From choosing what to eat or what to wear to choosing who to date or what projects to pursue, we make many decisions every day. According to scientists, however, making decisions depletes our brains of energy. What’s more, when we are faced with a series of decisions, the more effort each decision requires, the more the quality of our decisions will be affected. Decision fatigue can then easily set in.
Decision fatigue essentially means one thing – when our brains are tired, we think differently than when our brains are fresh and relaxed, and we aim for short-term rewards and instant gratification, even if that comes at the cost of long-term disadvantages. The fascinating thing about decision fatigue is that even seemingly insignificant decisions can burn up our willpower energy, so much so that, a succession of small decisions taken in the morning can seriously affect the quality of our decisions later on in the day.
Understanding Decision Fatigue
Unlike physical fatigue which we can feel, decision fatigue is more difficult to recognize. It may manifest as irritability or lack of patience, but it can easily go unnoticed. Decision fatigue is often the major cause why people make irrational, impulsive, or simply bad choices that they regret later on.
While the enduring theory that making decisions costs us glucose has been challenged, scientists agree that when we become mentally tired, our ability to make good decisions suffers. Decision fatigue is closely related to the phenomenon of ego depletion, first studied by Roy F. Baumeister, who found that we have only a finite reservoir of energy for exerting self-control.
More than a romantic notion, willpower is actually like a muscle that we can fatigue and even strain by using it to make too many choices in too short a time. And the worst part is that once decision fatigue sets in, we are more likely to surrender to whatever it is offered us in order to avoid troubling ourselves with yet another decision. For example, it’s harder to resist a special offer that is presented to us after spending time comparing and buying different products than it it when we first enter the shop.
What further complicates matters is that when the outcome of the decision will have a direct impact on us, we put more effort into our choice, taxing our brain even more. Once we’ve made an exhausting decision, we may no longer have the will or the patience to discuss our choice or make other choices.
How Seth Godin Minimizes Decision Fatigue
We are more likely to experience decision fatigue in the afternoon and evening, especially if we’ve spent our morning making many small decisions like what to eat for breakfast (whether to toast the bread or not, eat cream cheese or Swiss cheese, drink orange juice or milk, have cereals or fried eggs), what clothes to wear at work, whether to drive to work or take the bus, and so on. These small decisions consume our brain’s willpower energy, so that when we are faced with the most important decisions of the day, we can screw up.
Eating the same breakfast and lunch every day, as author, entrepreneur, and marketer Seth Godin does, is one way to minimize decision fatigue. He minimizes the small decisions in his life so that he can make better big decisions. Seth says “Breakfast is a decision I don’t make, I eat the same thing everyday.”
The energy we can preserve following his example can be used to improve the quality of other decisions we make throughout the day. It may be cereals, it may be salad, or it may be whatever you prefer – the key thing is not to expend any energy on choosing what to eat when you wake up with your batteries charged after a good night’s rest. Opening the fridge in the morning and falling into culinary musings is, therefore, a no-no
Another bad idea is to go shopping for groceries or anything else before starting work. One particularly interesting study found that shoppers who’ve made plenty of decisions in stores, choosing what products to buy, gave up afterward much more easily on simple arithmetic problems. Decision fatigue had sapped their willpower. If you have to go grocery shopping before work for instance, you can minimize decision fatigue by making a list of things to buy beforehand, preferably the evening before, and sticking to it every day.
Why Do You Think Mark Zuckerberg Wears the Same Gray Shirt All the Time?
Another trick to ward off decision fatigue comes from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, whom you may have noticed always wearing the same gray shirt. Some call it bad fashion, but there’s more to it than meets the eye – it’s actually a measure against decision fatigue, and a very effective one at that. When an interviewer asked him about the shirt, this was his reply:
“I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community… I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”
Steve Jobs Did It, Too
Steve Jobs followed a similar line of reasoning in relation to his famous black turtleneck and 501 jeans, in which he appeared just about everywhere during the last 10 years of his life. Just as Mark Zuckerberg admits to having several gray shirts, so did Steve Jobs – in fact, he had over 100 black turtlenecks, which had been created for him by Issey Miyake, after his attempt to have his Apple employees wear a uniform ended in failure, according to his biographer Walter Isaacson. By wearing the same turtleneck on almost every occasion, Steve Jobs saved a lot of willpower energy on what for many people is a serious cause of decision fatigue – choosing what to wear.
The Bottom Line
While eliminating decision fatigue from our lives isn’t as easy as eating the same thing or wearing the same shirt or turtleneck every day, the tips that Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Seth Godin give us are a great start to improving the quality of our decisions.
The more willpower energy you preserve on small decisions, the more you will have for the important decisions in your life, those that define you as a person, and which have the most significant impact on your success and happiness. And when it’s safe to let other people make decisions for you, such as when your spouse chooses your next holiday destination, it may be wise to accept – not only will you gratify them, but save up willpower energy, too.