Make Fewer Decisions

Back to articles

Jul 27 2020 | Productivity

Our lives are made up of our choices and habits, and those are a result of our decisions.

To make fewer decisions means we can make more effective ones.

We're all guilt of spending more time and energy than we should on things that don't make a huge difference to our life. Decisions around what to eat or what clothes to wear for the day. This isn't to say these things aren't essential to our lives, they are, but it's worth examining how our decision making can be more effective so that we can lead more effective lives. To borrow from Ray Dalio, Founder of Bridgewater Associates and author of Principles, "The quality of your decisions will determine the quality of your life."

Attention and cognitive bandwidth

Our attention is zero-sum. We can really only focus our attention on one thing at a time.

Our cognitive bandwidth is also limited. There is only so much we can focus on during any given day.

Too many decisions

When I've been juggling too many things at once, spread myself out too thin on various commitments, I find myself mentally overloaded, which leads to mental fatigue.

Yes, there's the initial feeling of satisfaction when we assume we can manage all the things we've committed to. But in my own experience, that quickly gets replaced by a sinking feeling, knowing I've overcommitted.

The same applies to decision making. The quality of our decision making drops when we have too many decisions to make.

Decision fatigue makes us ineffective. It slows us down. Its effect stays with us for longer than we think.

We overestimate what we can do in a given amount of time and underestimate the amount of work and effort required.

It's actually harder to commit to less than you think. Why? Because you have to fight the part of you that thinks you can  do more than what you can actually take on.

Here's a reminder: It takes the same amount of mental effort to decide and act on something trivial as it takes to do something important.

Why you should make fewer decisions

Mental clarity

Mental clarity is an underrated advantage in an age of information overload.

Less complexity

Making fewer decisions is one way to reduce complexity in our life. Something doesn't become a problem to be solved unless you make it one.

Stress relief

Obligations and decisions seem to be tied together. Your life will feel lighter with less decisions to make. It's like cleaning out your closet to get rid of clothing that you haven't worn in years.

What to do instead

The Pareto Principle states that roughly 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of causes. This applies to the decisions we make.

Without a strong system in place, it's easy to fall down the rabbit hole of making too many trivial decisions that end up taking too much of our attention and mental energy.

Having a system provides protection from distractions, stress and overwhelm by removing the reliance on willpower and sheer hard work.

By default, you want to say no to shiny new things. Chances are those shiny new things are distractions.

One of the most powerful decisions Jack Butcher made for Visualize Value designs was to use a reductionist, minimalist style. This is an example of "One decision to solve 1000 problems."

Commit to less. This is one of the most effective strategies to combat the tendency to overcommit and have too many things to make decisions for. It frees you up to focus your energy on the most important areas in your life.

Automate your life

There are so many great software and systems out there you can take advantage of to outsource your decision making.

Maria Salamanca, VC at Unshackled Ventures used Notion, Bear and Airtable to write an operating system to automate her life.

While most of us probably don't need such an elaborate system, the principle still applies - outsource and automate your decision making process where you can.

A note on knowledge work

Writers, designers, founders, developers, strategists make a living largely due to their judgement.

The most important asset any knowledge worker has is his or her ability to make good decisions. So it's crucial for knowledge workers to be able to reduce or eliminate unimportant decisions so they can make decisions that have maximal effect on their work.

The goal is to optimize your time and mental energy around the things that will have a disproportional positive return or impact on your life. This means letting go of the trivial things and giving space to the most important areas in your life - spending quality time with your loved ones, developing skills for your work, prioritizing healthy habits for your mind and body.

Ask yourself: Do you want to live an effective life? If so, don't let the tendency to focus on trivial things slow you down.


Find me on Twitter.