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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6 thoughts on “Focus on making fewer, more important decisions

  1. It will be interesting to see if men and women respond to this article differently. Angela Merkel always seems to wear the same style of suit but just in varying colours. She is one of the few women whose actions and authority are not undermined by comments about her fashion sense. In contrast, Princess Diana made the front pages due to the clothes she wore and her general appearance. Many employers expect women to appear glamorous and this can be seen most obviously in a particular advert from Virgin Airlines. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, just said that she could barely walk in her shoes let alone dance. Why does she feel the need to wear high heels?

    Again, I think the responses of men and women would differ over shopping. Often, it is the woman of the household who will be expected to buy birthday and other celebratory presents and cards. Mothers often have to shop for clothes and shoes for growing children. The prevalence of credit card purchases means that any time saved on internet shopping will be offset by time spent dealing with credit card statements when they arrive. In the past, when most people were paid in cash weekly, there was a limit to what they could buy in a week and once the money ran out, no more purchases could be made.

    I would suggest that many people don’t actually make decisions at all but just default to the easiest option. A decision assumes that you have considered the cost and the consequences of your actions. Don, you have made principled decisions based on your character but what happens if you have no principles?

    As usual, Don, this article is thought provoking and I always look forward to receiving the email.
    Best wishes
    Angela Willson

    • As always, your thoughts are interesting and valued.
      I probably came down a bit too hard on shopping, but I think some people do spend an inordinate amount of time and money doing it. I like your observation about the different expectations that society has placed on how men and women dress and the significance placed on it. (By the way, I really like Merkel; she seems like a no-nonsense, get-it-done person.)
      Having principles does make decision making easier. Take care, Don.

  2. I can’t tell you how meaningful this is!! I absolutely suffer from this ailment more than I’d like to admit to myself. I have no trouble making decisions, but I grow weary of the process and at times get anxious. Much of this is self-imposed, and some are external which I can’t control. I need to eliminate as many self-imposed decisions as I can to leave space for those externals associated with work, music, and those difficulties we all face in life! AND DE-CLUTTER!!!
    Thank you for this Don!

    • Thanks, Marty, for taking the time to write. Decision making can be anxiety-producing. Simplifying the process helps. Don

  3. Don, your “take” on decision making is marvelous and well-suited to today’s times. Very very good – congratulations!