Exhausted by Options

By Nat Eliason in Psychology

You and a friend go to the mall to revamp your Fall wardrobe. You visit 10 different stores, try on 50 pieces of clothing, and end up choosing 15 of them. As expected you have a great time, but when you get home, instead of being reinvigorated by your fun day out, you’re exhausted.

You want to go out for dinner with your girlfriend. You suggest that she picks the restaurant, and she responds with “no, you.”

“Well, I could do Italian, Chinese, Thai, American, or Mexican.”

“I don’t want to do American or Italian.”

“How about Chinese?”

“Chinese is kind of greasy”

“Okay, Thai?”

“Sure let’s do that”

You’ve made a decision, but you’re somewhat frustrated and mentally tired from the process.

The workday starts and you sit down in front of your computer. “What should I start the day with? There’s that project I need to make some progress on for Bill, and Sheryl wanted me to send her some research on the new proposal, oh and Mark wanted a rundown of the competitive landscape, oh shoot and I was supposed to get Steve that new swipe file on design trends…”

And suddenly you’ve just been reading the news for half an hour.

What happened?

Exhausted by Options

You became a victim of “decision fatigue.” It’s a psychological phenomenon where as you make more decisions (especially difficult ones), and as you consider more options, you start to get mentally tired making your subsequent decisions worse and more difficult.

In the shopping case, deciding over and over again “Do I buy this or do I not?” drained your decision-making power and mental energy for the day. The back and forth over which restaurant to choose was similarly tiring because of the number of options considered. In the case of starting the workday, an over-stimulation of options can lead you to simply choose none of them.

But it’s not exclusive to a single decision making period. Resisting a doughnut in the morning will make it harder to resist dessert later. Getting yourself out of bed (if you’re a habitual snoozer) on time will make it harder to get yourself to the gym. Staying off of Facebook will make it harder to stay off of MSNBC. In fact, just looking at this sweet, tasty, fresh-baked apple pie and not running off to buy one will lower your willpower and make decision making harder. Sorry.

An excess of options will also increase your likelihood to avoid making a decision entirely. Sheena Iyengar observed this in a study she conducted where people in a grocery store were able to sample jams. She tested two cases: one in which people had 6 jams to sample, and another where they had 24. Fitting our common-sense assumption that “more choices = better” 60% of people approached the stand with 24 jams vs only 40% approaching the stand with 6. But, once people got to the stand, only 3% of people purchased from among the 24 options whereas 33% purchased from the stand with 6 options.

When we’re removed from the ability to make decisions, we feel trapped and demand power over our outcome. We assume more options will make us happier which is why more people were attracted to the stand with 24 jams. But by strategically decreasing the number of decisions we need to make we can make sure we actually choose something, and we can save our decisiveness for when it really counts.

The three best ways to do this are through Rules, Priorities, and Systems.

Rules

A rule is a predetermined response to a given situation. Think of a rule like an “If -> Then” statement in logic or programming. It’s simply a set action for how you’ll handle a common situation so that you don’t waste any time trying to decide between two or more small and unimportant options.

The benefit is that you get to avoid all of those momentary pauses throughout the day where you would otherwise go “should I answer this call?” Or “should I take the stairs?” They might seem like insignificant decisions but anything you deliberate on drains your decision making power.

You’ll want to create rules that make the most sense for you, but to get you thinking, here are some of mine:

  • I Never answer calls from unrecognized numbers
  • I don’t check email before 10am, after 7pm, or on Saturday
  • I don’t close email until everything in the inbox has been acted on
  • I don’t schedule meetings before noon or after 7
  • I turn everything on silent during work hours
  • I don’t go to meetings without an agenda, clear goal, and set end time
  • I don’t take elevators when it’s 4 flights of stairs or fewer
  • I set a timer for each task to stay focused on it, and don’t do anything else until the timer rings or the task is complete
  • I don’t multitask. The most important version of this is not trying to be social while working. Spend your time either 100% working or 100% socializing whenever possible
  • I don’t respond to meeting requests unless the person was recommended by someone I respect, or they’re in one of my organizations, or they very clearly did their research on me / my interests

Priorities

Priorities go one step beyond rules. While rules let you make very small decision easily, priorities help with making big decisions. They remind you of what you believe you should spend your time on, so that even when you’re caught up in momentary excitement you stick to your goals.

Your best friend wants to hang out but you had planned on going to the gym? Your boyfriend is distressed but you have an assignment due tomorrow? Clear priorities make it as easy to choose between options like these as to decide whether or not to take the stairs. All you have to do is see where the two options fit into your priorities, and then simply follow the hierarchy you set for yourself.

There’s no right hierarchy. I don’t think you should ever put your work before your health… but others disagree (usually not verbally, but in practice). Who’s right? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have your own priorities and stick to them. The list is useless if you say you care more about your health than your work, but then pull regular all-nighters and coke out on caffeine to keep going.

