Nowadays, we face an abundance of decisions. Ads bombard us, TV channels have gone from a few of good quality to what feels like a million rubbish ones, not to mention the choices we have to make around work and family. Choices, choices, choices, everywhere you look. We often end our days exhausted, not necessarily because of physical activity. More often than not, it is because we’ve made so many decisions.
But what is the effect of making too many decisions in a day? There is a fascinating case highlighted in a decade old New York Times article, which starts with the example of three criminals appearing before a parole board.
There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences… Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70% of the time, while those that appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10% of the time.
The article then goes onto point out that the judges’ behaviour was not as sinister as these figures suggest, but rather to do with the fact that the mental work of ruling case after case over the course of a day, wore them down.
This phenomenon is not only worrisome for parole seeking criminals but also for us in our everyday lives. Because of decreased mental energy caused by too many decisions, we may look for shortcuts. One way is to become reckless and act impulsively (ever seen a sportsperson late in a game make a decision that makes you want to throw your remote at the TV?) and the other is to do nothing (the surest way for our problems to pile up).
So, what can be done?
1) Pick your battles
You’ll want to remove as much ‘clutter’ from your day as possible. Effective routines are good for this in helping to eliminate decision making. For example, how often are you wondering if you should brush your teeth or not? Most of the time it is a force of habit we don’t think twice about.
You could wear the same style of clothes each day, take the same route to work, go to the same shop for coffee, eat the same meal plan *wink wink* - all good ways of making sure you don’t expend mental energy on the relatively unimportant things. Pick what decisions you want to spend energy on, then simplify or automate the rest.
2) Take advantage of the Zeigarnik effect
Named after Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, this effect suggests that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. As a result, if you start a task, you become obsessed with finishing it. If you stop while the going is good, your subconscious will work on it whilst you’re doing something else. When you come back, it will be easier to start without having to consciously decide to do so. Ernest Hemingway would sometimes stop writing for the day mid-sentence!
3) Prioritise hard decisions earlier
Try to make key decisions when your energy levels are highest. This often means setting to work on tasks that are most important earlier in the day. Not only are we otherwise susceptible to the afternoon lull, which lowers our performance levels, but by setting about the most important tasks first, we avoid the mental strain of too many decisions which build up throughout the day.
4) Power nap
Speaking of afternoon lulls, when this hits, if you have the time and ability to, perhaps take a quick power nap. Churchill did, and it wasn’t just because he drank whiskey for breakfast. Research has shown that power naps help clear our minds. By sleeping, or so the ‘housekeeping theory’ suggests, the brain prunes away some of the connections between neurons, making space for whatever new information we’ll come across when we wake up. Good sleep is vital for this. It’s why, after a bad night’s sleep, we find it hard to concentrate or learn new things the next day.