This has been a year of big decisions — many of them out of our hands, admittedly, but by recent estimates, the average adult still has to make some 35,000 choices a day, from the trivial to the life-changing. That sounds soul-wearing enough, before you learn that the quality of our decision-making actually erodes with every choice we make: each one depleting willpower, which researchers from Florida State University discovered is a resource that gets “used up” and is replenished by rest, much like a muscle. No wonder decision-making itself has become a boom science, with online courses on offer at Stanford University in California. Of course, technology has only added to our choice-burden, with every email or social media update eating into our mental bandwidth.
Even people who appear spectacularly together fall prey to decision fatigue; Hillary Clinton’s hacked e-mails revealed this summer that her aides had identified her as a fellow sufferer. Since indecision often goes hand in hand with anxiety, we pay the price with our mental health, too. “We’re frequently indecisive when we’re feeling down, because our brain is too sensitive to losses or disappointment,” explains UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb. “We can’t cope with making the ‘wrong’ choice — so we protect ourselves.”
Basically, by making no choices at all. This sounds painfully familiar. Like many people, my chronic indecision and fear of change go hand in hand. So if I want 2017 to be the year of getting things done, I decide I need to seek help. Ellen Bard, a psychologist and motivation expert, has 15 years’ experience in helping people to get better at making decisions. She’s instantly reassuring, telling me that a fear of making decisions is normal.
“We think that as soon as we commit, we rule out all the alternatives. But actually, there are very few decisions you can never go back on.”
Bar parenthood, I conclude, she’s right: everything else is reversible, if necessary. “Once you realise this,” she says, “it’s very freeing. Life isn’t a chess game; we don’t need to think 50 moves ahead, and there is no perfect decision or ideal solution — ever.” Every decision will have its pros and cons — accepting this speeds up decision-making and helps us relax about choosing an option. “You just need to establish what the critical criteria are, then make a decision with these in mind, accepting that sometimes you’ll get it wrong,” says Bard.
This brings me out in a cold sweat. Having been brought up to be a people-pleaser, I don’t like being told off, and have a phobia of failure. Bard commiserates: “The idea that sometimes you will make mistakes is hard to swallow. But being comfortable with errors is crucial. You can’t waste energy beating yourself up. You need to take action, then move on.”
I set myself a challenge: to try out change theories from the worlds of business, psychology and neuroscience, in my mission to become a lean, mean decision-making machine.
I start ploughing through academic journals and contacting experts to establish the best strategies for making better, swifter and, crucially, fewer decisions. First, I learn we all need to give our bandwidth a break. A study from Denmark’s Happiness Research Institute showed that regular Facebook users who took a sabbatical from the social media site were 55 per cent less stressed and experienced better concentration levels (which aids better decision-making) in just seven days.
On the one hand, I’m flabbergasted; on the other hand — the one scrolling through five years of someone else’s Facebook photos — I’m not surprised at all. Being alive is arduous enough without unnecessarily exposing ourselves to incessant one-upmanship, clickbait, links and distractions. I resolve to go cold turkey, deleting the Facebook app on my phone. I try to limit my use of Twitter and vow only to check email three times a day, switching to “airplane mode” to avoid that distracting “ping” whenever possible. I’m also a classic multi-tasker — something I considered an asset until reading research from Stanford proving that multi-taskers are less productive, experience difficulties concentrating, and expend unnecessary brainpower.
A study from the University of London found that multi-taskers experience declines in IQ similar to heavy cannabis users or chronic insomniacs, with many regressing to the IQ levels of an eight-year-old. As a writer who’s also a parent, news junkie and fan of multi-screen viewing (such as tweeting during The Apprentice), this hits a nerve. There is plenty of multi-tasking in my life that’s unavoidable: I regularly have to do my job while being cried at by my toddler and bounced at by my dog. But reading all the news at the same the time could be a bit much.
As my mother recently pointed out: “Life’s not one long rehearsal for an appearance on Question Time” It’s good to care, but we don’t get extra points for reading everything. In fact, we get weary, which contributes to further indecision. One way of preserving mental energy is to streamline the number of unnecessary decisions we make each day with habits that help us avoid squandering our limited self-control.
“If you regularly find yourself struggling to decide what to have for lunch and end up reaching for the biscuit tin, you need to plan ahead and form healthier habits,” suggests Dr Benjamin Gardner, an expert in behaviour change at King’s College London. “Eating something you’ve already prepared takes the choice away — and avoids exhausting your willpower.”
So I bake batches of lasagne to avoid another takeaway dinner, make soup and shop online, so I can click the same list every week. Clothes are next, and I’m delighted to learn that my typical work uniform of jeans and a black jumper isn’t just laziness on my part: I’m channelling Barack Obama. The outgoing US president stuck to grey or blue suits to minimise “non-critical” decision-making in the mornings. Ditto Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, with his grey T-shirt and hoodie, and the late Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, with his Milk Tray Man signature style.
Clothed, fed, digitally detoxed and single tasking, I feel like a paragon of virtue. There’s just one problem: I’m still anxious. Fortunately, scientists at Pennsylvania State University discovered that by scheduling specific “worry time”, we can fend off decision-inhibiting anxiety during the rest of our day. All we need to do is set aside 15 to 30 minutes at the same time each day to agonise. I start writing down all my “what if” thoughts as they occur to me. These range from the work-related (will I meet those deadlines?) to the domestic, large and small (where should we live? Should I switch to semi-skimmed milk?). After 15 minutes, I stop, go outside, and fill my lungs with fresh, worry-free air. I try another session the following day and by the end of the week, I haven’t done nearly so much continuous fretting as normal.
Instead of accepting low-level worry as the soundtrack to my day, I have the headspace to think more clearly and concentrate. Whenever worries pop up outside of their allotted time, I dismiss them, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be dealt with later.
A month later, I’m less fretful and surprisingly productive. I no longer experience nausea when the prospect of “choosing” is dangled in front of me. And because I’ve cut down on unnecessary decision-making, there are fewer choices to be made anyway. I don’t just have more energy, but a sneaking suspicion that I might even be in decision-fatigue recovery.