How to make better decisions?

Raphael Reiter
July 16, 2023

Have you ever been to Ikea? If you have, then you know that feeling of exhaustion after a few hours there, putting all of your faith in 99 cents hotdogs and free coffee refills to give you a little much-needed boost.

Sure, some of that fatigue is because you are walking around for hours. But most of the fatigue doesn't come from that physical strain. Instead, it comes from the fact that we have to make a million decisions a minute.

You sit down, and you try to decide what to put where in your apartment. What types of shelves, what materials, what colours, what dispositions? And how are you going to transport all that? Will you make an effort or have it delivered?

So many decisions to make that at the end of the day, we are famished and exhausted. And the worst part, we still have to assemble that couch to sink in.

Ok, that is maybe a silly example, but it's the best I have this morning. What I want to illustrate here is what psychologists call "decision fatigue". The more choices we have, the more fatigued we get, so the worst our ability to make good (let alone creative) decisions become. That can be illustrated in finding a kitchen in Ikea or, more commonly, by an overwhelm of tasks and items on our to-do list. We have "so much to do" that our brains lose the ability to focus, concentrate, and make optimal decisions.

That creates an enormous amount of fatigue and exhaustion. And yes, even if you are not the president or the CEO of a huge company, you have too many choices to make in too little time.

Go to the supermarket to buy coffee. Chances are, you have over 100 choices for different coffees. Different brands, roasting techniques, and beans from other places are cultivated in various, more or less ethical ways. So many decisions to make.

Then, you go to the milk aisle. Cow milk, low fat, half fat, vegan milk, organic, local, you name it. 100 more to choose from. This does contribute to the deterioration of the decisions you must make in the essential parts of your life (I am not saying that choosing the perfect coffee is not of the utmost importance...)

We need to reduce the choices we have to make in areas we can control. I am not saying you must only do your shopping in a small shop that sells only one type of milk and one type of coffee (although that might be a really cool concept you are free to steal!)

Ask yourself, in what area of your life can you reduce the number of choices and decisions you must make?

What can go on auto-pilot?

What can be delegated?

How can you reduce the amount of non-essential tasks, non-important to-dos and only really focus your decision making energy on what is essential at that particular time?

Do that, and you will gain clarity, stillness, and brainpower to act where it really matters. Don't do that, and your mind will be split in millions of ways, hopping about in millions of directions.

How can we do that more concretely?

Every time you write down an item in your to-do list, or every time you say yes to an event (social AND professional), take an extra five minutes to think: Is this essential to my goals? Is this the best use of my time? Should I better say no, so that I can save on some brainpower to do my most important work? From this filtering will come more minor un-important decisions to make.

Now I can understand the irony - I am asking you to make more decisions to make ... fewer decisions. But not all decisions are equal. The decision to filter time-consuming, non-essential tasks and events is one of the critical decisions to make that you should not avoid. The alternative is going to default and saying yes or no to everything and anything. Instead, decide what is essential to do, and do only that.

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