Never before in human history have we faced such an abundance of choice. Leaps in technology and economic prosperity have seen us confronting a larger and distinct set of decisions each day. Countless additional choices have been placed, quite literally, into the palms of our hands.
In an age of consumerism and convenience, most of us have embraced the wonder of these choices. After all, more choices should mean better outcomes, right? Like cheaper and higher quality goods, more efficient services, better education, and so on. And this generally holds true at an overall level. More choice has undoubtedly played its part in making us more prosperous.
But there’s a problem. Science shows us that as we face more and more decisions, the quality of our decision making diminishes. We need to know how to optimise our decision making in our new choice-packed world. And minimalism offers some answers.
The neurological problem of too much choice
Research tells us we have two neurological modes for making decisions. Our first mode is automatic and instinctive. In this mode we take quick and often impulsive decisions using our intuition. Our second mode, on the other hand, is a more conscious and deliberate system, and in this mode we take decisions based on rational and analytical evaluation.
Of course, in an ideal world we’d take all our important decisions using the second mode. That way we’d give ourselves more chance of taking better decisions. But it’s not that simple. You see, our second mode of decision making is finite. And as our brains get tired, our decision making begins to shift to our automatic and intuitive mode of decision making.
This effect is known as ‘decision fatigue’, and it can have a marked impact on the quality of our decisions. We can see this effect in full force, for example, in supermarkets. Our grocery stores deliberately seek to extend our shopping time to reach neurological attrition and peak impulsivity. And brain-scanning research has even visually demonstrated decision fatigue as our brains tire in a consumer environment.
But not only does decision fatigue impact the quality of connected decisions, it can also impact willpower and self-regulation in unrelated areas. For example, our day’s decision fatigue can exhaust subsequent willpower to go to the gym, cook a healthier meal, or even self-regulate our behaviour. Psychologists call this ‘ego depletion’, and it’s been demonstrated in various pieces of research by Roy Baumeister, among others.
And our tired brains can also lead us the other way. To avoid compromising decision quality, research has shown decision fatigue can lead people to avoid decisions entirely, in a phenomenon known as ‘decision avoidance’.
How we waste our mental energy
So we can see that too many decisions wears down our rational thinking mode, potentially impacting the quality of our decision making. But in day-to-day life, how do we suffer from decision fatigue?
Throughout our days we’re faced with a plethora of excessive and unimportant decisions. Which shoes should you wear to work? What update should you put on social media? What type of coffee should you order? Should you respond to that mobile notification?
As we take these decisions, we’re wasting a finite resource throughout our day. In short, we’re burning precious rational fuel on decisions that don’t really matter. And as we expend that mental energy, we leave ourselves ripe for decision fatigue and the consequences that science shows us.
Worse still, we’re not just wasting mental energy on the decisions themselves. We’re expending energy reflecting on the decisions. Should you have posted that update on social media? Why haven’t you got more likes? Should you have ordered that latte? Aren’t you on a diet? Shouldn’t you have responded to that mobile notification earlier?
Our mini-decisions can snowball and before we know it, they can become the primary fuel burner. This means important decisions begin to be compromised as our decision fatigue takes grip from all the earlier unimportant decisions and exhausting reflections.
Minimalism and decision making
If we want to stop wasting mental energy on these unimportant decisions, we need to eliminate choices that don’t matter. This is the essence of minimalist decision making. It’s not a mission to have your possessions reduced to 20 objects that fit into one suitcase. Instead, it’s a process of simplification to reduce decision fatigue and channel our finite mental energy into decisions that matter.
Be it getting rid of physical stuff or pointless daily activities, a minimalist approach can eliminate a lot of the non-value added decisions we waste energy on each day. And if you doubt the benefits, look no further than Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. They’ve both openly confessed to simplifying decisions on their wardrobes and diets to mitigate the risk of decision fatigue.
But aside from what we’re wearing and eating, there are rafts of things we can do to streamline our daily mass of decisions. Deciding whether to start working through those post-it notes on your desk or respond to emails? De-clutter your desk, streamline your list and better prioritise. Deciding whether to respond to that mobile notification? Switch off your mobile notifications during your most important decision windows. Deciding which email to respond to first? Make a decision and stick to it.
It’s not that hard to begin this shift in mental approach to decisions. In fact, if you’re on top of your personal finances, the chances are you’re already more minimalist than you think. Take the automation of your finances, for example. All we’re really doing here is reducing our number of potential personal finance decisions by automating the process. And the evidence shows huge benefits to our personal finances by eliminating these decisions.
The benefits of minimalist decision making
So as we develop a new focus on simplification, we can quickly reduce our number of decisions in the day. This preserves our rational-thinking fuel and mitigates the risk of decision fatigue. And at its heart, all we’re really doing here is prioritising in a distraction-filled world. What matters is that the benefits can be truly life changing.
Better decisions. By minimising unnecessary decisions and dedicating our mental energy to decisions that really matter, our decision making can benefit from a full tank of mental energy. We will have the mental energy to assess decisions that matter using our rational and analytical thinking mode.
More energy. Decision making burns energy – literally. And not just mental energy, but physical energy. In fact, Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have demonstrated our increased levels of glucose consumption as we confront a series of decisions. So invariably by reducing our unnecessary decisions through minimalism, we will have more energy to dedicate to other areas of our life.
More willpower and improved self-regulation. By reducing decision fatigue we can reduce the risk of ego depletion. And the science tells us that this can have a positive effect on our willpower and self-regulation. You never know, your newfound energy could even help you recommit to going to the gym after work and eat healthier meals.
Improved levels of creativity. Eliminating non-value adding decisions from your life is like a neurological de-clutter. And there’s ample anecdotal evidence that this approach stimulates higher levels of creativity. Removing the distractions and white noise can permit blue-sky thinking, unhindered by all the irrelevant stuff that was in your head before.
Why not give it a go?
“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
William James, the father of American psychology, wrote that back in 1890. His words have perhaps never been more relevant than today. In our distraction and choice abundant world, we need to simplify and get smarter with our neurological time.
So why not try to adopt some of these principles in your own life? Start small, eliminate decisions little by little, and slowly, surely, enjoy the psychological fruits.