Friday, October 21, 2016

The Power of Small Decisions: Part 2: Freeing up Mental Space

Shetland Islands

A few years ago I began walking at a certain park. I walked in the same direction every morning, wearing pretty much the same thing, at the same time. Two laps equaling 3 miles every day unless the weather was brutal. I had been doing it for years when, one morning a friend, who wanted to start walking, met me. We had a short discussion where we decided, which direction to walk, how many laps, and on the second lap whether or not to keep walking the same direction.

It wasn't the relaxing experience for me that it normally was, not because I didn't enjoy my friend's company, but because suddenly I wasn't just walking I was making a whole bunch of decisions about it.

Remember yesterday when we covered how important the thousands of small decisions we make every day are? If the myriad of decisions we have to make can affect our days and thus our lives, let's talk about how to make them work for us.

But first, what makes decision making so tiring?

Have you ever seen Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerburg interviewed and thought he looked like an idiot wearing that same gray t-shirt all the time? Did you ever wonder why Steve Jobs was stuck in that black shirt and blue jean combo? There's actually a spark of genius in putting things like what to wear or what to eat for lunch every day on autopilot.

When Zuckerburg was asked about his attire in an in an interview He said: "I really want to clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community." He's also said that he doesn't want to spend time making silly or "frivolous" choices so he can spend time building the best products and services. He's onto something there.

You see, your brain only has so much decision-making power for the day.

Makes sense, right?  Have you ever noticed how exhausted you feel when trying to make a big decision? Have you ever become overwhelmed by all the choices when you were shopping for something and left the store empty handed?

I am actually the queen of this.   

Researchers knew that big decision-making tasks like taking the SAT made people less able to focus later in the day. It's not just big decisions that zap our cognitive resources. The latest studies prove that decision making, in general, becomes harder during the day the more we do it.

This is why at the end of the day after you have made thousands of decisions, some large and some small, you stand in front of the pantry overwhelmed with the prospect of dinner.  You wonder how throwing something together to eat can be such a challenge.  The answer is that it's the end of the day and your brain only has so much decision-making ability. If you used it all up at work, it means pizza...again.

So in this world of unlimited options how can we guard our ability to make good judgments? We can follow the lead of President Obama who explained in a Vanity Fair interview why he wears a gray or blue suit every day: ‘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."

Food and clothes are actually two great areas to put autopilot decision-making to work for you.

Put as many things as you can on autopilot and forget them. Don't try to reinvent the wheel every time you do anything. Originality in the tedious and mundane is pointless. When you have some extra time check out some of the Pinterest boards about building a capsule wardrobe or meal planning for a month. We can't eliminate decision making about all the tedious things of life but we can batch a lot of the same kinds of small decisions together and be done for a while.

Do a 5-minute check of your daily activities and determine (yes, decide!) where you can create simplicity in your life. Maybe it means wearing almost the same thing every day, or deciding you'll have a salad for lunch. Do your best to make your autopilot decisions GREAT ones. Choose the healthiest options and you'll shave off calories and build in exercise without thinking too much about it.

Use your 5-minute exercise to find areas where you can make better choices one time and then get on with painting your masterpiece or writing that book with your newly found mental space.


  1. My husband is better at this than I am. I will consider which decisions are already on auto pilot and which ones I still fret about everyday.

  2. Men have a super advantage in the wardrobe department in that their clothes don't offer them all that many choices to begin with. You never see them in front of the mirror standing on one leg with two different shoes trying on to figure out which one to wear. My husband doesn't care so much about what he eats as he does not starving.

    Like you, I struggle more, but I'm working on it!


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