Home > Personal Development > Tactics for reducing decision fatigue

Tactics for reducing decision fatigue

I’m starting an experiment in restructuring my life to reduce decision fatigue.

If you’re like me, and not very familiar with the concept of decision fatigue, it is well-outlined in a 2011 New York Times article. At its core, decision fatigue is the assumption that we possess a finite amount of willpower, and that we expend this willpower as we make decisions throughout a day. This can lead to unintended (and often undesirable) psychological effects, such as a selection bias towards leniency after lunch, suffered by judges and even greats like Paul Graham. Fortunately, there are factors that can abate this fatigue. As the lunchtime anecdote alludes to, one of these is glucose levels, which this study from the University of Kentucky shows even happens in animals. The factor on which I would like to focus, as part of my desire to design a simpler life, is reducing the number of decisions that I need to make each day.

After a very brief analysis of my daily routine, there are several obvious areas in which I expend my decision-making energy unnecessarily. These wastes include:

  • clothing
  • meals
  • meeting schedule
  • exercise routine
  • content consumption (reading books, watching movies)

With the goal of minimizing waste in decision-making energy throughout a day, one approach is to cluster all of these low-value, low-risk decisions into a particular time of my day, such the night before. I’ve experimented with this for a few days with my eating habits, by using MyFitnessPal not as a post-consumption recording device, but as a meal-planning tool. I have notice the following benefits:

  1. I feel less decision stress just before mealtimes because I’m just executing on an existing plan
  2. I’ve been able to better avoid temptations to stray from my intended diet, because I’m not making decisions in-the-moment (a low-glucose moment, at that)

While the are only preliminary observations, they’re sufficient to convince me to continue this experiment. A few ways to expand this include planning my wardrobe in weekly batches (perhaps, on Sunday evenings), or selecting in one session all the books I’m going to read throughout the year. I’d really like to experiment with ways to make this easier with retail shopping, but that topic is deserving of its own post.

What are some ways in which you can reduce decision fatigue in your life? I’m really curious to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

Hat tip to @MarkWittman for sharing this concept with me.

  1. RG
    2013/01/19 at 4:44 am

    This is quite amusing 🙂 an engineer’s approach to human psychology. Nick- I suspect “all decisions are not made equal”; what you’re doing is extracting procrastination out of your day, not decision fatigue. The decisions you mention (“content consumption”) are *supposed* to be fun and spontaneous. Unless you’re over thinking them, these decisions should not be a burden but rather a pleasure.

    • RG
      2013/01/19 at 4:55 am

      That said your points re: predefined meals and the associated benefits for dieting are spot on. But again, they work by swapping fun and spontaneity for control and predictability. Meal choices shouldn’t have anything to do with decision fatigue unless you’re optimizing for something (counting calories or penny pinching) and therefore making compromises. Or, again, unless you take these simple decisions way too seriously.

      • 2013/01/19 at 12:58 pm

        @RG – It’s likely that I do take my meal decisions far too seriously 🙂

        That aside, your point about the enjoyability of spontaneity is interesting. Perhaps I’m wired differently, but making decisions about what movie to watch, what to read, etc. is burdensome for me. I’m not sure that I faced the same burden in the past, but now the near-constant (and instant) access to the entirety of consumable media produced by humans (thanks, Internet), I do struggle with such decisions. Sometimes, I’ll catch myself wandering down trails of Wikipedia links about articles about which I don’t have a particular affinity to read, but I enjoy learning so much that I find myself in a trap. One of my goals is to save decision-making “energy” to improve my focus (and reduce these random Wikipedia jaunts) throughout the day.

        Additionally, I wonder if this effect is more pronounced in entrepreneurs. When I previously worked at a large company, and even when I was in school, a large chunk of my day was planned for me. Now, I arrive at each day with the need to optimize my 24 hours, weighing a limitless variety of meeting options and creative work to maximize the success of my businesses.

        It is possible that this relates more to procrastination avoidance, but perhaps the means through which I avoid the temptation of procrastination is to remove some of the emotion from my time-use decisions. Hopefully, this added efficiency in my planned life will allow me to block off more times during which I can enjoy making spontaneous decisions.

  2. 2013/01/24 at 9:35 pm

    I’ve heard this is why Steve Jobs always wore the same black shirt and grey jeans outfit. I can’t decide if I’m a fan of this or not, because I love both structure and spontaneity!

    • 2013/01/25 at 10:40 pm

      Great example! Overall, I think it’s about balance. By choosing structure in some areas, it allows more time/energy for spontaneity in others.

  3. 2013/01/26 at 2:06 pm

    Even Obama recognizes the value in reducing Decision Fatigue:

    “You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “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.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting.”


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