“No more questions! If I have to decide one more thing today, I’ll explode!”
Another Mother of the Year moment.
I can’t remember the question he asked, but I know it came at the end of an interminable day, which required excruciating decisions.
Or maybe it capped off a humdrum day filled with no end of trivial decisions.
All I know is, my brain couldn’t take any more. My Decision Maker was “all used up.”
And, truth be told, the day wasn’t unique.
Can I be honest with you?
When my Decision Maker goes offline, I feel whiny.
I don’t make too many decisions in a day. I’m not the President of the United States or the CEO of Apple, for cryin’ out loud. But at the end of a long day — or, let’s face it, sometimes three hours in — I. Am. Done. D-O-N-E, done.
More Decisions Than You Think
Although “the internet” claims we make 35,000 decisions each day, I couldn’t verify the number. But research does suggest we make over 200 decisions daily with regard to food choices alone.
Two hundred decisions seem out of proportion when you consider there are only three meals in a day, plus two (okay, three… maybe four…) small snacks.
When I count decisions, though, I tend to count only the final result. For instance, I decided to cook spaghetti for dinner equals one decision.
But for most of us, a dinner decision looks more like this:
What am I gonna fix for dinner tonight? Beef stroganoff sounds good, but do I have sour cream? [Check fridge.] No. Do I have time to run to the store? Hmmm, it depends. I have to call the doctor and pick up the dry cleaning before they close. Can I move one of those tasks ‘till tomorrow? I should call the doctor today for sure, but I can pick up the dry cleaning after work Tuesday. Oh, but I would have to reschedule the meeting I have. If I don’t pick up the dry cleaning until the weekend, what will I wear to work the rest of the week? … No, I’ll still call the doctor and pick up the dry cleaning today — no beef stroganoff for dinner tonight. So, what’s in the pantry? Let’s see…
After you mentally process each item in the cupboard (and decide yes or no), you choose to cook spaghetti for dinner. But…
- Red, white, or clam sauce?
- Meatballs or no?
- Salad or veggie?
- Okay, which veggie?
- Garlic bread, Texas toast, or rolls?
The decisions don’t seem to end — even on a day without a trip to the grocery store.
When we do enter the supermarket, the number of choices in the detergent aisle alone compels me to channel my inner college student and avoid laundry altogether.
And if you live (or work) with other people you may be forced to participate in decisions you’d rather not.
One of my favorites is, “Mom, can I…?” because I know it’s generally not one question — especially if the first decision is, “No.”
- Mom, can I have a piece of candy?
- Why not?
- Well, can I have one now?
- What if I promise to brush my teeth after?
- How ‘bout after dinner?
- What if I eat all my vegetables?
Oy vey! Make it stop!
So yes, whether 35,000 or a gazillion — and let’s be clear: it feels like a gazillion — we form an unbelievable number of decisions each day.
In fact, research suggests too many decisions concentrated in a short time span can result in decision fatigue — our Decision Makers do, in a sense, “wear out,” especially after you’ve made a multitude of difficult choices.
Fortunately, there’s a way to reduce your daily decisions — and you don’t have to ask your mom to do your laundry, or give up all control to the 4-foot-tall Mussolinis who live at your house.
The Brain Trick for Making Fewer Decisions
Yes, we can gain freedom from decision making using equipment we already have — the brain God engineered specifically for us.
To illustrate how efficient your brain is, think back to when you first learned to drive a car. (Or ride a bicycle or use a smartphone; the principle remains the same.)
The first time you slid behind the wheel of your parents’ vehicle, you had to keep in mind a long list of actions:
- position the seat
- fasten your seatbelt
- adjust the rearview mirror
- check the side mirrors
- turn on the lights
You’d check each item off your mental list before you pulled onto the road:
- turn signal
- look over your shoulder
- begin merging.
Years later, you still attend to the same checklist, but it doesn’t take as much effort. In fact, some days you arrive at work unaware of how you got there.
Driving becomes automatic, so it requires less mental effort than it once did.
You can use this same brain trick to reduce your decisions, so you have mental capacity available to perform other important tasks.
Automate Your Decisions
You can eliminate some decisions when you automate the ones you encounter regularly, which frees up brain space to, well, breathe for a minute or two.
Let’s see what it looks like:
Imagine each morning you have a full Denny’s-menu-worth of breakfast options: eggs (fried, scrambled, or over-medium), bacon, sausage (links or patties), pancakes, hash browns, omelette (with what ingredients?), cereal (hot or cold? what kind?) — no wonder we sometimes feel behind before we even start the day.
Instead, why not automate your breakfast decision? Choose one meal to have for breakfast, and then eat it every day.
- Cheerios with almond milk,
- An egg white scrambled with spinach,
- Oatmeal with walnuts and maple syrup,
- Or, let’s face it, Lucky Charms by the handful because someone left only two drops of milk.
My point… ahem…
When you automate your breakfast routine, you reduce decision fatigue first thing in the morning, plus you eliminate some of the stress associated with compiling a grocery list and shopping.
Another example? Automate what you wear to work each day.
Stories abound of the late Steve Jobs’ regular “uniform” of jeans and a black turtleneck. High-powered decision-makers wear the same types of clothes each day to eliminate unnecessary decisions.
If you don’t want to look like you wear the same thing each day, at least narrow the types of clothes you wear. For instance, several years ago I whittled my work wardrobe to black pants, neutral tank tops, and colorful cardigan sweaters. Each day, I mixed and matched them. I still had variety but within a narrow range.
This made it easier to get dressed, and also saved time when the dog slobbered me — because all of my pieces coordinated, I could switch out one for another without much effort. Finally, a specific work “uniform” made my decisions easier when I shopped, as I steered away from long-sleeved shirts, but would buy cute new cardigans if I wanted.
When we reduce our decisions in these ways, we take advantage of our brains’ natural auto-mode and save mental energy for later in the day when we’ll need it most.
What About Variety?
I can hear your objections because they’re the same ones I used to argue.
- “The same breakfast every day? BOR-ing!”
- “I want to show my individuality.”
- “To eliminate choice is downright un-American!”
I understand. Truly, I do.
Those of us who live in a western culture, especially, have long associated personal choice with freedom.
But when I have 283 breakfast cereal options to choose from at my local Safeway, I don’t feel free; I feel stressed and out of control. (Seriously, between flavors, brands, and package sizes, I counted 195 cold cereal options and 88 hot. It stresses me out just thinking about it.)
And don’t get me started with clothing styles, which change each season and are made for body types that don’t even exist in nature.
Now, don’t misunderstand. If you’re a fashionista whose skin itches at the suggestion of a similar outfit each day, by all means, don’t do it.
Or if the thought of Multigrain Cheerios every day from now until forever depresses you, switch it up a little.
- Maybe change your breakfast each week;
- Or stick with a standard breakfast on work days and then go crazy on the weekends;
- Or put yourself on a schedule of planned variety: cold cereal on Mondays, scrambled eggs on Tuesdays, etc.
Come up with plans that work for you.
The goal: eliminate less-important decisions, so you’ll have the mental energy to decide the things that are important to you.
Whether miniature in-house dictators demand your on-call decision skills, or your decision overload comes from sitting through meeting after pointless meeting at your day job, automate your recurring decisions so you can gain more freedom!
Need more ways to simplify your decisions? I’m creating more blog posts and a downloadable worksheet just for you!
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