Problems vs. Solutions: decision fatigue

The other day a friend and I were talking about how many choices are available to us.

But not in a good way.

  • Shelf after shelf of toothpaste.
  • Over a hundred types of hand soap.
  • An entire aisle of cereal.

Choice overload. Decision fatigue. That’s the world we live in—and bump up against every day.

There’s a dark side to all that choice. Barry Schwartz wrote a fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. In it he makes a compelling, but counterintuitive argument: Eliminating choices reduces anxiety, stress, and busyness from our lives.

Of course, I don’t want to be without choice.

But sometimes it can feel like I’ve spent the entire morning making inconsequential choices—what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, whether to get a coffee, which cafe I’ll work from, whether to answer client emails first or check social media, will I eat lunch at home or go out…

What about you? Does your day start with a laundry list of small choices you make one after another?

If so, you could be completely worn out by the time you get to the more important decisions about whether to make a career change, how to have that crucial conversation with your spouse, which primary health care physician to select, or how to save for retirement.

Decision fatigue is a real thing.

Think of it like muscle fatigue. Every time you make a decision, you’re using your decision-making “muscle”. And with each decision, that “muscle” gets a little more fatigued. Many decisions later, you’re either too tired to even make another choice—or you choose poorly.

It’s why Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day—black mock turtleneck, blue jeans and New Balance sneakers. He didn’t squander decision-making resources deciding what to wear each morning.

It’s why President Obama says he wears only two colors of suits, gray and blue.

“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.”

Minimize the less important decisions

OK, I’m not running Apple or the country, but it doesn’t make sense to use precious energy on decisions that don’t really matter.

So how can you save your decision-making muscle for what matters most?

Well, you can’t entirely. Daily decisions, big and small, are part of life.

But you can minimize the less important decisions you make.

Here’s how: Think about the nonessential decisions you make on a daily basis. These are your neither here nor there decisions. The ones you make over and over that are trivial in the big scheme of life.

Which of those are you willing to put on autopilot?

  • Are you willing to eat the same healthy breakfast every morning rather than seeking variety, which necessarily means more choices to be made?
  • Are you willing to stop comparison shopping for grocery and household items and simply go with a single brand of choice?
  • Maybe you’re not ready to wear the same “uniform” every day, but are you willing to drastically simplify your wardrobe so there are fewer decisions to make while dressing?

It’s not that those choices don’t matter.

But next time you’re online sifting through competing cell phone plans with dozens of features or at the grocery store selecting from the hundreds of cheeses available, you might want to pause.

Be clear you’re making a withdrawal from your decision-making account for the day. If those choices are of little consequence, perhaps you want to spend your decision-making resources on choices that matter more.