Decisions, Decisions…

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Decision fatigue

You might be shocked to hear this, but research suggests that you make around 35 000 decisions per day. Researchers at Cornell University have estimated that we’re making on average 226.7 decisions per day about food alone! (Although if you’re a teenage boy you can probably triple that number.)

Making lots of decisions can be very fatiguing.

I remember some years ago when I was travelling with a friend in Morocco, he asked me what pastry I wanted for breakfast. Such a simple question… Without really thinking I responded, ‘I don’t know, you choose for me.’ I was shocked when he snapped back angrily, ‘I’m not always going to make the decisions!’.

At the time I thought this was a crazy over-reaction. What was wrong with this guy?! But looking back, I think it just demonstrated how tired we had become from all the decisions we had to make. We were in a foreign country, with an unfamiliar language and customs. We were constantly trying to make the little money we had stretch as far as possible. All of this meant that instead of resting on familiar patterns, we had to put a lot of thought and effort every day into small decisions. Where was a cheap hotel that we could stay in? Should we travel by bus or by shared taxi? Should we tip the man at the hotel? Where could we find somewhere to eat?

Power of patterns

Some of the most successful people in the world avoid decision fatigue by using patterned behaviour. What does this mean? Well, instead of putting time and effort into deciding what clothes to wear each day they might choose from a set of similar outfits. And I’m not just talking about Ryan Reynolds’ character Blue Shirt Guy (for those of you who’ve seen the movie ‘Free Guy’). Think of Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck shirts, or Mark Zuckerberg’s grey t-shirts. Others use patterns with their meals – like Warren Buffett and his McDonalds’ breakfast routine.

In 2012, Barack Obama told an interviewer who wanted to understand how a person manages the job of president that:

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… You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.

What are some ways that we can reduce the number of decisions we have to make each day?

Well here’s one of my own. I eat the same breakfast every day. I pull out four Vita Brits and crush them (yes, I know that is disturbing for some of you to hear) into a bowl. Then I pour some muesli on top of that. Chop up half a banana (only half) and pour soy milk on top.

Doesn’t this get tedious? Surprisingly it hasn’t yet – despite having eaten many boxes of Vita Brits and endless bananas. To tell the truth, when I established this pattern I wasn’t trying to find a way to reduce my decisions – I simply wanted a high energy and healthy breakfast. But I found I liked it and it became my ‘go-to’. Now, I can prepare it quickly, without thinking (and before I’m even fully awake). I don’t waste time or energy deliberating over what to eat. It also makes shopping pretty straightforward. The result? One less decision to make each morning.

I’m not suggesting you should do this – I’m suggesting you already do.

Most of us take the same route to work each day. And when we do, we slip into a very energy-efficient decision making pattern. We learn the road, the location of the traffic lights, even the potholes. And driving becomes much more automated, freeing our mind to think about other things, or to just relax.

If you regularly do a chore like loading the dishwasher, I would be surprised if you haven’t developed, through trial and error, your own way of doing it. By repetition, you can do it quickly and efficiently.

When a good pattern becomes the ‘right’ way

We do need to be a little cautious here. We can get so dependent on our patterned behaviour that it is very uncomfortable when we have to break a pattern. That is more pronounced for some neurodiverse people, but we can all struggle with this.

Not only that, but we can start to think that our good way of doing this is not only a good way, but it is the better way or even the right way. And if we believe our way is the right way, by implication any other way is the wrong way. Have you ever watched someone do something and felt strongly that they were doing it wrong (even if it technically wasn’t wrong). Maybe your partner has a weird way of buttering their bread, or folding your socks? Maybe they crush their Vita Brits! It’s amazing how our strong views on insignificant matters can cause so much friction in our relationships and our workplaces.

If we’re not careful, we can be applying a ‘Right/Wrong’ judgement to trivial matters instead of being willing to tolerate diversity. This is particularly obvious when you visit a shopping mall and see a group of young teenagers who are all dressed alike and with the same kind of haircuts. They’re blissfully unaware that they look like they’re all part of some weird cult, but peer pressure is insisting on a very narrow definition of the right way to look and dress.

Process v/s purpose

When it comes to managing the work of a team or an organisation, patterns can be critical. If you want to replicate a process so that you get the same outcome each time – whether it’s making a sandwich at Subway or building a high end vehicle for an auto manufacturer you need to perfect your patterns and then be able to repeat them. When the work is done by humans, we often call this set of instructions the ‘standard operating procedures’ (or SOPs).

SOPs are useful – but they have their limit. If our teams only ever follow strict SOPs, we are not creating an environment that encourages innovation or creative thinking. To ensure our work practices are evolving and improving, we need to decide how and where our people can innovate and experiment – without fear of failure. There’s a time for conformity and a time for innovation.

This comes back to having a strong focus on the purpose (the ‘why’ of what we do) and not simply fixate on the process (‘how’ we do it). Clarity of purpose should inspire us to want to be more efficient and effective in our processes – whether this be a better set of SOPs, or a more flexible approach that allows some freedom of decision making.


Overall then, patterns have a place. To get the most out of patterned behaviours we can apply a happy medium: use patterned behaviour to simplify your decision making, but be aware of when it might be holding you back from improving your processes, or making you narrow minded and judgemental about others who do things differently. 

What do you think and what’s been your experiences – positive and negative – with this kind of patterned behaviour approach to ‘streamlining’ your decision making? Drop us a comment in the box below!

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