Imagine you’re at the grocery store on your way home from work to quickly grab some groceries before dinner. No big deal, should be a quick in-and-out trip.

The first item on your list is some chips to go with the burgers you want to grill this weekend.

You go to the aisle with the chips and see literally a hundred different types of chips. There are tortilla chips, Pringles chips, Sun Chips, and Lays chips. There are also those kettle-cooked chips you sampled a few weeks ago at Costco. Those look good, so you decide you’ll buy some kettle-cooked chips.

Now, what brand do you want to buy? You could get the Cape Cod chips that started the whole kettle-cooked chip trend, but now Lays has their own competitor brand, as well as some startup chip brand with a really nice looking bag. Then of course there’s the store brand of kettle chips that will be the cheapest of the lot.

You decide to buy the Cape Cod chips, but which flavor? There are Cape Cod kettle-cooked potato chips in 6 different flavors. The Original kettle-cooked chips are really good, but now they have mesquite BBQ, salt-and-vinegar, jalapeno, and aged white cheddar or sour cream (?!?). And for some flavors, you can have the regular or reduced-fat version. You decide on the original flavor, regular fat version of the Cape Cod chips.

Congratulations! You now have one item in your shopping cart. You still have ten other items on your list, all of which require the same amount of decision making.

Welcome to the world of decision fatigue.

The Effects of Decision Fatigue

When making a purchase, sometimes variety is great. Chipotle once advertised that there were 65,000 different ways you could order your burrito. If you wanted to, you’d never have to eat the exact same burrito twice.

But most people actually don’t want that amount of decision-making. They will pick a flavor combination they like and stick with it (I like my steak burrito with white rice, black beans, tomato salsa, corn, cheese, and lettuce, what’s your favorite?).

While most people want to pick from a few options, after a certain point, decision fatigue begins to set in. Each decision or mini-decision taxes your brain, and eventually, your brain becomes tired and works sub-optimally. If you have to make many decisions over the course of the day, the quality of your decisions begins to decline.

For example, after a long trip of decisions at the grocery store, the last decision you have to make is whether to buy that Snickers bar at the cash register. Decision fatigue leads many people to make the impulse purchase and throw that candy bar onto the conveyor belt at the cash register.

Decision fatigue extends beyond the grocery store and into your work life. A research study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the decisions of court judges were highly affected by how recently they had taken their food break. Some have argued that the extramarital affairs of politicians and business executives can partly be attributed to decision fatigue causing them to make poor personal decisions late in the evening (said no woman ever).

Combating Decision Fatigue

So how can you minimize the effects of decision fatigue in your own life? Here are some suggestions:

Focus on the big decisions, and delegate the small decisions to others

There are only so many decisions you can make in a single day before your brain becomes tired. Focus on making only the big decisions, and let others make the small decisions for you. Don’t micromanage every little thing in your life. If you are a perfectionist and need everything to be done according to your specifications, you’ll get hit hard by decision fatigue.

Take a page out of Steve Jobs or Barack Obama’s playbook

Have you ever noticed how Steve Jobs always wore blue jeans and a black turtleneck? As CEO, he had to make a lot of important decisions, and deciding what to wear each day did not have to be one of them. Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama also don’t spend much time thinking about what to wear each day.

I knew a physician who had a shirt and tie combination for each day of the week. For example, every Wednesday, he would wear a purple-striped shirt and a purple tie. If he wanted, he could drop off his dry cleaning each Friday and have his work clothes ready by the end of the weekend.

Of course, if you meet someone for a weekly meeting every Wednesday, they may think you only own one shirt and tie.

Shop at grocery stores where there are limited selections

My favorite places to shop for groceries are Aldi and Costco. Besides having great prices, they have a limited selection of each type of product, reducing the amount of decision fatigue when making purchasing decisions.

In investing, stick with a simple index fund portfolio

If you choose to invest in actively managed mutual funds, you literally have thousands of choices. Picking a simple index fund portfolio dramatically reduces the number of funds you have to choose from, and simple portfolios are often the best portfolios.

Reduce unnecessary clutter in your life

The trend towards minimalism is closely linked to the detrimental effects of decision fatigue. By decluttering your home and life, you reduce the number of stimuli that can adversely affect your decision making.

Have a plan in mind when making big purchase decisions

Many people who build a custom house say they will never do it again.

Building a custom house can require hundreds, if not thousands of individual decisions. A physician once told me, “I never knew there were that many colors of grout.”

Similarly, there are so many custom features that can be added when purchasing a new car. The blizzard of customization options may cause car buyers to unnecessarily purchase extra features.

Make important decisions first thing in the morning

We are most productive first thing in the morning. I am at my highest energy levels first thing in the morning, and my energy declines over the course of the day. By the end of the day, I am in no position to make good decisions. When making important decisions, the adage, “I’ll sleep on it,” rings true.

Conclusion

Decision fatigue can cause us to make bad decisions in our home, work, and financial lives. What do you think? Do you think you experience decision fatigue at your job? Do you do anything to combat decision fatigue?

8 COMMENTS

  1. For me, decision fatigue and analysis paralysis are intimately related. I research large purchases ahead of time, but make semi-impulse purchases for less expensive items after a cursory review online. It might result in some less-than-perfect choices, but the time and energy saved is worth it.

    I like your tips to combat decision fatigue. There is nothing I hate more than a restaurant menu the size of a book (I’m looking at you, Cheesecake Factor); a one page menu with 5 entree choices makes me smile inside.

    • Cheesecake Factory is the worst at that! I like restaurants that only have a few items, but make them well. If a small restaurant has a menu with 100 different items, I get a little worried about quality…

  2. I often find decision fatigue in my life. Your tips and tactics sound really good, focus on bigger issues and put other things (investing, daily clothing, smaller items) either on autopilot or delegate.

  3. I have actively tried to reduce decisions in my life. Much like the clutter in my house. I know have 10 work shirts and 8 ties as opposed to 20 work shirts and 30 ties. Regarding weekend plans, unless there is something I really want to do (which makes the decision easy), I tend to go with the flow with my wife’s plans. After making a day full of decisions at work it is nice to let go at home.

  4. This is such a relevant topic for physicians who make micro-decisions all day and macro-decision most of the day. I think its a huge part of burnout, and can personally attest.

    Interesting study you reference on judicial decisions being closer to breaks when the judge is less decision fatigued. I try to see hard cases in the morning like you mention.

    There is also the problem of too many choices outside of work, like the grocery store which you discuss.
    Barry Schwartz – a psychologist, wrote a nice book on the subject called the paradox of choice (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Paradox_of_Choice)
    It’s short and sweet and I highly recommend. One of his principals is making choices that you cannot go back on. Apparently people tend to be happier with the choice if there is no going back.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Paradox_of_Choice

    One caveat, I read the book just before buying a house. I tried to apply the principles and just had a few houses and made a quick choice. Turns out we shouldn’t have bought at all, much less this particular house, a decision that I probably would have reached with some more time and possibly more choices.

    So maybe try to have more choices when the decision is bigger?

    • I think when purchasing a house, you want to look at as many houses as possible so you get the best deal. Some houses are overpriced and some houses are underpriced, and by looking at as many houses as possible, you put yourself in the best position to find and purchase the house that is underpriced.

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