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.
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?