to decide or not to decide, that is the question

12/03/2012

by renita kalhorn

A married couple was celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. At the party everybody wanted to know how they managed to stay married so long in this day and age.

The husband responded, “When we were first married we came to an agreement – I would make all the major decisions and my wife would make all the minor decisions. And now, after 60 years of marriage, I can truthfully say that we have never needed to make a MAJOR decision.

He’s on to something.

Everyday, throughout the day, we’re faced with hundreds of decisions. Major or minor, each one requires brainpower as we process information, weigh the alternatives and make a choice. Eventually, this leads to what researchers call decision fatigue and the harder each decision becomes. (If you think about the last time you bought a camera, a car or even a new toothpaste, you know what I’m talking about.)

At that point, our judgment falters and our brain starts to take shortcuts, like doing something reckless or doing nothing at all. (This helps explain why ordinarily sensible people make that impulse buy at the checkout counter and why married politicians send inappropriate photos on Twitter.)

Thing is, if we’re in reactive mode simply making decisions as they pop up, we’re using up precious brainpower on trivial decisions, like what to eat for breakfast or which movie to download. Then, when it comes time to make decisions that actually have a lasting impact on our work and relationships, we’re pooped.

Make fewer decisions

Leo Widrich, the co-founder of start-up Buffer and one of the speakers I interviewed in the Mental Toughness Summit, has adopted a very deliberate strategy for decision-making: make less of them.

“If someone suggests a place to get dinner, I say yes. If someone asks to do something on the weekend, I say yes. I don’t own any clothes apart from white t-shirts (and one black Buffer t-shirt), so I don’t have to decide what to wear. I listen to the same music I’ve always listened to, if someone suggests some new music, I say yes and listen to it.”

Of course, there are times where the default is “no” but Leo’s streamlined the number of decisions he has to think about to those he believes will make a difference to his long-term success and happiness.

Get rid of redundant thinking

Another way to simplify your life is by reducing redundant decisions and automating your schedule.

Make a list of the activities you want or need to do on a regular, repeated basis – team meetings, client prospecting, monthly report-writing, yoga class, poker night. Then designate a specific day or time for them in your calendar. This dramatically simplifies the process of figuring out when you’re going to do them – and also makes it more likely that you’ll do them (cold-calling, I’m talking to you).

Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse, demonstrates this disciplined approach by structuring his week according to business area: Monday, he focuses on Product issues, Tuesday on Video & Teaching, and so on.

Rather than making your life rigid and fixed, automating means you spend less mental energy on making the same boring decisions over and over, which frees up creativity and allows you to be spontaneous where it counts.

Now it’s your turn: how can you apply these strategies to YOUR life?

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