Let’s Not Be Too Hasty: Part 2

Decision Fatigue: Tales and Tips on How to Avoid It

In  the first part of this blog post, we looked at the compelling evidence behind decision fatigue, that previously unrecognized effect that renders us less and less capable of sensible decisions as we make more and more of them. Self control, we noted, turns out to be not a municipal water supply, steady and almost uninterruptable, but a rain-barrel under a roof corner: use it up and it’s gone until the next rain.

Here’s a recent example:

A close friend decided to replace her old tile shower with a fancy new Home-and-Garden-Television version, and invited a national  franchisee to her house to look at the job and bid on it. After they’d measured the shower space, the nice young man doing the pitch sat down across from her in the living room and brought out his presentation book. He invited her to choose among six different colors of materials, and then to pick which of four different embossing patterns she’d like. After that, she had to decide which of several shower head configurations her ideal shower would have. Then they picked the door style—would it be framed? semi-frameless? frameless?—and the thickness of the glass—3/8” or ½”?—and finally the kind of glass: transparent? patterned? opaque? Only when they had completely designed her ideal  shower together—and she had exhausted her will-power with more than an hour of strenuous decision-making—was she quoted the astronomical bid. By then she was so decisioned out, that she gulped and signed.

Afterwards, she was dismayed with herself. Why, she wondered, had she failed to use good judgment at the critical moment? Why had she simply accepted a bid that even at presentation she knew to be extremely high?  Once she’d  described the visit and I’d shown her the research on decision fatigue, she recognized that the entire sales pitch had been structured, beginning to end, to maximize her decision fatigue. She wasn’t a wimp or a mark; she’d simply been worn down by a struggle she didn’t even know she was fighting!

What might she have done? Simple: she could have imposed her own structure on the presentation. Had she been conscious of the toll that decision after decision takes, she could have insisted on a pause in the design process, brought out a tray of chocolate chip cookies or a plateful of fruit, graciously offered some to the young man, and eaten some herself—thereby replenishing her stock of will power with some sugar.  (In Decision Fatigue, Part I, we looked at the surprising and compelling demonstration that a dose of glucose brings will power back into line with pre-fatigue levels.)

Two additional incidents of decision fatigue came to light in my office recently:

For Karen and Jack, soon to be married, the task of creating a bridal registry proved onerous and time-consuming—so much so that by the end of the weekend, the same set of dishes appeared on their registry at three different stores! They’d been so stressed by the array of glassware choices—water, juice, red wine, white wine, cocktail, cordials, champagne flutes—that they literally fled the last store and stopped at a bar on the way home.

Every year, Brian eagerly awaits the new season’s lines of camping and climbing gear. He faithfully attends the trade shows where these products are featured and is eager learn about—and if possible try out—the newest in self-inflating mattresses, stoves, tents, hydration systems, and cookware.  Then, overloaded with brochures, samples, and discount coupons, he spends weeks and weeks trying to decide what to buy—long enough that some  of his discount coupons expire, compelling further decisions. Finally he “contents himself” with last year’s gear—but is in fact so discontented with it that his outdoor adventure is a little blighted.

Here are a few suggestions for avoiding decision fatigue:

  • Eat something sweet to get back in control.
  • Don’t do a shopping marathon.  Slow and steady wins the race.
  • Prepare a list and look at those products on the internet before setting foot in the store.
  • Consider a reconnaissance mission that includes only one decision…the one not to buy anything.
  • Decide upfront how long you’ll browse on the Internet and in the store…and stick to that limit.
  • Shop earlier in the day. You won’t have the collective weight of several hours of decision making that lead to information overload and poor choices.

By Carrie Rattle

Carrie Rattle is a Principal at BehavioralCents.com, a website for women focused on mind and money behaviors. She has worked in the financial services industry for 20+ years and hopes to inspire women to better prepare themselves for financial independence. Read More