Too many choices can be paralyzing. This really stood out to me in a piece about President Obama by Vanity Fair. They touch on the concept by stating:
“One of my most important tasks,” he’d said, “is making sure I stay open to people, and the meaning of what I’m doing, but not to get so overwhelmed by it that it’s paralyzing. Option one is to go through the motions. That I think is a disaster for a president…”
By making sure the small decisions are taken care of, he can focus on the bigger decisions. It reminds me of the story of Buridan’s donkey:
Buridan’s donkey is standing halfway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. It keeps looking left and right, trying to decide between hay and water. Unable to decide, it eventually falls over and dies of hunger and thirst.
When one’s willpower gets depleted of the ability to make a quality choice, then we tend to make no choice at all or default to the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, that can result in bad quality choices over the long term. We get paralyzed and simply do nothing.
Make a choice. Adjust your course. Choose again.
Just don’t stop.
In The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy, he tells the story of his disciplined dad who was a coach. There were no excuses at home. What struck a chord with me, in particular, was the following:
“We weren’t ever allowed to stay home from school sick unless we were actually puking, bleeding, or “showing bone”.
Many times on the treadmill, when my muscles are screaming at me, I have to remember to push it further. Am I “showing bone?” No. Then go. Faster. And tack on an extra 15-30 seconds past what I think I can do per interval jog.
“I don’t feel like it” is one of the worst excuses ever.
When I was younger, I used it all the time: throughout school and early adulthood. Finally, I realized that this was a weakness. I set out to correct it. Due to the nature of life being a series of choices, it took keeping this at the forefront of my mind to consciously keep working on it. Habitually.
Any disciplined person knows, you never feel like it. The doing or starting of the task that you do not want to do will create momentum to finish. Just jump into it. Do it anyway.
Oh, the joys of joining a gym. This has actually happened to me a few times in the past: I get super excited and highly motivated! It is time to get fit! Join the gym; then get sold on the idea of a trainer. Going from couch potato to gym enthusiast in an instant.
Perhaps it is part of the sales tactic but trainers seem to forget that you do not spend every single day at the gym.
The last two I had did not prescribe a workout routine, would reschedule appointments, and seemed sporadic. Perhaps it was bad luck. However, the same results in two different states at two different gym chains make you wonder.
The last trainer recommended 6 solid days of gym a week, 3 days of strength building, and 3 days of cardio. I could barely handle the treadmill for 15 minutes much less show up like clockwork.
Why? Too much too soon. The habit wasn’t formed.
The new plan? Three days of cardio for 5 weeks: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Once that habit is formed by doing it routinely for over 21 days then I will add to the regimen. I’m reminded of the following quote by Confucius:
It does not matter how slow you go so long as you do not stop.
Get to know the “why” or the value behind your new habit. This will keep you going when it gets hard. My personal fitness value is to improve my fitness, look after my physical and mental health and wellbeing. To achieve this a few of my ongoing goals are to keep my triglycerides normal, to not turn into a computer geek couch potato, and to at least maintain the weight I’ve already lost. Better quality of life.
Leo Babauta of Zen Habits has been doing his own research on the matter. ( Love when people in the same tribe strive for the same things! ) He has to say this on the matter:
“But what I’ve found in doing research and working with beta testers is that the most important thing isn’t some secret ideal fitness plan … but forming the habit of fitness.” ( Source )
So remember: Start small and start easy. Just start.
In continuing with the theme of decision fatigue, I wanted to share a tool that I’ve been using recently that I have greatly enjoyed. In an effort to be more productive, it is suggested one should check email only a few times a day. Personally, I have to keep an eye on work email periodically.
However, I noticed that I was checking personal email on my iPhone habitually. To the point where it was becoming a distraction. Majority of my emails were not from actual people but newsletters, notifications from services online, and other forms of bacn. ( love the term, hate the connotation )
Sanebox is an amazing service. It connects to your email, any provider, and process your inbox into folders. Majority of the bacn goes into a “@sanelater” folder.
It has been super accurate and learns even more as time goes by. The service builds custom rules for you based on whom you send email to most frequently and other set rules that you can establish. If it does happen to misfile something simply drag the email to the correct folder which will “teach” the service what to do next time.
Having your email sorted automatically frees you to establish a set time, perhaps once a week, to “process” email instead of constantly deleting bacn throughout the day. This excited me so much that I had to share. Give it a try.
Steve Jobs was famous for wearing the classic black mock turtleneck shirts, Levi’s 501 jeans, and grey New Balance sneakers. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, he touches on when Steve tried to create a uniform for Apple. Employees didn’t like it but Steve ended up creating his own personal brand of style as a byproduct:
Sony, with its appreciation for style, had gotten the famous designer Issey Miyake to create its uniform.
In the process, however, he became friends with Miyake and would visit him regularly. He also came to like the idea of having a uniform for himself, both because of its daily convenience (the rationale he claimed) and its ability to convey a signature style. “So I asked Issey to make me some of his black turtlenecks that I liked, and he made me like a hundred of them.” Jobs noticed my surprise when he told this story, so he showed them stacked up in the closet. “That’s what I wear,” he said. “I have enough to last for the rest of my life.”
Vanity Fair has a great profile on President Obama, in the piece the President describes conserving the decisions he has to make:
You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
The New York Times gives a glimpse of the research that the President references above in the article Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?. So what is decision fatigue?
Decision fatigue is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion, a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in homage to a Freudian hypothesis. Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy.
In today’s modern world, the amount of choices we are bombarded with is unprecedented. Never in our history have we had to filter so much noise. Need to buy some toothpaste? Great. A quick search on Amazon alone gives you 4,182 results and that was after filtering it down to just the “toothpaste” category!
The article goes on to describe what happens to your decision-making process whenever you become fatigued:
Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.
It frees your mental energy when you can get your day started and not having to worry about the minutia of every detail. That part of your day is on autopilot.
Life is a series of choices over the span of our existence. If you make poor choices, this creates poor habits, which in turn gives poor results. We must conserve our decision making “energy” so that we can make the right choices. Making the right choices consistently over time builds good habits and will create a lot of “luck”.
We make our own luck.