Most mornings, I’m a model of productivity. I get up early, make coffee, and am at my computer by 5:30 a.m. I get important work done, make a to-do list for my day, and fit a workout in before my kids get up. I eat a healthy breakfast, get the kids off to school, and then it’s back to work. In other words, I have a good morning routine.
However, by the time the sun sets, things typically start to unravel. By the time the kids get to bed, I’m usually exhausted and default to beer and Netflix. Often, I complete the gluttonous trifecta with a salty snack. It’s pretty obvious: My evening routine, if you want to call it that, is lacking.
Of course, I’m not alone in making suboptimal decisions, especially late in the day. And that’s largely the result of having to make so many decisions throughout the day.
For example, one study found that we make an average of 217 food-related decisions, alone, in a single day. Is it any surprise, then, that I’m reaching for chips instead of an apple at night?
Every decision we make throughout a day progressively depletes our ability to make good decisions. This is called “decision fatigue.” We run short on mental energy. The more decisions we make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for our brains. We start defaulting to easy, comfortable choices, which helps explain why my morning routine is solid but my evening one is lacking.
The antidote to decision fatigue: Make a decision once, so you never have to make it again.
Here’s a small example of how one-and-done decision-making works.
In October, I decided to post content on LinkedIn every day. LinkedIn is the most important platform for our marketing agency to develop new business, so it’s important for me to be visible to our audience there.
Had I decided to post on LinkedIn “more often” or “three times a week,” every day I would have been confronted with the decision of whether or not to post. That would have made it easy to decide that tomorrow would be better or that I didn’t have anything interesting to say.
By making the decision once, I didn’t have to grapple with it every day. I don’t have to rely on willpower. I just do it habitually. It’s automatic.
Undoubtedly, there are people who have greater willpower and discipline than I do for whom a one-and-done approach isn’t necessary. But for me, and perhaps for you, too, if I leave the door open even a crack, I’ll find a way to make an exception despite my best intentions. It’s far easier for me to shut the door completely so that I leave no choice but to take some beneficial action.
I remove the variable of my fatigued decision-making.
This principle can be applied to things big and small in life, from exercise and investing, to snacking and website browsing.
Examine what decisions you routinely wrestle with.
Systematize as many of them as possible by making one big decision, not many little ones.
Continue looking for ways to simplify your life to the point at which the decisions you do have to make relate to things you really care about.
Nobody is perfect. Willpower rises and falls. There’s no way to get around the fact that decision fatigue will result in Netflix binges and one too many beers. But it’s possible to take some small, positive steps forward by taking more decisions off the table. “One and done” is an approach that can help you make fewer decisions, and therefore make those decisions better.
Jay Harrington is an author and lawyer-turned-entrepreneur who runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.