Need More Mental Energy? Limit Your Choices

ImageRegardless of what you may think of the president, most of us would agree that Barack Obama makes an incalculable number of vital decisions every day, and does so in the midst of an unrelenting schedule. So how does he do it? What can we learn from the President about how to manage time and energy in our own busy lives?

In his article in the October Vanity Fair, Moneyball author Michael Lewis posed this question to Obama: “Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.”

Obama’s response: “You have to exercise, or at some point you’ll just break down. 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 tells Lewis. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

This advice is often heard from other highly successful people who report eating the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day. In Brian O’Keefe’s Fortune article Leadership Lessons from Nick Saban, he reports that Alabama’s multiple national championship winning football coach Saban “sits at this very table every day and works through his lunch hour while eating the same exact meal: a salad of iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes topped with turkey slices and fat-free honey Dijon dressing. No time wasted studying a menu.”

Research studies confirm the correlation between too many choices and less effective decision making. A study conducted by Iyengar and Lepper (2000) found that consumers who faced 24 options, as opposed to 6 options, were less willing to decide to buy anything at all, and those who did buy were less satisfied with their purchase.

A recent study by Kathleen Vohls and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota further explores the relationship between choice and decision making energy. The study concludes “that decision making depletes the same resource used for self-control and active responding. In 4 laboratory studies, some participants made choices among consumer goods or college course options, whereas others thought about the same options without making choices. Making choices led to reduced self-control (i.e., less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination, and less quality and quantity of arithmetic calculations).”

So if you want more mental energy throughout the day, it’s best to make fewer decisions.

How might you pare down your choices to free up metal energy and improve decision making? I love clothes, so you won’t see me fill my closets with only blue and grey suits. But I can let go of choices at breakfast. And perhaps I’ll create a very specific master grocery list so minimize choices at the grocery store. What a great place to start! Talk about overwhelming choices.

Let us know what decision you eliminate, and if making fewer decisions gives you more mental energy for the decisions that matter.

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One Response to Need More Mental Energy? Limit Your Choices

  1. I’ve made a routine for housework so I look at a chart to see what needs doing, no thinking involved. I love to cook, so I won’t scrimp there, but we shop the sales and cook from what that yields; and that reduces choices. My hubby and I divide the cooking between us — he makes the meat, I make the veg — and that makes things more routine. On clothes, maybe choosing the night before will help keep the mental energy high.

    Great tip, Kate, thanks.

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