The relief of making fewer decisions

Life Balance

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The relief of making fewer decisions

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Want to increase your will power? Want to smooth out the path toward your goals? Make fewer decisions.

That's the lesson that I've taken away from research conducted by University of Minnesota professor Kathleen Vohs. Through extensive studies, she has found that people have a limited amount of cognitive energy to give to decision-making.

If they dither away that energy on minor decisions, they don't have enough left to make major ones.

Do you ever get caught in that trap of constant decision-making? Where every little action of the day seems to present you with too many choices?

I know I do -- and I know that my productivity and sense of satisfaction plummet on days when I let myself stay in that trap.

Thanks to Vohs' research, now I understand better why this happens.

The simplest solution I've found -- one shared by great performers in all walks of life -- is to automate most of your decisions. Here are some obvious examples: 

  1. Don't be like a hung-over college student, deciding each night when to set the alarm for the next morning. Get up at the same time every day.
  2. Simplify getting dressed for work like I do. Even though I have a varied wardrobe, almost everything in my closet matches everything else, so all I have to do is make sure that my socks and belt go with whichever shoes I pick out.
  3. If you're committed to losing weight, simplify your diet like a diabetic or someone with food allergies would. You don't need to agonize over each decision about whether to eat, say, ice cream, because you've made the informed decision, once for all, that ice cream is off of your menu.
  4. If you're getting in better shape, don't make a long series of decisions, day in and day out, about when, where, and how you're going to work out. Set a schedule and stick with it.
  5. In the office, don't flit in and out of your e-mail all day, constantly rejiggering your priorities. Instead, work in the longest chunks you can manage, designating certain times of the day for handling e-mail, but most of your time to plowing through the major work on your plate.
  6. If your finances have been suffering, set a budget, set up automated payments if that makes sense, and then forget it. You don't have to get creative: just stick with the program.

I mentioned that great performers routinely follow this approach. People like violinist Itzhak Perlman, tennis champion Martina Navratilova, or football great Jerry Rice have long been famous for sticking with practice regimes that are far more intense and regimented than most of us manage.

But here's the thing: I believe that the rest of us could copy that regularity -- we just don't. In many cases, I think, it's because we're too busy wasting our time and our mental energy on inconsequential decisions about the piddling details of day-to-day life, rather than automating all those little tasks and focusing our energy on the projects and priorities that mean the most to us.

My take on this is hardly new. More than a century ago, the great psychologist William James talked about the unlimited power of good habits -- and the sorry spectacle created by someone who doesn't build those habits:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automation, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their proper work. There is no more miserable person than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of deliberation. Half the time of such a [person] goes to deciding or regretting matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.

James had it right back then, as Professor Vohs confirms for us today.

The moral of the story: free yourself up to concentrate on the big things in your life by building simple, orderly habits that eliminate the need to make decisions about the little things.

Please tell me: How are YOU going to do this in the coming week?


Show, Don't Tell, Your Priorities

The Sustained Behavior of Being Organized -- Including Your Finances

The Power of the Short To-Do List


Tim Walker

Tim is a writer, marketer, and social media pro in Austin. He joined CareOne's blogging team as a contributing writer for the Life Balance blog in 2009. As a blogger who has personally overcome debt challenges, he draws from his own experience to provide tips on living a balanced life and keeping fit. You can read more of his thoughts (on fitness and everything else) at his personal blog, What I've Learned So Far. Compensated CareOne Blogger

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  • There's an old idea in personal development -- probably first espoused by Dr. Maxwell Maltz -- that it

  • You may not choose to wear the same thing every day, but when it comes to your finances you should choose to do the same things, day by day and month by month.

  • One of the great sources of agony and failure, I believe, is the unwillingness to make decisions briskly and stick with them.

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