considered. In the case of starting the workday, an over-stimulation of options can lead you to simply choose none of them.
But it’s not exclusive to a single decision making period. Resisting a doughnut in the morning will make it harder to resist dessert later. Getting yourself out of bed (if you’re a habitual snoozer) on time will make it harder to get yourself to the gym. Staying off of Facebook will make it harder to stay off of MSNBC. In fact, just looking at this sweet, tasty, fresh-baked apple pie and not running off to buy one will lower your willpower and make decision making harder. Sorry.
An excess of options will also increase your likelihood to avoid making a decision entirely. Sheena Iyengar observed this in a study she conducted where people in a grocery store were able to sample jams. She tested two cases: one in which people had 6 jams to sample, and another where they had 24. Fitting our common-sense assumption that “more choices = better” 60% of people approached the stand with 24 jams vs only 40% approaching the stand with 6. But, once people got to the stand, only 3% of people purchased from among the 24 options whereas 33% purchased from the stand with 6 options.
When we’re removed from the ability to make decisions, we feel trapped and demand power over our outcome. We assume more options will make us happier which is why more people were attracted to the stand with 24 jams. But by strategically decreasing the number of decisions we need to make we can make sure we actually choose something, and we can save our decisiveness for when it really counts.
The three best ways to do this are through Rules, Priorities, and Systems.
A rule is a predetermined response to a given situation. Think of a rule like an “If -> Then” statement in logic or programming. It’s simply a set action for how you’ll handle a common situation so that you don’t waste any time trying to decide between two or more small and unimportant options.
The benefit is that you get to avoid all of those momentary pauses throughout the day where you would otherwise go “should I answer this call?” Or “should I take the stairs?” They might seem like insignificant decisions but anything you deliberate on drains your decision making power.
You’ll want to create rules that make the most sense for you, but to get you thinking, here are some of mine:
Priorities go one step beyond rules. While rules let you make very small decision easily, priorities help with making big decisions. They remind you of what you believe you should spend your time on, so that even when you’re caught up in momentary excitement you stick to your goals.
Your best friend wants to hang out but you had planned on going to the gym? Your boyfriend is distressed but you have an assignment due tomorrow? Clear priorities make it as easy to choose between options like these as to decide whether or not to take the stairs. All you have to do is see where the two options fit into your priorities, and then simply follow the hierarchy you set for yourself.
There’s no right hierarchy. I don’t think you should ever put your work before your health… but others disagree (usually not verbally, but in practice). Who’s right? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have your own priorities and stick to them. The list is useless if you say you care more about your health than your work, but then pull regular all-nighters and coke out on caffeine to keep going.
Here’s my current priority hierarchy:
Finally, beyond rules and priority heirarchies, you can create somewhat more complex systems to partially or even entirely offload decision making. The first and simplest type of system is a bunch of rules strung together into a chain of good decisions, where each on mandates the next.
You’ve heard examples of this before:
These are some of the ones I use:
The second type of system is a checklist that must be completed every time you’re going through a repeated process. McDonalds is famous for its checklists in order to keep every franchise running smoothly, and to help employees manage a swath of repeated tasks. Many other organizations are following suit by adopting checklists of their own, and you can use them in your life as well. (There’s a great book on this called The Checklist Manifesto, by the way)
Do you have a set list of things you need to remember each morning? Do you repeat some task every day, week, or even month at work? Do you worry about how you would teach something you do regularly to someone else? These are all areas where simple checklists can make your life much easier.
My most valuable checklist is one for blog posts that I started about a year ago and still use (with some modifications). It’s a simple list of things I need to do before and after I post anything, to make sure I’m staying consistent and not shooting myself in the foot by forgetting to post it somewhere or share it with some network.
The third and best type of system is one that simply removes the need to take any action at all. Even following rules and priorities takes some willpower (though much less than deciding in the moment) so if you can completely remove the need to do anything then you’re saving the greatest amount of willpower and decisiveness.
There are a lot of ways to do this:
As you adopt more of these principles, you’ll find you have a lot more time than you thought you did, and much more mental energy. When you’re not wasting decision-making power on minutia, you open yourself up to move the much bigger boulders in your life, and make much better decisions in the process.