Making some decisions depletes mental resources for making more important ones
Every decision you make impacts the quality of successive decisions you’ll have to make, even in unrelated situations.
That’s because, according to the much-debated “muscle metaphor” of willpower, your mental stamina is limited.
As Roy Baumeister and John Tierney explained in their bestselling book on Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011; my summary), you have a finite strength of will for making prudent choices. As you go about your day, your willpower is depleted and “decision fatigue” sets in. Consequently, you’re likely to employ one of two cognitive shortcuts in decision-making: you avoid the act of deciding altogether or make a less-thoughtful, sub-optimal decision.
Don’t get overloaded with so many pointless decisions that your cognitive productivity ends up falling off a cliff.
President Barack Obama claimed that he makes deliberate efforts to avoid decision fatigue so that he can devote his mental energies to things that matter. Michael Lewis quotes Obama in the October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair,
You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits … 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. … You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.
In the same way, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg sports a limited wardrobe. He has previously declared that doesn’t waste time and energy to pick his daily outfits: “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 the community.”
Idea for Impact: Establish healthy routines that can eliminate unnecessary deliberation
Life is the total of all the mundane and momentous choices you make. Being monotonous in handling the former enables you to excel in the latter. Limit decision fatigue by
- putting as much of your life as possible on autopilot using routines / rituals and checklists,
- limiting the choices you have (read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less), and
- delegating decision-making where possible.
Good routines can provide structure to your day, protect you from your more effective negative impulses, and bring order and predictability to your life. Besides, according to renowned career coach Marty Nemko, “modern life, increasingly defined by unpredictability, can be anxiety-provoking, and routines provide an anchor of predictability.”