The human brain seems to be like a muscle: it needs exercise to stay strong. But like a muscle, you can over use it and sap its strength. The trick is to keep your brain focused, like an athlete stays “warmed up” before an event, without tiring it.
I mention this because I started thinking about how many decisions we make every day. Which shirt should I wear? What do I want for lunch? Is the property I’m evaluating a good deal or a money pit? Does the five second rule apply to raw hamburger patties?
In his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin cites a study that shows simply making too many decisions during a day decreases our capacity to make good decisions. More importantly, it doesn’t matter if the decisions are fateful or trivial. Simply making a series of decisions tires the brain. It’s like you run out of decision fuel.
If we make a series of trivial decisions and then are faced with an important one, we are less likely to decide well than if we face the important decision “rested.”
But we each have to make dozens if not hundreds of decisions every day! What can we do to make better ones? One strategy is to reduce the number of decisions by offloading them to systems or other people. Here are a few suggestions:
- Limit your clothing options.
Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs wore nearly identical clothes every day. Maybe you don’t have to go to that extreme, but it is one less trivial decision to make every day. Alternatively, you could arrange your closet to rotate though your clothes in some kind of system—blue on Mondays—or by what the most important item in your calendar is—banking, crawling around a prospective house, meeting clients, and so on.
- Offload your schedule.
You’ve seen industry moguls and presidents portrayed in movies where their assistant interrupts a conversation saying, “Mr. President, we have to leave now if you’re going to make your appointment with the ambassador.” Delegating your schedule to an assistant enables you to pay full attention to the task at hand without having to make a decision about a non-vital matter. You and I may not be able to afford a full time assistant to keep us on schedule, but more people on this planet have a smart phone with scheduling software than have a toilet in their house. We just have to pay attention to it.
- Delegate your routing choices.
While we’re on the topic of smart phones and assistants. If you can’t hire a driver to get you where you’re going, use your phone’s mapping software. I like Google Maps best because I don’t have to do much with it to get it to tell me where to go. (Lots of people tell me where to go.) Even when I know the route “like the back of my hand,” having the phone tell me when I need to make a turn reduces the number of trivial decisions I have to make every day. It also lets me pay more attention to traffic conditions and has better information about traffic jams than I do.
- Always go with the special.
I almost always order the daily special in restaurants. Again, it’s one less trivial decision I have to make. And if I can’t trust the restaurant’s daily special to be good, maybe I need to choose a different restaurant. Damn! That’s another trivial decision to offload. Where would you like to have lunch today?
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