Defeating Decision Fatigue in a World of Choices

We live in a world where decisions abound. We have a plethora of options when it comes to just about everything. The alarm goes off and we decide whether to get up or hit the snooze button. We decide what to eat for breakfast. We decide which shampoo and soap and toothpaste to use. We decide which clothes to wear. We decide what method of transportation to use to get to work. We decide which route to take.

And that’s all before getting to our desk on a simple morning.

We tend to see these options as a good thing. However, we’ve already seen one way in which keeping our options open harms our happiness.

Today we will explore another way in which the plethora of decisions that we make every day can be harmful.

What is decision fatigue?

Basically, decision fatigue is the premise that the more decisions we make in a given day, the worse we get at making them.

One notable example of this was found in a study that analyzed judges’ decisions in parole hearings. The study found that you could predict the likelihood of a favorable ruling more accurately by knowing the time of day than the crime that the petitioner had committed.

At the beginning of the day, a prisoner had around a 65% chance of a favorable decision. As the day progressed and the judge heard more cases, that chance dropped to right around 0%. After the judge took a lunch break, the odds reset to 65% before dropping until the judge’s next food break. The odds reset again before falling back down towards 0% by the end of the day.

Judges' rulings in parole hearings
Judges’ rulings in parole hearings

A 2008 study found that the harm caused by excessive decision-making is not limited to our ability to make future decisions. This study found that decision-making and self-control pull from the same mental resource pool. This means that making more decisions also leads to “less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination, and less quality and quantity of arithmetic calculations.”

Essentially, we only have a limited pool of willpower each day. If we use it all up on deciding what to eat for breakfast, we’re going to be more tired, more likely to give up, and more prone to procrastination by the afternoon.

Make fewer decisions

A lot of coverage has been given over the last few years to Mark Zuckerberg’s outfits. If you’ve seen Zuckerberg, you’ve probably seen him in a gray tee shirt and/or a hoodie. In fact, upon returning from paternity leave earlier this year, Zuckerberg made light of his wardrobe with a picture of his closet.

Zuckerberg’s explanation for his limited wardrobe is a nod to the threat of decision fatigue:

“I really want to clear my life 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, so that way I can dedicate all of my energy towards just building the best products and services”

President Obama referenced the same trick in an interview with 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.”

These very successful people have decided that they need to limit the decisions that they make every day by making the less important decisions automatic.

One way to do this is through establishing habits. If every single morning I roll out of bed and put on my running shoes for a jog, then that decision becomes automatic and I don’t waste energy weighing the pros and cons of going for a run versus staying in bed for another half hour.

Second-Order Decisions

You may not be in a position to wear the same outfit every day. Most of us aren’t. But there is another very helpful tool that provides a framework to limit the decisions we need to make each day.

Second-order decisions are decisions for how you will make decisions. They provide a framework and some guardrails for your decision-making process.

Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, lists three types of second-order decisions. The first is the decision to follow a rule. This means that you decide once and for all that every time you are in a certain situation, you will do a certain thing. The example that Schwartz uses is of a rule that every time you ride in a car, you will buckle your seat belt. By following this rule you eliminate the decision of whether your trip is far enough or dangerous enough to warrant the use of a seat belt. Instead, you just automatically put the seat belt on without thinking about it.

In Gretchen Rubin’s book on habits, Better Than Before, she notes that she finds it much easier to decide that she will not eat sweets at all during the holiday season than to try to indulge moderately. This is an example of a second-order decision to follow a rule. If you decide that you will not eat any sweets, then you don’t need to make a decision each time you are offered a cookie. If you decide that you will indulge moderately, then you need to decide each time whether one more cookie will be a problem.

The next type of second-order decision is adopting a presumption. This is like adopting default settings for your decision-making. The vast majority of the time you will go with your default choice, but you allow yourself to act differently on occasion. This is powerful in eliminating decision-making, but not as powerful as a rule.

Finally, at the far end of the spectrum, is the adoption of standards. When you adopt a standard you are drawing a line between things that are good enough to consider and things that aren’t. If an option falls below that line it does not get a moment of consideration. This obviously does not eliminate decisions entirely like rules and presumptions, but it does drastically narrow down options, which can help combat decision fatigue as well.

There are plenty of important decisions that you need to make every day. The goal is to find a way to make sure that those decisions get the mental resources required to make the best possible choices.

What second order decisions have you implemented in your life? What habits do you have that eliminate the need for making decisions?

If you’ve got any other tips to help us combat decision fatigue, please leave them in the comments!

9 thoughts on “Defeating Decision Fatigue in a World of Choices”

  1. Awesome post, Matt! I love Barry Schwartz and his entire framework. Decision-fatigue is a major problem for many people, and the worst part is that they do not even realize that is a problem.

    My wardrobe isn’t quite as bland as Zuckerberg, so I pick out a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt each night before I go to bed. I also set the coffee pot, pick out a meal replacement shake or protein bar for breakfast, and pack my lunch the night before. Some days, this allows me to avoid any kind of decision-making or rigorous thinking until I get to the office. I love this habit, because it frees my mind to wander during the first few hours of my day. Believe it or not, I’ve dictated several article outlines and ideas via voice-to-text during this time of day, all because my mind isn’t occupied by tedious tasks.

    1. Making the morning decisions the night before is a great method to get around decision-fatigue in the morning. I am actually super impressed that you have been able to dictate outlines while getting through your morning routine. I apparently need to up my game and get my mind more disciplined. Mine tends to just wander aimlessly until I get out the door and put a podcast on.

  2. I love all the anecdotes you are drawing in, Matt. While my wardrobe choices are a bit more advanced that Obama’s or Zuckerberg’s, I noticed getting dressed was a lot easier when I pared down my closet. I also have my routines (shower, then coffee, then fix kid snacks/lunch, then get kid up, then kid breakfast) so I don’t have to make as many choices. There are some drawbacks to that (you don’t question things you might need to, you may not fit in all the things you need to during your routine), but it does make life easier.

    1. Thanks! Totally agree on the morning routine (on both accounts). I do the same thing every weekday morning and it has made my mornings run a lot more smoothly and with less stress. At the same time, you are right that it stops us from questioning things. I switched up my morning routine out of necessity when we moved to a new apartment (and I had a slightly longer commute) and I think my new routine is so much better than the old. I probably would have kept going with the old routine ad infinitem without something shaking me out of it.

      Maybe the solution is to plan a time to think about our routines. Maybe on the first of the month (or the year) just take a few minutes to think about the things we do automatically and whether there is anything we should try switching up.

  3. Amazing post Matt!!! A couple of years ago I tried to cut down on my soda consumption because I was addicted to caffeine. I could not function without a 12 oz can of coca cola otherwise I would get a headache. At first I tried to cut back but it didn’t work. So I was forced to make a second order decision and since that time I have not had a single drop of coca cola since.

    After that I basically drink water with the occassional lemonade. I feel a million times better and it’s really improved my health.

    1. That’s great! I was definitely an overconsumer of soda, as well. It is not an easy habit to kick, but drinking less soda and more water does make you feel a whole lot better.

  4. When I first saw the judge’s graph a couple months ago in a class, that shocked me. That made me realize that the facts of the case doesn’t necessarily determine innocence or being guilty. There’s so many other little factors that could make a huge difference and finding the little points is hard but once someone does figure it out, it makes all the difference in the world. Definitely expanded my perspective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge