In graduate school I had a professor who wore the same outfit every day. A blue button-down Oxford shirt, a pair of khakis, and brown shoes. Students would grin and comment on his “uniform” and in October, four of the students in the class wore the same outfit as their Halloween costume. But the joke was on us - our professor told us that he hated picking out clothes to wear everyday so he asked his (stylish Italian) wife to pick out an outfit that would fit his life as an academic. Then he bought six of everything. He never had to think about his clothes or what outfit to wear and he always looked extremely put together. I thought that professor was “eccentric,” but it turns out he was just my first exposure to the concept of “decision fatigue.”
Decision fatigue, which comes from the field of social psychology, is the idea that we have “a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control.” The more decisions we make over the course of a day, the more arduous those decisions become. If we spent the morning resisting the temptation to eat a second cinnamon roll, then it becomes way harder to skip the chocolate cake after dinner. If we have been surfing Amazon all day (but not buying), it is incredibly difficult to avoid those cute impulse purchases at Target after work. Other psychology studies show that the more options humans are presented with, the more difficult it is to make a choice and commit to it without second-guessing ourselves or regretting our choice. Anyone who has designed and built a house or planned a wedding may be familiar with the relentless fatigue of decision making. All of this adds up to exhaustion and lower levels of self-control.
Which is why my professor decided to eliminate a few of those everyday decisions to free him up to think about the things that he actually valued (philosophy, in his case). It’s why Barack Obama wears only blue or black suits and Mark Zuckerberg wears the same kind of T-shirt and jeans every day. Deliberately eliminating some decisions and options leaves us more willpower to tackle the tough stuff in our days. A lot of studies show that decision fatigue is universal, but it is also extremely individual. Different people are overwhelmed by different kinds of decisions.
I always regarded my professor (and Obama and Zuckerberg) as interesting examples of more “extreme” ways of living. I knew that I loved having choices and the freedom to do anything I wanted. I like choosing what kind of food to eat and which movie to watch and what outfit to wear and which of my ten hobbies to pursue and . But I often feel overwhelmed by the activities I filled my life with and frustrated that my clothes were wedged (not placed) in the closet and confused about where my time went. I found myself in the classic “there’s nothing I feel like watching/doing/wearing/eating” black hole of indecision that always seems to follow a particularly full closet/pantry/schedule. I would get into a discontented malaise and waste my time doing another pointless thing altogether (Buzzfeed, anyone?). After reading about decision fatigue, I realized that maybe my professor wasn’t so eccentric after all. I loved being free to make my own choices, but maybe the way to that freedom was actually limiting my choices?
I began experimenting. I started out the professor/Obama/Zuckerburg way and examined my wardrobe. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t have six of the same outfit in my closet and realized that a daily uniform would require significant up-front costs that I was not willing to pay. Also, I’m not convinced that I feel overwhelmed by deciding which outfit to wear every day. I love color and I like dressing to my daily attitude (comfy work at home day? studious museum day? Wonder Woman day?). However, my jewelry was a different story. I was constantly sifting through a pile of necklaces that were out-of-control. I had pieces handed down from friends of friends that I didn’t even know and pieces that I’d bought because I loved the color but didn’t match my clothes. Every time I looked at them I felt guilty about what I wasn’t wearing and I never chose my favorite necklaces because I felt I should be wearing something else. So I cleared them out. I narrowed down to my favorite eight necklaces and got rid of the rest. This is kind of a story about having too much stuff, but it is also about limiting my choices (and therefore my decisions). When I get dressed in the morning I only make one decision (between the green or the black necklace), instead of ten tiny decisions about which necklace I should be wearing, but don’t want to. And so far, I love it!
My success with the necklaces inspired me to look around more and see what other superfluous decisions might be dragging me down...
I Don’t Need 80 Kinds of Cereal*
We started grocery shopping at Aldi because it was cheaper than other stores (a LOT cheaper after we moved to DC). Then we kept shopping there because of the fun European import foods (it’s a German company) and we really liked a lot of the interesting products (pumpkin chipotle spaghetti sauce, mmmm). We also like Aldi’s cost-saving measures (no bags; a quarter to check out a shopping cart; products are displayed in their original bulk packaging) and their set-up (smaller store, faster checkers). But while writing about decision fatigue, I realized that I mostly love Aldi because there are SO. FEW. OPTIONS. Aldi mostly sells store brand foods (like its brother, Trader Joe’s). If you want peanut butter there are four total options - creamy, crunchy, natural, and jumbo size creamy. (There also some other nut butters like almond butter). Instead of a cereal aisle there are maybe 10 cereal options, a handful of cracker types, and two kinds of baked beans.
After years of shopping at Aldi, I have slowly started to despise going into larger chain grocery stores, which I still have to do to buy fancy dog food to cater to T-dog’s epicurean tastes. Now, when I go to Safeway or Harris Teeter or Giant I get completely stressed out by the sheer size and variety of options (not to mention the frigid temperatures - why are these huge buildings so cold?)! I am overwhelmed. And cold. And the check-out people are (reallllly) slow compared to the speed-checkers at Aldi.
