When Vanity Fair ran a lengthy profile of President Obama in 2012, one of the most repeated anecdotes was that the president wears only blue or gray suits. As he explained to writer Michael Lewis, "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 other decisions to make."
He’s on to something. Decision fatigue is real. One famous study of parole judges found that they were more likely to stick with the status quo (denying parole) after facing hours of other cases. The more you choose, the less you are able to choose in a calm, sober fashion.
Fortunately, a few strategies can help you structure your life to pare down your own decisions. Even if they’re not as consequential as the president’s, it never hurts to focus on what matters.
The first decision people waste energy on is what time to get up in the morning. Hitting the snooze button forces you to decide, over and over, whether you intend to get out of bed. You burn up precious willpower before you’ve done anything at all.
Instead, make the decision the night before. If you want to sleep until the last possible minute, great. But set your alarm for that time, rather than fooling yourself that you’ll get up 30 minutes earlier.
Obama’s approach of limited wardrobe choices has a lot going for it. Joshua Dziabiak, cofounder and COO of online insurance hub The Zebra, wears a black V-neck shirt pretty much every day. He owns more than 50 of them. "People only have so much mental bandwidth," he says. "In the world of startups, as entrepreneurs, you’re constantly faced with making decisions, so the last thing you want to soak up bandwidth on is what shirt or what pair of jeans you want to wear in the morning."
This won’t work for everyone. Women tend to face an expectation of more varied fare, as do people in visually oriented industries. But you can tweak the concept. Pull together a "look book"—a binder with pictures of outfits that look decent on you, perhaps put together by someone who knows something about fashion. Rotate through the outfits, and you’ll always look nice while preserving the brainless aspect (pro tip: you might want to choose seven or nine outfits in your work rotation, rather than five or 10, so you’re not always wearing the same things on Mondays).
Deciding what to eat when you’re hungry not only induces decision fatigue, you risk unhealthy choices. A better approach? Put meals on autopilot unless it’s a special occasion. Dziabiak buys a month’s worth of Healthy Choice frozen entrees at a time and has one for lunch each day. If you do a lot of business lunches in restaurants, choose a standard option (e.g. chicken Caesar salad) so you don’t waste time hunting through the menu.
Create at least a few family meal traditions like Taco Tuesday, Pizza Fridays, Meatless Mondays, or pancakes on Saturday morning. Not only does this simplify grocery shopping, no one has to plan dinner at 7 o’clock when everyone’s starving.
When you show up at work, it’s game time. You’re ready to focus—if you know what to focus on. Why waste energy deciding? Plan your day the night before so you’ll tackle your important priorities while you’re fresh.
Better yet, turn important-but-not-urgent work tasks into habits. You might always use Tuesday mornings for strategic planning, or Thursdays for working on your book proposal. Plans mean doing the right thing isn’t a decision. It’s as mindless as brushing your teeth.
Hiring the right people is an important decision that deserves all the brainpower you can throw at it. But after that, micromanagement both frustrates your talent and wastes your energy. Question what needs your input.
Dziabiak reports that managers are particularly prone to meddling with design elements, because they can see them. But "I cannot fathom telling my engineers how to code," he says, and it’s the same thing with design: "I shouldn’t be trying to dictate what color something is, how many pixels wide it is."
If someone wants you to be a sounding board, great, but smart management is about telling people, "Do whatever you think is best. That’s why I hired you and I trust you."