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How to be Happier and More Productive by Avoiding ‘Decision Fatigue’

May 7, 2013 6 min readSelf-Improvement
decision fatigue

Let’s say it’s your birthday.

First, happy birthday! We got you a cake.

We’ll come back to the cake in a moment.

Second, we have a question for you on your special day. Your friends want to give you the celebration you deserve, but they’re stumped. They can’t decide whether to a) let you plan your perfect evening, from the first stop through the main event, or b) plan the perfect evening for you, leaving you with just one responsibility: to enjoy.

Which would you pick?

For myself and a surprising number of people I talk to, the answer is B. I would much rather have someone else plan the event and take care of the details. Even though the result might not be exactly what I would choose, a night free from the minute-by-minute pressure of decision-making is a true luxury.

We’re conditioned to think that more choice is always a good thing, but in the past few years, studies have discovered something called decision fatigue. The research helps explain why decisions are so much harder at the end of a work day and why we’re tempted by the candy in the checkout lane after a marathon grocery trip.

Our cognitive resources are regularly depleted because we’re fighting an uphill battle every day — physically and mentally, both at home and at work.

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 5.15.36 PM

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. When we understand decision fatigue and how to combat it, we are able to make better choices and free our cognitive resources to solve big problems and spark fresh ideas.

Let’s start with that cake.

Running on empty – The decision fatigue phenomenon

Kathy Sierra has written and spoken extensively on this topic. Take the time to watch her recent Business of Software talk, Building the Minimum Badass User. It’s phenomenal.

In the talk, she tells the story of a famous experiment by Professor Baba Shiv. Two groups were given different mental tasks (memorizing a 2-digit or 7-digit number). When they were finished, the students had the choice of a piece of cake, like your birthday cake above, or a bowl of fruit. Those who had faced the more mentally taxing task were significantly more likely to choose the cake.

This was unbelievable; it took them a long time to figure out what was happening, because it seemed so bizarre. But what happened is willpower and focus and concentration and working on problem-solving are all coming from the same pool of cognitive resources. More significantly, it’s really a scarce resource that’s easily depleted.

Roy Baumiester and John Tierney introduced decision fatigue to a wider audience in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. In a piece for The New York Times Magazine, Tierney summarized the idea:

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.

As you might guess, decision fatigue is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Here is a list of some of the most depleting activities that will drain your brain and turn you more likely into a cake-eater:

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 5.12.56 PM
When there were fewer decisions, there was less decision fatigue. Today we feel overwhelmed because there are so many choices.

Obviously, more choice is often a wonderful thing, as is using our cognitive resources to learn, think and grow. When our cognitive resources are depleted in unproductive ways, we not only have less willpower and make poor decisions, but we also don’t have much left in our mental tanks for the big problems and questions. As Kathy says, “we should be patching cognitive leaks everywhere we can.”

The rise of simple

Some smart companies have come to the conclusion that reducing mental drain is good business. Trader Joe’s, a thriving grocery store chain, has a unique approach. The average grocery store carries around 50,000 different products. Trader Joe’s features about 4,000. Whereas most chains compete on offering the widest selection, Trader Joe’s has cultivated a large, passionate customer base by focusing on the quality of the products and the experience. Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s is an excellent look at the company.

Swapping selection for value turns out not to be much of a tradeoff. Customers may think they want variety, but in reality too many options can lead to shopping paralysis.

Not only do fewer choices make purchases easier and less taxing, they make customers happier.

Studies have found that buyers enjoy purchases more if they know the pool of options isn’t quite so large.

Other companies exemplify a similar approach. Apple, with its tightly limited product lines, is an obvious example, but there are many others on the web and in our neighborhoods. Numerous online services intentionally limit the number of features and plans they offer to provide refuge from the overcomplicated and confusing sign up pages and interfaces of their competitors. Restaurants are attracting discerning customers with pared-down menus featuring a few unique, high-quality items.

Companies that offer fewer choices and a simple, high-quality experience are rewarded with happy, loyal customers.

Now that we understand decision fatigue and how some companies are responding to it, let’s talk about what you can do to protect your cognitive resources and make better decisions.

5 Ways to fight back

1.) Know your limits

Fighting decision fatigue starts with being smart about how you plan your day. Build different types of work into your schedule so you can avoid making decisions for hours in a row. If you’re facing a big decision, try to process it early in the day and after a meal so that you’re at your peak mentally.

On days when you feel the effects of decision fatigue, avoid situations where a poor decision could have significant repercussions.

2.) Make decisions that free you from making more decisions

We can’t avoid decisions, but we can be smarter about how we make them. Here are a few examples…

  • Meals: Instead of trying to decide about dinner after a mentally exhausting day, plan the meals for the week a few days in advance, when your decision-making is at its best.
  • Television: Hundreds of channels provide enormous choice, but those choices drain our mental energy. Be intentional about what you watch by renting or buying the best shows and then cancel cable or switch to a package with fewer channels.
  • Automation: Try a service like Amazon’s subscription program, which will ship frequently purchased items to you automatically. Use Pandora or iTunes Genius Mixes and let the cloud pick the next song. Schedule your posts to social networks with a tool like Buffer. Each of these frees you from endless micro-decisions.

3.) Choose products that energize you instead of drain you

Seek out things that reward and nourish you and drop those that leave you depleted with little to show for it. A simple test is a vacation. When we take a break from our normal routines, many of us set aside the apps and services that constantly demand our attention.

Most aren’t even missed, but once we return to normal life, we find ourselves pulled in again. Instead, try to leave them behind and develop new routines.

4.) Help others

You can make a big difference by helping your friends and family escape decision fatigue.

  • Plan the next date, or if you’re really ambitious, vacation!
  • Avoid saying, “Whatever you want is fine with me”, which places the responsibility on the other person.
  • Champion customers at work and look for ways to simplify and improve their experience.

5.) Simplify one thing right now

The key to change is to start small. What can do you do today to start replenishing your cognitive resources? Pick something and share it in the comments so we can learn from each other. For more inspiration for taking the first step, read Leo’s post on making changes stick.

When you become aware of what drains your mental energy and what replenishes it, you’ll be able to make small changes that will produce huge results. Freed from decision fatigue, you’ll have the resources to make better choices and be more creative. I’d love to hear what works for you. How have you overcome decision fatigue? What replenishes you?

About the author: Brian Bailey is a writer and content strategist in beautiful Austin, Texas. He is dreaming up Uncommon in Common, a front porch for the Internet. Previously, he was part of the initial team at Gowalla. He’s @bb — say hello!

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