Why making a decision can be so hard

Choices! Every day we have to make them. Over the last few decades the number of choices we have had to make has increased dramatically. And it can feel exhausting. The short 5 minute video below humorously and helpfully explains this:

This issue of overwhelming choices has been exponentially increasing to have a dramatic impact on our often already busy and over-streteched lives.

It was back in the 1990s that perhaps Peter Drucker first predicated this decision fatigue when he wrote:

“In a few hundred years, when the history of the our time is written from a long term perspective, it is likely that the most important event those historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is the unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time – literally – substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.”

Drucker was right when he said we as a society have been totally unprepared for this dramatic shift, particularly in the industrialised world.
What he is saying is that the biggest change in society that has crept up on us is the huge array of choices in modern life. Those choices range from what cereal am I going to have in the morning (according to Wikipedia there are over 500 in the Western world!) to all the things I can choose to do with my time.

This has gradually and exponentially increased such that we initially hardly noticed it, but it has now added an extra layer of stress and complexity to our already busy lives. As the video describes apparently in 1990 the average American supermarket had 9,000 products to choose from. By 2015 that had shot up dramatically to 40,000. Apparently we need only about 150 to fulfil our general day to day needs. And that is just in the area of food shopping.

It is rather like the proverbial frog in the water pot. Gradually the temperature is being increased and we are beginning to boil! Some have estimated that the average person in the Western world has to make as many as 35,000 decisions every day. That in of itself sounds exhausting!

Why does this matter?

Because our brains struggle to tell the difference between a small decision and a major one. We still expend energy to make a choice. Without respite the quality of our decisions deteriorates over time. Just as our muscles fatigue from an excessive period of exercise, so our minds fatigue from an excessive period of decision making.

Indeed the root of the word ‘decide’ is to kill off and with so many choices to make there is always the fear that by making one choice we are missing out on a better option.

The result is what has commonly been described as ‘analysis paralysis’. We have so many choices we don’t make any decision at all.

Stress, fatigue and our emotions all affect us. There is a fascinating Israeli research study from Ben Gurion University of the Negev. It looked at the results of 1,112 parole board hearings in Israeli prisons, over a ten month period. The results were striking. They showed that the odds that prisoners will be successfully paroled start off fairly high at around 65% and quickly plummet to nothing over a few hours. After the judges have returned from their breaks, the odds abruptly climb back up to 65%, before resuming their downward slide. In other words a prisoner’s fate could hinge upon the point in the day when their case is heard.

Decision fatigue is something that really exists for all of us. In other words we all have a limit to the number of decisions we can make each day – after which we just go into shut down mode.

As a result some of the most successful people automate what they consider “insignificant decisions” so they can invest their limited attention on the bigger decisions. By reducing their daily decisions, they’re able to exert greater focus and energy on the ones they deem most important.

So for Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckenberg and Barack Obama this means pre-deciding their wardrobe.

As Obama told Vanity Fair magazine in 2012, “You see I wear only grey or blue suits. 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 decisions to make.”

Zuckerberg of Facebook said something similar during a public Q&A sessions when asked about wearing the same t-shirt every day: “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community…I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”

Reading these examples made me realise that I too have done something very similar as a psychiatrist. I have chosen to go to to work with certain suits over periods of time so as to not waste energy having to decide what I am going to wear!

Have you experienced something of this decision fatigue in your own life? What have you done to handle it?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “Why making a decision can be so hard

  1. Supermarket shopping online means I can just go down the usuals list and only stray into the main “aisles ” if I want something specific.

  2. I have decision fatigue all the time when it comes to activities and events. I force myself to ask if I really want to participate. If the answer is no, I skip it.

    • That is a good point Connie. By clarifying how committed I really am to something it helps to avoid drifting into something half-heartedly and then being overwhelmed by many things I am only half-hearted about.

  3. Analysis paralysis …. yes agree with that. Seen that many times at work and esp at church meetings (where everyone seems to suddenly be an expert and so the possibilities are endless). Even in restaurants I always seem to want what somebody else has ordered over and above whatever i have :-). I think the choices I really object to are things like which energy company to use and where to invest my pension. I never wanted these choices – i wanted others to make these choices for me – sadly “progress” currently appears to always mean … more choice!

    • Yes I think that is the unspoken assumption that choice per se is always a good thing. We would appear to have taken it to an extreme.