Here’s my current priority hierarchy:

  1. Family/Closest Friends’ Emergencies
  2. Sleep/Food
  3. Exercise
  4. My 2-3 Goals for the Day
  5. Time with Family/Closest Friends
  6. Reading
  7. Diversion / Socializing / Fun
  8. Other friends
  9. Random people

Systems for Decision Making

Finally, beyond rules and priority heirarchies, you can create somewhat more complex systems to partially or even entirely offload decision making. The first and simplest type of system is a bunch of rules strung together into a chain of good decisions, where each on mandates the next.

You’ve heard examples of this before:

  • Put your workout clothes out at night so that when you wake up you immediately put them on and go running. The system is set out clothes -> wake up -> go running
  • Or you could pre-set all of your suit-shirt-tie-shoe combinations using colored stickers attached to the tags, so you know what goes with what and never had to decide how to put your outfits together. You could even go full Steve Jobs and wear the exact same outfit every day. Obama does a variation on this: he only chooses between two styles of suit.
  • You could have a strict order for when you get to work on how you’re going to handle your first 30 minutes. For example: show up -> get coffee -> make sure nothing blew up over night -> put 25 minutes uninterrupted into your highest-impact task for the day

These are some of the ones I use:

  • I make the same four or so meals 90% of the time when I cook, and I rotate through them fairly cyclically. I don’t eat breakfast and I don’t distinguish between lunch and dinner, so this is easy to do. I get enough variation in my diet on my off-day (Saturday) and by eating out once or twice a week. This also makes it really easy to go grocery shopping–I’ve bought the exact same things every time I’ve gone in the last few months.
  • 2 hours after waking up on weekdays I’ll have a pre-workout shake, put on gym clothes, go to the gym, then when I get back I shower -> cook lunch -> check email (first time of the day) -> meditate. I do the exact same order at the same time every day so I don’t have to think about it.
  • Immediately upon waking up I set my 2-3 goals for the day and write for 30 minutes.
  • Whenever I finish one of my daily goals I simply start on the next one in my priorities for the day. If that’s finished, I’ll pull from my backlog of less-urgent tasks or my other goals for the week. I never have to think about what I should work on next.
  • I adopted this one from The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. When I go out to eat, as soon as I find one entree and one appetizer on the menu that I want I close it and stop looking. He points out that the more options you consider, the unhappier you’ll be with you’re final decision, so this maximizes my enjoyment of the food

Checklists

The second type of system is a checklist that must be completed every time you’re going through a repeated process. McDonalds is famous for its checklists in order to keep every franchise running smoothly, and to help employees manage a swath of repeated tasks. Many other organizations are following suit by adopting checklists of their own, and you can use them in your life as well. (There’s a great book on this called The Checklist Manifestoby the way)

Do you have a set list of things you need to remember each morning? Do you repeat some task every day, week, or even month at work? Do you worry about how you would teach something you do regularly to someone else? These are all areas where simple checklists can make your life much easier.

My most valuable checklist is one for blog posts that I started about a year ago and still use (with some modifications). It’s a simple list of things I need to do before and after I post anything, to make sure I’m staying consistent and not shooting myself in the foot by forgetting to post it somewhere or share it with some network.

Or… Do Nothing

The third and best type of system is one that simply removes the need to take any action at all. Even following rules and priorities takes some willpower (though much less than deciding in the moment) so if you can completely remove the need to do anything then you’re saving the greatest amount of willpower and decisiveness.

There are a lot of ways to do this:

  • Automate. There are a number of services out there that help you make your computer and various online accounts do the work you’re currently doing manually. The two best ones are Zapier and IFTTT (If This Then That). They both let you log in with services like Facebook and Twitter and create rules such as “If I change my Facebook profile picture, then update my twitter profile picture as well.” For one example I use Zapier to automatically share each new blog post with my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn networks so I don’t have to remember to do it.
  • Silence. Every time you hear a notification you have to make a decision: do I check my phone/email/facebook, or do I let it go? If you turn off all of your notifications then you no longer have to keep making that decision. It’s much easier to work uninterrupted for 30 minutes when there’s no device pinging you every 2 minutes, even if you don’t check it. The simple act of resisting checking each time you hear a sound is making your work less effective. You can also accomplish this by working in places with no internet access, and away from people who could bother you.
  • Outsource/Delegate. If you (or your spouse) are making over 100k there’s no reason to buy your own groceries. Choosing which groceries to buy is a huge drain on decision making, resisting the other things in the store is a drain, and if you’re making 100k per year working 2,000 total hours then your time is worth $50 per hour and you can pay someone much less than that to do it for you (last I checked you can get a TaskRabbit to do it for less than $20/hour). The same argument can be made for clothes shopping, trip planning, tax filing, and a host of other high-decision tasks depending on your income level and how legitimately exciting you find the processes.

As you adopt more of these principles, you’ll find you have a lot more time than you thought you did, and much more mental energy. When you’re not wasting decision-making power on minutia, you open yourself up to move the much bigger boulders in your life, and make much better decisions in the process.

Image Credit

  1. Apple Pie: http://www.wikihow.com/images/f/f0/Bake-an-Apple-Pie-from-Scratch-Intro.jpg

Footnotes

Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.