Decisions get easier when values are clearer.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel an internal conflict between what I want to do vs. what I need to do vs. what I know I have to do. Many of my patients and coaching clients feel the same emotional tug. Most days it goes something like this: I want to take a long, slow walk through my backyard and plan out my spring garden but I really need to knock down the stack of mail that’s piling up on my kitchen table but unfortunately, in this moment, I have to work on administrative tasks in my business. All of this leads to what many coaches and performance experts call Decision Fatigue.
By definition, Decision Fatigue is pretty simple. It’s the mental exhaustion that comes as a result of having to decide betwixt and between too many opposing goals, ideas, responsibilities or obligations. It’s also the ensuing roadblock and failure to make any decision at all when there are too many options presented. The antidote, many psychologists and performance experts suggest, is Decision Minimalism which is predicated upon the idea that having fewer choices to make leads to quicker, more efficient decision-making and less taxing effort to make those decisions.
Neuroscience takes us a bit deeper since decision-making is far more complex than just the choices in front of us. The striatum, part of the basal ganglia in the inner core of the brain, is one region of the brain responsible for making decisions. The prefrontal cortex near the front of the brain manages complex problem solving, along with other areas, and is fast at work even when we are not actively engaged with our problem. To go a little further, research in cognitive learning suggests that decision-making is tightly interlinked with learning and memory. To add another layer is the growing field of sleep science which helps us understand the brain’s mechanisms for ‘spring cleaning,’ clearing out old memories, reducing input noise and making space for new information.
At the heart of it all is clarity and alignment with core personal values. I’ve found that when our values are clear, the ability to be decisive is easier.
Let’s give an example: if one of my core values is feeling a sense of balance, it makes sense to create a structure in my life that allows me to feel so. This might include saying ‘No’ to activities and obligations that don’t leave enough time for my hobbies and interests. This might mean saying ‘No’ to opportunities that are time and labor-intensive like committees at work or in professional organizations.
Here’s another: if good health is a core value, a person will make exercise a priority, even if it means simply walking a half mile every evening with the dog. When it’s not a priority, it’s not a value.
To make your own decision-making clearer and reduce decision-fatigue in your life, here are 5 tips I’ve learned as a lifestyle medicine coach:
- Clarify core values. Creating awareness about what is most important to you is the first step to establishing healthy boundaries and priorities. Core Values Clarity is a powerful exercise that I include in my workbook, the Personal Health and Wellness Roadmap: Optimal Health & Well-Being By Design in my 12 Week Reboot, Renew and Replenish Lifestyle Medicine Coaching Package
- Create routines. Having a morning routine helps set the direction and focus of each day and an evening/night routine helps wrap up loose ends and gain insights. An evening routine of reflective journal practice can help establish a framework for the next day’s objectives which reduces the likelihood of last minute decision-making. Activities to consider include reading, journal practice, meditation, exercise and prayer but be creative and choose what feels most affirming and sustainable for you.
- De-clutter your life. Clutter creates chaos and mental overwhelm. Clear out your closets to eliminate clothing you no longer fit or feel good in. Clean off your calendar and sign off from obligations that no longer align with your personal interests and goals. Donate books that are taking up space on your shelves. A good read on this is Marie Kondo’s 6 Rules of Tidying
- Simplify and Prioritize. Limit your To-Do list to 3 or less actionable items per day and remember the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80-20 rule) which asserts that 80% of outcomes (or outputs) result from 20% of all causes (or inputs) for any given event. In business, a goal of the 80-20 rule is to identify inputs that are potentially the most productive and make them the priority. Focus the bulk of your time and energy on the ONE objective that is most important for the day, that will free up your resources for other important tasks and objectives. Bundle errands together to reduce time loss. Plan simple meals that require fewer ingredients and less prep and clean up time. A good video on this is How To Effectively Use the 80-20 Pareto Principle To Be More Productive
- Log Off. Information and knowledge are two different things. While it’s important to stay abreast of news both locally and globally the truth is that many of us are saturated with information. The most basic survival mechanism in the brain is its ability to filter through important vs less important input in order to keep us safe from harm or danger. Exposure to 24 hour news cycles leaves little mental bandwidth for critical decision-making when you need it. Decide on 1-2 sources for the information you need and log off from the rest. This could be a newspaper, a TV channel or a curated source of diverse, important content that starts your day. My favorite is the Daily Rundown on LinkedIn. Remember that reading books is still an excellent method for staying informed! Here’s an evergreen read that I turn to often to remind me of the power of digital detoxing How I Got My Attention Back. by Craig Mod.
The more choices we’re faced with, the more likely we are to fall victim to decision fatigue. To make good choices we need to tune into our core values and let them be a guide for where to direct our energy, actions and resources.