We live in a time when there are more options than ever before. It’s just going to get more complex from here, as more people gain access to the internet and our population continues to increase.
There are literally thousands of choices for almost anything you can think of these days. In addition to that the amount of decisions we have to make every day continues to increase as technology advances.
It’s overwhelming and exhausting, and causes us to take undesired actions based on impulses and mood swings that go against our goals.
When it comes to bigger decisions like what you want to do professionally in your life, the sheer quantity of options can have a different effect. The fear of making the wrong choice can often leave us in a state of paralysis that condemns our future through a state of anxious and confused inaction.
By learning how to make decisions easier, we can take back control and continue to grow. We can also begin to manage our smaller tasks in a way that leaves us with more willpower for avoiding temptations and making the decisions that matter.
Variety is the spice of life they say? I suppose so. Too much spice however, can ruin any dish.
The IMPACT of Decision Making
Let’s talk a little bit about the cognitive process that occurs when our brains encounter a decision.
Immediately one of our most energy-hungry processes, problem solving, is activated. We start determining all the different options, and the outcomes of them. All the pros and cons, external reasons for or against certain choices, and really any other variable we think may be relevant at the time.
All this thought and energy just to determine… which flavor of ice cream you want.
We go through this process hundreds of times a day and each time it drains just a little bit of our daily willpower reserve. By the end of the day we don’t feel like giving anything much thought and begin to act more on emotions and impulses, rather than logic and reasoning.
This also leaves us with much less energy to devote to larger more important decisions, which leads to my first simple tip:
Make BIG Decisions EARLY in the Day
Our willpower is restored when we sleep (so make sure you get enough!) meaning we have the most of it at the beginning of each day.
This is when you should devote mental energy towards important decisions. You will be the most logical and clear minded, free from the coming day’s clutter of information.
Do this and you increase your chances of making the right decisions for the right reasons.
Be Aware of Your MINDSET
Ever notice how grocery stores have candy at the end of almost EVERY aisle and by EVERY checkout lane? That’s because store designers know that your willpower is weaker after making all those decisions on what food to buy, so you’re much more likely to indulge in a little treat, even though you know you shouldn’t.
The more willpower we use up making the RIGHT decisions, the more vulnerable we become to our emotions and impulses. These impulses usually don’t have any reasoning behind them and often result in us making choices that hinder our progress.
If we can stay aware of when we are more susceptible to these urges and avoid temptations until our resolve returns, we can prevent snap decisions that we later regret.
Preserving willpower in the first place makes controlling these emotions a lot easier, so let’s brainstorm some ways we can cut out unnecessary choices.
Automate and Optimize
Knowing that the plethora of small decisions we make each day slowly eat up our willpower, how can we increase our efficiency to remove some of them?
One way is by simplifying and automating your daily routines. Think about all the small decisions you make every day and figure out ways to eliminate them or have them already decided.
There are many ways to do this and everyone’s list will be different, but here are some examples:
- Simplify your wardrobe by getting rid of old clothes to eliminate (or at least lighten) the decision of what to wear.
- Plan your meals for the week ahead so you don’t have to decide what you’re going to eat.
- Plan your exercises for the week so you don’t have to figure it out the day of.
- Plan what tasks you’ll complete on which days of the coming week.
These are a few ways I have eliminated and simplified some decisions in my life. I like to sit down for half an hour or so on Sundays and plan each of the last three items for the coming week. I find I feel much less overwhelmed throughout the day knowing I don’t have to worry about some of life’s more mundane choices.
On the other side of that, if you try this planning technique notice how you feel directly after organizing an ENTIRE WEEK in one short session. I find I’m usually mentally exhausted after all those decisions. This, to me, is convincing proof of the willpower draining effect they have on us.
So now that we’ve lessened the impact small decisions have on us, what about those big decisions? You know, those terrifying life changers that we have nightmares about? Don’t worry I’m getting there. I’ll now share with you the most effective strategies I’ve found for making those seemingly huge decisions a bit lighter on the blood pressure.
