You sense it’s happening to you more and more; a worn-out, bad-decision, I’m exhausted and don’t care attitude that increasingly invades your day and often leaves you collapsed and feeling unproductive at night. This in turn leaves you feeling guilty the next day that didn’t get enough done even though you got a lot done.
I remember experiencing decision-exhaustion from being both a writer and as a film and television executive. All day long you make decisions and they are fundamentally what you’re paid for, so to get too many of them wrong means to wrong yourself right out of your mortgage payment. That helped make each choice feel bigger and therefore more taxing, and because there were a lot of them all day, by the time I got home I was worn out in a way that left me more tired than any physical job I’d ever had.
If my wife or girlfriend wanted me to pick a restaurant for dinner on a decision-filled day we would argue because she really couldn’t relate to how intense my avoidance of another decision was. I told her I was burned out, which to say that deciding is an action and it takes energy and I had put too much energy through the decisions circuits already and they were now worn down to the point of no longer being precise channels but more like general directions.
A common example of this is that in many tests a poorer person will actually be better at financial decision-making than a wealthier person because their decisions are often around a budget with no room for error. That means you have to make real calculations and decisions even just to buy a quick lunch if you’re late, whereas a wealthier person is just hungry and they only make the decision of where to stop and what to have. By the end of an average day the poorer person has made so many more critical choices that they get worn out and they start giving big, broad answers that are more likely to be easy rather than helpful.
You likely know this feeling too: you’ve spent all day trying to stay on your diet and eat all the right foods, you got all of your work done and you figured out how to manage the kids, but by the time the day’s done you’re exhausted and end up blowing everything you saved all day by stopping on the way home at some fast food place, or by wasting money buying junk at the grocery store which ruins your diet and it’s all just so defeating. But take heart; it’s not just you being defeated, it’s all of us. (That entire link is definitely worth the read.)
What’s important to note is that the decisions that were wearing me out were primarily taken in the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s, prior to the smartphone. By then I had accepted that the brain was just like any part of your body and that it would become increasingly less efficient the more it was used. When smartphones came out I saw two unhealthy things: the diversion of my attention away from the present moment and the constant connectivity, which I did not feel would be healthy long term because it would also mean that there would soon be many more ways to reach me.
This is why I still just use a flip phone; I avoid thinking about all of the decisions that the phone has added to your day. Not just which platforms should you join, but all the notifications and privacy set-ups, the decision to answer a call or text or not, then the decision of what to answer, then a chime telling you to do this or a warning telling you not to do that. Calendars, emails, voicemails, instant messengers, check-ins and measurements of every kind. And that leaves out all of the stuff your computer at work has added.
All day long you’re bombarded with choice. Stores even sell it like it’ll make you feel good when science shows it’s the route to feeling bad. Decisions are taxes to your mind. It’s why tons of top-level business executives and entrepreneurs wish they could go be a barista in a coffee shop–what they’re pining for is fewer decisions. The customer just tells you what they want and you make it. No choices. Simple. Ahhh.
Many decisions in the modern world cannot be avoided but many can. Look at your life and ask which parts of your life require the most decision-making and then value your loss of mental peace almost like money. Do you really want to spend all of your energies where they’ve been going? For most people the answer is no, they just never take the time to reassess. Do that today.
Simplification is not you failing, nor are you becoming irrelevant or even less capable. In fact you’ll be increasing the strength of the quality of your choices if you make fewer every day. The science is very clear: busy-ness and choice are the enemies of peace. The only thing left for you to do is to become more conscious of all of your daily choices and then only make the ones that actually improve your life and stop making the ones that don’t.
Here’s a peaceful, stressless day for all of us.
PS This piece is a companion to the post, Real Peace Is Not What You Think.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.