BY ERIN SMITH
“Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.” ~John C. Maxwell
I have eaten the exact same breakfast and lunch almost every day for the last year. I have a protein shake for breakfast and a bag salad at lunch, throwing in any protein, nuts, or on-their-last-leg veggies I happen to have in the fridge. I haven’t consciously chosen what my family eats for dinner in several years. David loves planning, shopping, and cooking all of the meals in our house and I’m happy to let him have it. He cares and I don’t. But what I’m actually doing is giving my brain a decision break.
Neuroscientists believe that the average human makes over 35,000 conscious decisions a day. Around 227 of those are around food alone! We think we’re just standing in front of the fridge waiting for inspiration, but what’s actually happening is our brain is sorting through numerous combinations of ingredients, some we see and others we don’t. For those at home doing the math, it equals out to about one decision every two seconds the fridge light is on.
With that many choices to make, doesn’t our brain get tired of choosing? Turns out, it really, really does. Decision fatigue is the deterioration of our ability to make good decisions after a long day of decision making. Decision fatigue is highly correlated with insomnia, exhaustion, and short-term memory problems. The more decisions we make, the worse we are at weighing all the options and making good, educated choices. No wonder so many of us eat ice cream for dinner. By the end of the day, our biological ability to make good choices is exhausted. Cognitive overload wins and our motivation to cook a healthy dinner wanes.
And quarantine has doubled down on this cognitive overload. We had to navigate a completely new way of being in the world. School, work, and home life changed drastically and shifted constantly. And the advice from the so-called “experts” changed just as quickly, creating decision fatigue whiplash. Remember how we were initially told to leave the masks for front liners? Then, we were advised to wear masks. Then, we were told that we could drop them if we were outside and 6 feet apart. Then, double masking was recommended.
Further, as vaccinations ramp up and the world is starting to reopen, we’re faced with a whole new round of decisions, ones with more impactful consequences. Is the vaccine safe? Which vaccine should I get? Can I remove my mask here? Can I hug my grandmother now? These are literally life or death decisions and they are collectively burning us out.
The easiest way to give our brain a break and avoid decision fatigue is by creating routines. When we have reliable systems in place, we eliminate some of the burden of choosing. I don’t have to worry about what I’m eating for lunch, because I know there are a bunch of bag salads in my crisper. David plans our weekly meals on Sunday. It doesn’t mean we are rigid and avoid the spontaneous jaunt to Don Señor because we have a hankering for burritos, but it mostly frees up our brains at the 5:00 p.m. “witching hour” when most people are just starting to think about what they’ll make for dinner. I wasn’t surprised to learn that home delivery meals like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh were actually based on the science of decision fatigue.
Or take a note from Steve Jobs. He didn’t wear a black turtleneck and jeans to brand himself. He knew he had a million decisions to make every day running Apple, so he chose not to waste important executive brain power by worrying about his wardrobe. My “uniform” of black leggings, graphic tee, and feather earrings means I feel like myself, but I don’t stand in my closet trying on – and possibly discarding – multiple outfits. I can just grab whatever is on top and get on with my day.
Consider James Clear’s so-called Four Burner Theory. The “burners” of life are Family, Health, Work, and Relationships. Clear says, “In order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”
Which burners could you turn down – or off – in your life? How could you simplify certain daily tasks to give your beleaguered brain a well-deserved break? When we reduce the amount of decisions we make every day, we free up space for the ones that truly matter.