May 27

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Decision Fatigue Kills Your Productivity and Joy

By decreasing our decision fatigue and choice overload, we can increase our joy and productivity.

Like an explorer who stumbles across a hidden chest of gold, I accidentally arrived at that conclusion, only to realize that science confirmed it. 

My unexpected discovery began when I became a vegan in 2012. Shortly thereafter, I noticed a highly under-appreciated benefit of a plant-based life.

It’s something nobody ever talks about.

It has nothing to do with health, the environment, ethics, or spiritual considerations.

Ironically, this wonderful benefit is the one thing people often pity me for whenever I mention I’m vegan:

It’s about limiting choices.

How limitation liberated me from decision fatigue

“Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.” ― G.K. Chesterton

When I became a vegan, a lot of choices were suddenly off the table. Buying a leather jacket. Buying cosmetics that were animal tested or contained animal ingredients. Eating something with animal ingredients.

It sounds like a hassle but in a world of over-abundance of options, this limitation felt incredibly liberating and freeing.

Whereas before it would take me a while to make a choice when I went to a restaurant, now all I had to do was find something that was plant-based.

Suddenly, I felt happier with whatever food I received. Instead of feeling the need to compare a gazillion options, I was grateful for the meal in front of me. For the first time, I grokked how fortunate I was for having enough vegan food.

Weirdly, though, people would often pity me for my lack of choices.

I sometimes tried to tell them how liberating it was but they didn’t quite get my point. It can’t be fully explained, only experienced… and they were too busy navigating their over-abundance of choices. Ironically, they ended up less satisfied with their meals than me.

At the time, I filed it away as a curious coincidence… but then I realized that science confirms what I had observed about decision fatigue.

The correlation between decision fatigue and happiness

Over half a century ago, psychologist Herbert A. Simon (who also won a Nobel Prize in Economics and a Turing Award and could probably be best summarized as “a genius”), described how consumers relate to choices. He differentiated between two types of decisions:

  • maximizing decisions (making the best choice. such as picking the best meal in the best restaurant in the city), and
  • satisficing decisions (making a “good enough” choice, such as picking a good enough meal in a good enough restaurant).

Interestingly, people who are more prone to maximizing behavior (“maximizers”) appear to be less happy and have a harder time making decisions than “satisficers.”

And doesn’t this perfectly describe what happened to me when I became vegan?

As far as food was concerned, I suddenly turned from a maximizer into a satisficer who was happy with whatever meal I could get, as long as it was a plant-based meal and reasonably healthy.

At the same time, veganism limited my choices, which made it easy for me to quickly make a decision and then move on to other things. Again, it’s easy to explain why I found that so liberating:

The tyranny of choice overload

Psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, puts it this way:

“…as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.”

It’s an experience I’ve certainly had, even in a supermarket with some empty shelves.

During the height of the lockdown, I found myself trying to quickly add a deodorant to my shopping cart so that I could leave as soon as possible.

The only problem? The supermarket didn’t carry the brand I had used before and presented me with a few dozen other choices. And while I internally shouted at myself to just pick any and get out of the riskiest environment I had found myself in all week, I still took forever to make a choice.

While you might find my behavior ridiculous (no hard feelings — I’m prone to agree with you), research suggests that this is how humans operate when presented with choice overload:

What the famous jam study can teach us about decision fatigue

The jam study has been called one of the most famous experiments in consumer psychology.

Conducted by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, the study found that less choice led to more sales: consumers were about 10 times more likely to buy if presented with only 6 instead of 24 choices.

As Sheena Iyengar put it:

“Too many choices can overwhelm us and cause us to not choose at all. For businesses, this means that if they offer us too many choices, we may not buy anything.”

Needless to say that increasing choices just to end up with fewer people getting something that they seem to want is not very productive (neither for the consumer nor for the seller).

The takeaway

Many of us live in societies where “more than enough” is the norm. We’re so used to always being able to get what we want at the supermarket that COVID-19-related empty shelves are newsworthy events.

Having an abundance of options at the supermarket can be great. I certainly missed that a few times this year as I was getting used to a “semi-Soviet shopping experience” (as someone I know aptly described it).

However, while it’s good to have some choices, it can be detrimental to have a ton of them. For instance, if our lizard brain gave us 30 different ways to respond to a dangerous situation (instead of just “fight or flight?”), our species would probably have gone extinct a long time ago!

But having fewer choices is something that not only can help you survive, it might also help you thrive.

If you want to increase your productivity and joy, try to do the counterintuitive thing and decrease the number of choices you have. This will reduce your choice overload and decision fatigue.

Instead of aiming for more, learn how to embrace reduction in a world of excess.

For instance, in addition to the accidental limitation that happened when I became a vegan, here are some things I’ve done to reduce my choices:

  • Picking a fitness program that tells me exactly which workout to do (instead of needing to choose each day whether I work out or not and which specific workout I should be doing),
  • Having the same thing for breakfast each morning (instead of having to decide what I want every day),
  • Aiming to have a weekly schedule that I stick with (instead of making a daily choice about it).

All of these actually help me improve my happiness and productivity.

That’s why I suggest that we rethink our thoughts about choice and limitation.

Ironically, unlimited freedom of choice can imprison us whereas conscious limitation might liberate us!

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