The beauty of a school uniform is that it removes the decision making process, now my eight year old still negotiates about the choice of shoes but her options are limited. I’m pretty sure it’s not as withering as negotiating daily about a full outfit. On any given day most of us have to make all sorts of decisions, some are big decisions while others are less important. Its estimated that the average person makes about 35000 choices per day! This number may sound ridiculous, but we make 226.7 decisions each day on just food alone (Wansink and Sobal, 2007). What to eat for breakfast? What shirt to wear? Which route to take to work? Where to go for lunch …. What to have? Most people would rather have options than live in a world of limited possibilities, we have come to expect an incredible variety of choices and we’ve got them …. Which of the thousands of TV channels do you watch? How do you like your coffee? Who do you follow on twitter? We think we like having lots of options. Choices give us a sense of variety and lets us to feel in control. But each choice carries consequence – good and bad – and having too many choices means having to make lots of decisions and the more we make the worse we get at making them, we suffer from “decision making fatigue”. I saw this first hand over Christmas. My five year old couldn’t chose which toy to play with because he was overloaded with options so he played with nothing. But this is nothing new, parents know this, children who have too many toys are more easily distracted, and don’t enjoy quality playtime. When the options are reduced, kids play more creatively, spend longer periods playing with a single toy and are better focussed (Dauch et al., 2018). Not much changes in adults, judges often make less favourable rulings later in the day, since their decision making capacity is spent by that point (Danziger, Levav and Avnaim-Pesso, 2011). It’s also (likely) the reason that supermarkets tend to put all sorts of tasty junk food right next to the checkout. They know that by the time we reach the checkout line we are probably experiencing decision fatigue, and will be more likely to make stupid choices and buy crap.
My wife complains about my limited wardrobe, she’s convinced I’m too lazy to go shopping but I’ve made a real effort to limit my options because it simplifies my day. Some of the most “successful” people in history wear the same thing every day. Albert Einstein was known for owning several variations of the same grey suit so that he wouldn’t have to waste time and brainpower deciding on which outfit to wear every morning. Andre Young, better known as Dr. Dre wears the same shoes every day: Nike’s Air Force 1. Barack Obama wears only grey or blue suits. Mark Zuckerberg sports his iconic grey Brunello Cucinelli t-shirt. Steve Jobs became famous for a black turtleneck, jeans, and New Balance sneakers. Life is easier when one adopts a repetitious wardrobe.
The New Year is the catalyst for transformations, good intentions and resolutions. The ending of the year and beginning of a new one is a great time to evaluate what is working in life and what isn’t, these ‘state of the union’ style conversations are done with friends or internally and help bookend the year and plan change. The most common New Year’s pledges revolve around health – losing weight, giving up smoking, exercising more and eating less. A new life of promises, exercise, gym memberships and running. But as 2020 begins remember the more options you give yourself, the harder it is to decide, and to decide well. The bigger the selection you afford yourself the less happy you will be with the choice you make because you will have the “but what if” feeling – knowing that you missed out on other options. The presence of choice may be appealing, but in reality the cost of choice may be crippling. Decision making fatigue runs the risk of robbing us of our motivation because making a decision requires will power and our will power is a limited resource. Even the smallest decision draws from the bucket of our will power.
The more decisions we make, or the more trying, worrisome, or elaborate a decision is, the more it digs into our willpower reserve. Running, jogging or any exercise is all about decision making, and its important to preserve our willpower for the exercise. So don’t stress about the colour of the shorts, type of runners or lycra. With persistence in running and exercise the decision to get out the door becomes automatic and unconscious, these type of choices don’t drain your willpower reserve. The art of choosing well may be to reduce the options.
Danziger, S., Levav, J. and Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011) ‘Extraneous factors in judicial decisions’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), pp. 6889.
Dauch, C., Imwalle, M., Ocasio, B. and Metz, A. E. (2018) ‘The influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddlers’ play’, Infant Behav Dev, 50, pp. 78-87.
Wansink, B. and Sobal, J. (2007) ‘Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook’, ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR, 39, pp. 106-123.