Why Decision Fatigue Is Leaving You Broke

21 Comments

With my final exams underway in the next few weeks and my MBA wrapping up for good, I’m in the mood to dig into big projects with gusto. One the main problems I found juggling a full-time job and graduate school was the sheer exhaustion that comes with managing it all. By the time I’d get to my night classes at 6:30pm, my brain already felt totally burnt out from a day in the office, and I found motivating myself to study and concentrate a near impossible task. I slugged through it, but it wasn’t easy (or fun).

In order to combat my exhaustion with more than exorbitant amounts of coffee, I did all the things that are supposed to make you more productive: regular early bedtimes, at least an hour-long workout 3x per week, limited alcohol intake, etc.

Lately, I’m getting into lifestyle hackery by extreme or unusual methods, like those of Tim Ferris. As you know, I’m always a huge advocate of finding shortcuts, in order to get the absolute maximum results from the minimum amount of effort. Likewise, ever since I learned about the Pareto Principle, I’ve made a concerted effort over the years to apply it to absolutely everything, from my financial strategy to how I study for exams. I recently decided I needed to find some hacks for my wardrobe.

For the past few months, it has been an exercise in frustration to try to decide what to wear each morning. I had a full closet but barely anything worked for most days. In my previous job, I was required to dress more formally for the office, the the point that most days I even wore high heels. Now that I work in the start-up space, the environment is much more casual and I can wear jeans to work Monday through Friday. I concluded the reason I had nothing to wear in the mornings was that my closet was too formal for my current job. I promptly removed three-quarters of it and set those items aside for donation, then I did a second purge and removed anything that was looking worn-out, or I didn’t like how it fit or felt. I was left with only a fraction of my clothes, but they were also my most favorite, most flattering, most comfortable pieces. However, I would still need to a few more, or I wouldn’t even have enough clothes to get through 2 weeks.

I thought about shopping, and what a huge pain in the ass it was going to be to go browse around and online for “essential wardrobe pieces”. As someone who’s still dragging her feet to start her wedding registry, you can tell I don’t even like shopping when someone else is footing the bill. My favorite two outfits to wear to work were both comprised of jeans and a t-shirt. “I wish I could just wear a t-shirt and jeans every day” was the only thought running through my head. Then I realized I can do exactly that.

I went online and ordered five identical t-shirts, in slightly different hues (white and pale pastels). They arrived, and they were great. Five days later I was so pleased, I decided I need to immediately order more next payday. I concluded that I didn’t really want to bother with fashion most weekdays, and I will probably sport the same jeans & t-shirt style every workday for so long as it suits me. It’s simple, it can be dressed up with a blazer and jewelry, and it’s easy.

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My friends and fiancé think the idea of me choosing to wear the same shirt each day, only occasionally opting for slightly different hues, is pretty bizarre. And I don’t blame them. “Isn’t variety the spice of life?”, they ask, “Why would you even want to do this?”. My first argument is this isn’t actually that new for me: almost every single dress I own is black or blue knee-length, with capped shoulders. With few exceptions, I dress the same almost every day, and have been doing so for years. Even the jeans I already own that I’m planning to pair my new identical t-shirt wardrobe with are four identical pairs of all the same denim. But I don’t need to use colloquial evidence for my defense, because I also have psychology and celebrity on my side.

Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerberg. Barack Obama.  They all chose to wear the same thing day in, day out, even though they could afford to be as fashionable or unfashionable as they wanted. So why did these successful, busy, rich men choose only one outfit? To avoid decision fatigue.

Decision Fatigue refers to the mental exhaustion you feel from having to make too many choices.

According to psychology, you likely experience — and are affected by — it every day. From waking up and choosing what to have for breakfast, to making big decisions at work, every choice throughout your day, big or small, wears you down a bit. It’s so significant that even presenting people with the same problem at different times of the day will yield different answers. It also doesn’t matter what the choices are. Even trivial decisions like, “would you like to use the red or blue pen?” gradually sap your willpower. In other words, you have a limited mental capacity for making choices, and when it’s exceeded, you’re likely to start making wrong ones.

Marketers and salesmen use decision fatigue to their advantage all the time. If you’ve ever wandered around a store, picking things up and putting them down again, only to finally “give in” and purchase, you’ve experienced decision fatigue… and the damage it does to your wallet. How many spontaneous purchases have you made just because you were worn down by successive choices? This is why it’s unwise to go shopping when you don’t have money to spend: chances are if you spend enough time in the store, they’re going to get you to buy something.

You probably experience decision fatigue when it comes to your finances all the time. Which bank or credit card to choose. Whether to pay off debt or invest. Should you buy or sell a stock. How to cut your budget. Where to take your career. We talk about discipline and self-control when it comes to money, because they’re essential parts of the equation, but instead of just telling people they need to have these characteristics, it’s probably more worthwhile to teach them how to maximize them.

Unsurprisingly, this is why things like creating a budget and setting up automatic payments are so effective: they reduce decision fatigue when it comes to your money. When payday comes around, you don’t have to make choices of where your money is going to go, because you’ve already done so.

If you want to manage your money better, reduce the number of decisions you need to make about it. 

