Why decisions drive you crazy

What does writing a book, going through a divorce, starting a company and buying a house have in common?

They all involve a high level of decision making.

Ever since I started writing this book, I’ve noticed two things:

1. The number of unmade decisions in my head

Writing a book is filled with uncertainty. Like any creative process, there’s a vision to start with – an idea that sparkles just enough to draw us in – and there’s the finished product at the end, which may or may not be how we imagined. But in between is this vast empty wild land of unchartered territory. A blank canvas, waiting for me to fill with words. Decision upon decision to be made.

What to write about? What to write about first? Which direction to take? What to include, what not to include? Which chapter to put this in. How to structure? What to expand on? Where to start?

I didn’t even notice I was carrying decisions around in my head, until a simple “what’s for tea?” on the walk back from school made me feel as if someone had just pulled me away from a high wire trapeze act and dumped me in the middle of a rugby game. It was one decision too many.

2. When everything is uncertain, I crave certainty

Never has the pull of Bejeweled been stronger. The pull to go and blast a few of those diamonds off the screen. Total waste of time, but boy does it feel good to be able to do something where you know what you’re doing.

Maybe that’s why it’s only when we’re procrastinating that the prospect of sorting the sock drawer, watering the plants or doing the ironing become incredibly attractive. Because in the midst of uncertainty, we just want a hit of certainty. To do something where we know exactly what we need to do, and not have to figure anything out.

Turns out there’s a name for this – which means I’m not completely crazy (and neither are you, if you’re nodding away to this).

Decision fatigue

Making decisions is hard work. Even on the days when it feels like you haven’t done anything, made any progress or have anything to show for it (perhaps especially those days), the chances are you’ve been doing a lot of mental heavy lifting.

Research into Decision Fatigue suggests that our ability to make decisions is like a muscle. Yes you can gradually build it up to be stronger and more resilient, but at the end of the day it always gets tired. In fact, every decision you makes is like another rep in a workout. That’s why parole board judges were found to be more likely to give favourable rulings at the beginning of the day, or after a lunch break. As the day goes on, decision fatigue sets in, and they are more likely to settle for the default answer: No.

That’s why at the end of a full day’s training I can find myself staring at a menu unable to choose something to eat. Or why I find so much rest in letting someone else be in charge. And when I’m deep in the throes of writing, an extra decision, however benign, can make me go stir crazy. “What do you mean you can’t find any socks?

The more decisions we have to make in a sustained period, the harder each one will become and the more likely we will be to default to the easiest decision. Whether that’s to grab the nearest bar of chocolate, crash on the sofa, walk away from that important-but-tricky conversation, explode in a fit of road rage or say “yes” to that extra piece of responsibility you haven’t quite figured out how to extricate yourself from.

And the more our judgement will deteriorate too. Other studies showed that people were more susceptible to impulse purchases and reckless decisions when suffering from decision fatigue. I know I certainly came back from a trip this week wondering why I felt I had to buy something from duty free (yes I know I was in Switzerland and it was chocolate but seriously, at those prices?!)

Give yourself a break

If you’re in a season of high uncertainty – whether you’re involved in a creative project like writing a book, in charge of a high stakes project, or going through a season of change at work or in your personal life – honour the fact that your brain is doing some pretty taxing work and make some concessions.

  • Let someone else choose what you have for dinner.
  • Work out what you’re wearing at the beginning of the week.
  • Let go of the unimportant decisions (So what if the kids want to change into their pyjamas at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon? Does it really matter which shade of blue you go for? And do you really need to buy something from duty free?)
  • Pace yourself: limit the amount of high decision making projects you have on the go. Maybe wait until you’ve finished the book before you start redecorating the bedroom…
  • Ask for help. Get a fresh perspective or ask a colleague to help you make a decision. I called Graham a few weeks ago to ask his decision on something I normally could have figured out for myself. “I’m suffering from decision fatigue” I told him. “What do I need to do here?” In about 3 minutes he’d worked it out and saved me hours of deliberating. We all have times when we’re overloaded with decision fatigue. The more we can recognise that in ourselves and each other, the more we can help and ask for help.

Oh and if you do need to satisfy your craving for instant hit go for something you won’t regret too much – grab the bar of chocolate and leave the credit card out of sight perhaps? Or maybe do the ironing instead of playing on that game. On second thoughts…

  • Jackie

    Spot on, Grace! I seem to have permanent decision fatigue and the kids don’t help with what they want for tea. I might try doing the ironing – chocolate is more appealing though 🙂

    • Isn’t it just? 🙂 Sometimes I tell the kids to go sort it out between them when they disagree. You can have it when you’ve worked out one solution between you (although I do have to decide on the parameters first!)

  • Ali C-S

    Yep, I get this totally and what to have for dinner quite often is that question that tips me over the edge!

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