Capture Your Fears
This is a technique I learned from (yet again) Tim Ferriss that dates back to Greek and Roman times. He calls it fear setting and it can be a powerful tool to get through many of life’s problems.
If you want even more information on this subject I encourage you to watch Tim’s TED Talk on it here.
It involves three written steps that help you to identify your fears and become more comfortable with them, making it easier to face them:
- Identifying the Fears
- Choose an option you’re considering that scares you and place it in the phrase: “What if I…” Write that phrase at the top of your first page and then begin listing all the worst possible outcomes of that decision. All your fears and worries, just list them in a big column. Imagine them in detail and exaggerate them to the worst extent.
- Next list a way you could prevent each of those worries and fears in another column. Any way you could reduce the chance of all these terrible outcomes if you did make the large change in question.
- List what steps you could take or who you could talk to if any of the bad scenarios in the first column came to pass. Try to imagine all the other people who ended up in that situation and how they handled it. It’s probably not as big of a deal as you’re making it out to be in your head.
- Contemplating the Pros
- On the next page, list all the possible positive outcomes of doing the thing you fear. Consider what would come of it even with partial success. Write down any potential positive no matter how seemingly small.
- Realizing the Result of Inaction
- Make three columns, one for six months from now, three years from now, and six years from now.
- For each column vividly imagine what your life will be like if you do nothing about the predicament in question. Really go into detail here and take into account all aspects of your life and the direction they are already headed.
That’s it. That’s the way Tim Ferriss goes about tackling the big questions, and it has helped him and many others make some of their most important life changing decisions.
This technique can greatly clarify any worries or doubts we encounter when facing a tough decision, and help us to see the right answer. Putting it all out on paper helps us to visibly analyze our thoughts, instead of trying to make sense of all the variables in a messy mental maze.
The last step is important, because while we are usually so caught up in our fears about making a change, we rarely take the time to think of the negative outcomes of NOT making the choice and continuing to be indecisive.
Often the price we pay by doing nothing is much worse than the potential consequences of taking the risk we fear, but if this process still leaves you feeling lost then my next advice is to:
JUST PICK SOMETHING
This is what I had to do to begin my entrepreneurial journey. I spent almost a year not knowing what kind of business I wanted to pursue, and afraid that if I picked the wrong one I would have just wasted a large amount of time and effort. A WHOLE YEAR went by that I could have spent learning more about business, experimenting with tiny projects, and learning from my mistakes.
The thing is, you aren’t going to figure out what you like until you start trying things. I realized by allowing my fear of wasting time to paralyze me, I was doing just that. WASTING TIME! It seemed so absurd and obvious to me and yet I still came back to that hesitation when it came right down to picking something and getting started.
At a certain point, you just have to kind of force yourself to do something in spite of your fear. So I did. I decided to start my own blog. Once I had begun spending time on it consistently I found that I was starting to feel a sense of pride in my progress. It gave me a reason to wake up in the morning and get to work.
Even if after all this hard work and effort I fail, it won’t be for nothing as I have learned a lot about starting a blog and creating an SEO friendly website. I have also built a workflow habit that will help me get started on my next project quickly if this one fails.
Nine times out of ten, inaction will just make your situation stagnant or worse. An object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
“Action cures fear. Indecision & postponement fertilize fear.” -David J. Schwartz
It is my goal with this post to make you aware of how decision-making affects us. With this knowledge we can design our schedules and habits in a way that maximizes our willpower potential for each day.
The more willpower we save on the mundane, the more we will have to exhaust on the big, IMPORTANT decisions.
Try these tips out for yourself and let me know if you found them useful. I’d love to hear the clever ideas you come up with for how to automate small daily decisions.
I hope you stay mindful of how much willpower you’re expending to pick which post to read next!