Now, I am not a foodie. I know there may be people who shudder in horror to think of a lack of choice at a grocery store. But we still get our quinoa and fresh mozzarella and organic bananas there. In the DC area they just started selling beer and wine and the Aldi’s in the Midwest have an amazing fresh baklava tray that is to DIE for. It’s just that there is only one variety of mozzarella and quinoa and baklava trays. I see grocery shopping as a chore, so discovering a store that takes away so many of my decisions is a godsend. At Christmas I love pouring over the varieties of seasonal cakes and chocolate covered marshmallows and caramel chocolate popcorn. However,it is such a relief not to have to spend my time deciding on, price comparing, and searching for my peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, milk, oatmeal, chocolate chips, yogurt, butter, or cereal on a regular basis. I value NOT having to make so many decisions.
I’ve crossed over to the decision-free zone of Aldi, and I am never going back.
*My middle school self reminds me that without 80 kinds of cereal we never would have gotten to experience the joy that is Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs. But my adult teeth enamel thanks me for deciding to forego those delicious crunchy bites in the long run.
There’s Nothing to Watch...
We used to share a Netflix subscription with our housemates. I love Netflix for the same reasons everyone else does - endless entertainment options on demand every second of every day. I love watching TV. I love having a fun cop/spy/mystery show on when I work, and I binge-watch sci fi and reality cooking shows while I knit. Alex could really care less about TV and dislikes having it on in the background, so I had my shared Netflix all to myself. Yet, eventually I found myself increasingly just browsing Netflix and not really “feeling” like watching anything (and wasting time trying to figure out what I felt like watching). I could no longer make my own entertainment decisions! So when our housemates bought a house and we moved to our own apartment I decided to try a life without subscription-based online entertainment.
Now, this is an ongoing experiment, so I’m not completely sure how it will turn out. I’m still in the grips of desiring the instant gratification of what I want to watch right this second (Death Comes to Pemberley on a loop, please) but I think I may actually be committing to this for the long haul. Instead of online entertainment, every week I check out a stack of DVDs from the library and those are my options for the week (and those few free Hulu shows - thanks Mom and Dad for getting me hooked on America’s Got Talent this season…). As the instant gratification obsession wears off I think I am feeling good. I think it has been good to break myself away from feeling like I “deserve” instant gratification. And now that I’ve extremely limited my TV watching options, sometimes I don’t watch TV at all.
I’m sure I’ll start up Netflix (4th season of Longmire!) or Hulu (every last episode of Top Chef...) for a month here or there, but I don’t see myself going back to a long term subscription. It’s not about depriving myself of something fun, but about finding that sweet spot where eliminating or limiting a certain number of daily decisions exposes a beautiful sense of clarity, peace, and contentment.
What Does This Have to Do With Spending Our Values?
So, what does decision fatigue have to do with spending our values? I see two connections here.
Practicing good decision-making willpower in one part of my life strengthens my decision-making muscles in all parts of my life. When I limit the number of small decisions I have to make, I still have the willpower in reserve to make better decisions in other parts of my life. Also, the more I practice delayed gratification (i.e. no Netflix) the more willing I am to delay gratification when I want to buy something. I am trying to give myself a “waiting period” when I want to buy something instead of just hopping on Amazon. I’m not generally an indiscriminate shopper, but am pretty quick to buy something when I decide I want it. But my no-Netflix trial has shown me that I have the willpower to make better decisions across all parts of my life.
- Voluntarily limiting options in my life often shows me where my real limits are. I’ve learned that I don’t need as much stuff/distraction/comfort/entertainment as I thought. For example, I always thought I needed at least 3 pairs of jeans, because I wear them pretty frequently. But I buy my clothes at thrift stores, and for a long time I only had one pair of jeans because I couldn’t find any additional ones that I liked. For a while I thought I might have to break down and buy some new, but then I decided to just try a one-jeans life for a bit. Spoiler alert - it was fine. I wore my corduroys and my fleece leggings. I never did get any additional pairs of jeans (until that pair wore out and I replaced the jeans and corduroys with two pairs of jeans). It’s a silly example, but what I think I need (3 pairs of jeans!) is not always what I really need. So taking away options and decisions in my life helps me to understand what really matters to me. This also applies to things I spend money on. Am I happier when I spend money on Netflix? Turns out - not really. Will I regret not buying lunch at work every day? So far, definitely not. Limiting my options and taking away certain decisions challenges me to find the limits of my own life -not a life I’ve been told to have, or have slowly fallen into - but a life full of the things I value.
For Alex and I, simplicity is one our core values as a family. We want to identify the useless fluff (not the fun fluff), the “hangers-on”, and the superfluous parts of our life that are bringing us down and get rid of them in order to focus on what we truly value. And eliminating and reducing my choices and decisions is a big part of trying to figure out exactly what those superfluous things are (because it’s not always obvious!). Understanding decision fatigue helped me recognize it in my own life and start to experiment with pushing my comfort limits and figure out what can be taken away. So far, I am finding a huge sense of relief in identifying what I truly like and value and then focusing only on that (my eight necklaces are so happy looking and I’ve been surprised at how many pockets of time open up without Netflix). To my own surprise, I have found a deep feeling of freedom in limiting my own options and taking things out of my life.
Further Reading: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
What daily decisions annoy you? Where do you see decision fatigue in your own life? What decisions or options could you completely eliminate to free up time, physical space, or mental space?