The average adult makes approximately 35,000 decisions every day. Not surprisingly, most are relatively inconsequential. What should I have for breakfast? How much cream should I put in my coffee? What route should I take to work after listening to the morning traffic report? In any given 24-hour period, none of these decisions are likely to have life and death implications, but they may have other consequences. That’s because there’s a growing school of thought that our decision-making ability erodes over time as we move through the day and our willpower declines. It’s called decision fatigue, a term coined by renowned psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times science writer John Tierney in their groundbreaking book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
According to Andrew Cohen, founder and CEO of Brainscape, a web and mobile education platform that uses cognitive science to help people study more efficiently, Baumeister’s research has significant implications for managers of all types of businesses, including those in the structural pest control industry. “For the same reasons you are more likely to succumb to pizza and ice cream cravings at night after a day full of mentally exhausting healthy decisions, you are more likely to make bad or hasty management decisions after a day full of hundreds of trivial judgments,” he wrote in an article for Entrepreneur.com.
It’s why Mark Zuckerberg rocks the same gray t-shirt every day while leading his team of co-workers at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. In commenting on the motivation for his minimalist approach to fashion, Zuckerberg observed: “I’m in this really lucky position, where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, he of the signature black turtleneck, shared a similar philosophy, eliminating trivial decisions — like what to wear on any given day — to focus on the big picture, his relentless pursuit of building Apple into a global brand.
Given each of these entrepreneurs’ remarkable careers, perhaps it’s a daily routine all of us should adopt, although my periodic forays into the world of fashion generally end badly, as my colleagues at GIE Media would no doubt attest. A few months ago, hoping to follow Zuckerberg’s lead and clear my brain of trivial thoughts for the coming week, I methodically laid out my clothes on Sunday night — a dress shirt, V-neck sweater and jeans — jumping out of bed at the crack of dawn the next morning to welcome a new day! Within 15 minutes of my alarm going off I had taken a shower, donned my “threads” and headed out the door, stopping at my local Dunkin’ Donuts shop to purchase a cup of coffee and a donut en route to work.
Later that morning as I headed to the restroom, a co-worker approached me with a quizzical look on his face, saying, “Dan, I think your sweater is on backwards.” I immediately looked down and sure enough he was right! Where the V in my sweater should have been, a single white tag with washing instructions was peering up at me. (Rinse with cold water; tumble-dry.) Apparently, for several hours that morning, including my stop at Dunkin’ Donuts, I was wandering around town with a prominent piece of clothing on completely backwards!
Understandably embarrassed, I immediately headed back to the restroom, adjusted my sweater, and returned to my desk a bit shaken by the early-morning encounter with my colleague. Where did I go wrong? I had only been awake two hours! I couldn’t possibly blame my fashion faux pas on decision fatigue. After all, I had only made a handful of decisions by 8 a.m. Then it dawned on me! In anticipation of stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts, my mind was completely preoccupied with the numerous options that lay before me before me as I put on my clothes that fateful morning. I could choose a glazed donut; a cream-filled donut; a chocolate-covered donut; an old-fashioned donut (booooring!); a blueberry donut; a marble-frosted donut; a powdered donut. The possibilities were endless and that doesn’t even include the donut’s kissin’ cousins ... apple fritters and crullers.
The obvious conclusion is I had completely worn myself out contemplating what type of donut I was going to order that morning, taxing my intellectual reserves so thoroughly that I was incapable of dressing properly. I can only hope Zuckerberg forgives me. One thing is certain, there’s no way I’m replacing my Dunkin’ Donuts obsession with Starbucks given the number of options available on their coffee menu. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
The author is publisher of PCT. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.