Focus on making fewer, more important decisions

In an interview with Vanity Fair, former president Obama said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. 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 went on to explain that, as Commander in Chief, the act of making a decision, especially minor ones, erodes your ability to make later decisions. Psychologists call it decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of making bad decisions.  For instance, judges in court have been shown to make poorer-quality decisions later in the day than they do early in the day. Decision fatigue explains why shopping for groceries can be so exhausting and may adversely affect our ability to make more important decisions. 

Here are some ideas to think about.

Make a few major decisions that will preempt having to make multiple minor decisions.

Obama made a major decision—wear only gray or blue suits—which eliminated the need to make wardrobe decisions every morning. Private schools often facilitate the same advantage by requiring students to wear uniforms. Steve Jobs limited his wardrobe to bluejeans and a black turtleneck shirt.

About eight years ago I made a major decision to limit my personal belongings to fewer than 100 items. (See my post titled Enough is Enough.) I currently have 85 objects. This self-imposed restriction has opened up a new space in my life. I seldom go shopping (saving time), I am immune to advertising and marketing ploys (saving mental energy), and I spend very little money on stuff. This one major life-decision eliminates the need to make many smaller decisions. (And it helps me avoid these extremes: The average woman makes 301 trips to the store annually, spending close to 400 hours a year shopping. This amounts to 8.5 years spent shopping during a typical lifespan (NY Daily News).  Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education (Psychology Today).

Notice how these major decisions would simplify your life.  

    • My family and I are going to be active in a local church. 
    • I’m not going to eat processed food.
    • I’ll check my email only four times a day.
    • My expenses will not exceed my income. 

Focus on important decisions.

By limiting his wardrobe choices, Obama could concentrate on more important decisions—responding to the latest threat from Kim Jong-un, or helping craft the Paris Climate Agreement.

Sometimes I catch myself obsessing over minor decisions, particularly monetary ones (I am frugal; sometimes to a fault). Recently, I wasted 20 minutes of my life choosing between different styles and prices of ink pens. I should have devoted that time to writing another blog post.  

Some people expend more brain-resources selecting their lunch entrée than they do choosing and directing the topic of conversation around the table. 

Identify and focus on major decisions; make minor decisions quickly or delegate them to someone else.

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Find joy in the journey

Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing. Shakespeare

I’ve always been an advocate of goal-setting, for two reasons. Setting and achieving goals leads to progress; it makes us effective. If you aim at nothing you will always hit it. People who don’t set goals often just meander through life. Their lives resemble the movement of a ball in a pinball machine—randomly ricocheting from one stop to another and then finally dropping out of sight.  

Another benefit of setting and working toward goals is that the process we go through to accomplish goals gives our lives meaning.

Psychologist Richard Davidson identifies “pre-goal attainment positive affect” which is the pleasurable feeling you get as you make progress toward a goal, and “post-goal attainment positive affect” which comes once you have achieved your goal. The feeling of the latter is contentment, but it is fleeting and short-lived. The feeling of the former is progress and it can be consistent and longer lasting. 

In his must-read book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt writes, “Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more trilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. We can call this ‘the progress principle’: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them” (page 84).

The pleasure and happiness derived from the journey can be enjoyed even if the goal is mundane and even insignificant. For instance, I’m finding great joy in planting a small vineyard in East Texas. It will never be financially rewarding and the wine will not be notable (it’s difficult to produce great wine in North Texas), but I have thoroughly enjoyed planning the project and making it happen. Three years from now, when I bottle my first vintage, I’m sure we’ll celebrate, but the consistent joy will have been in the journey. [I started the vineyard in March of 2018. See below for pictures taken July 2018.]

Interestingly, the journey can be rewarding even if you don’t achieve the goal. I’ve read about entrepreneurial startups that did not work but provided an enjoyable and beneficial experience for those who were involved in the process.

So, I ask my readers: What are you working on? What goals are you pursuing? Enjoy the journey.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.