Since taking an options class for my MBA last term, I’ve gotten into day trading. After a bumpy first month or two, I finally got the hang of making money in the game and am gradually building this “fun” into a steady income stream. Making the choice to trade frequently is a completely different strategy than what I’ve employed in the past. I suddenly needed to make many investment choices about many different stocks in a short period of time. I immediately felt overwhelmed by the amount of information I had to analyze… so I set about ways to reduce it. Some of the decision-reduction strategies I take-on is to only trade certain stocks and keep the bulk of my investments in an index portfolio, only to trade during certain hours of the day, only to use certain sources of information about these stocks and the market. At first glance, these actions might seem superstitious or silly, but they simplify my trading and keep me from making mistakes or feeling uncertain about my decisions.

Whether or not you believe choosing what to wear in the morning is a significant enough use of your mental resources that you want to limit the choice is up to you.

But when it comes to managing your money, the less decisions you make, the more wealthy you will become.

For me, wearing the same shirt every day not only speeds up getting ready in the morning, it saves my first decision for the stock market and not my closet!

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21 Comments. Leave new

  • If I could get away with a tshirt and jeans every day I *totally would*. My wardrobe isn’t quite this un-varied, but I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of learning what cuts work with my body, what colors look good on me, and what fabrics look good and are reasonable durable, and just not buying anything that doesn’t fit those criteria.

    Reply
    • I think I will have to be more strict about what I buy.. because there’s so many things I just removed that I remember buying and only wearing once or twice. And I HATE that!!

      Reply
  • I love everything about this.

    I’m very much a jeans & t-shirt person myself (and super curious what brands you buy …) and badly want to create a wardrobe around that, now that I work in-office (start-up as well, so casual is the way to go!). But I’m in a weird place right now. My current clothes are too big for me — which I guess is a decent problem to have — AND I’m in between sizes. At this point, I just throw shit on and belt it. I’ll simplify once my body figures out where it wants to be 🙂

    Anyways, most of the managers in my office have “uniforms” for the exact reason you talk about. I love working with nerds who consider their wardrobe from an analytical, statistical standpoint!

    Applying this same logic to finances is brilliant. Auto-pay takes most of the guesswork out of things, but I have a tendency to change things up and mess with them too often, effectively putting less toward my financial goals, even when my intention is to put more toward them. Huh. I guess I’ve always fought against routine, because it seems boring, but routinizing certain things seems to be the way to go. I’ve started doing this by eating pretty much the same breakfast every day, and I definitely want to continue.

    Yikes. Sorry for rambling. Thanks for the article, Bridget.

    Reply
    • bahahaha you’re my favorite.

      I get the between sizes thing often too — depending on whether I’m training hard or not. Right now I’m in heavy training so my clothes are starting to get too loose…but might be just in time to switch the jeans out with skirts for the summer haha

      The t-shirts I picked up were all from Aritzia.com. Made in China (boo!) but were the best cotton blends I could find (I hate hate hate polyester.. might was well wear a plastic bag). I also like American Apparel but I find there tees are too thick.. these from Aritzia are all soft and light so they just feel comfy.

      Don’t fight routine! Routine is the way! I eat the same 6 meals per day, every day (and 2 of those 6 meals in the same day area identical… such is life)

      Reply
  • This is so true! I have a pretty small wardrobe and it makes getting dressed for work so easily. I also like to set out my outfits on Sunday night for the entire week so there is no guess work.
    I do think that sales people use debt fatigue all. the. time. First thought came to my mind was when we were buying furniture. We looked at so many damn things that near the end, we just picked something so we could call it a day.

    Reply
    • Laying out your outfits days before is a great idea. I do that often!

      And amen to debt fatigue shopping for big purchases.. that’s how I felt picking wedding venues, I just wanted to find a decent one and be done.

      Reply
  • So true. At my last job I got so tired of making decisions I ended up picking two outfits and just alternating them every day. Even in an office which constantly talked about clothing and accessories, no one noticed or commented after three months! Sadly I switched jobs to a much more formal office and am now the middle of adjusting my wardrobe to match the workplace. So important to save the decisions for where it matters!

    Reply
  • Love love LOVE this! Decision fatigue is real. It really hit me with regard to wedding planning. We cut down on a lot of decisions other people make w/r/t their wedding, but in doing that, we had to decide to NOT decide; it was still a decision! It’s exhausting and frustrating.

    I’ve cut down on my wardrobe a lot (inspired by Courtney Carver’s Project 333–haven’t tried the full commitment yet) to help with that, but I still get caught up sometimes (especially if I’m having an I-feel-squishy day). It’s a good challenge for my mind in wanting to be creative with my outfits without having a ridiculously full closet.

    Decision fatigue in money can be a real killer, too, especially if someone is trying to pay down debts. What to do? Which to pay next? Frozen in decision.

    Whatever we can do to reduce our decisions and reduce our commitments allows us to fully focus on what matters. Thanks for the great reminder!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    passionatelysimple79
    April 20, 2015 7:37 pm

    I have a uniform for work everyday and honestly it’s sometimes really convenient! Well most of the time (there is always that one occasion…). But anyway, I’ll go into stores, looking to shop for something fun or new and realize, I already have clothes at home I don’t get to wear enough! It saves so much money and time and all in all, makes life that much easier.

    Reply
    • That is exactly how I felt when I worked at the Apple store! We just had t-shirts and then got to wear whatever pants we wanted, it was so easy. And I agree — it totally spared the rest of my wardrobe! I think that actually might be why I feel like my clothes are wearing out fast now…. because I actually use them haha

      Reply
  • I make decisions on Sunday morning. I meal plan, outfit plan, and set a gym schedule and a cleaning schedule. Then I grocery shop, do laundry, clean and start preparing meals for the week. And then my home life is on autopilot until Friday evening and I don’t have to worry about it disrupting my work week or productivity.

    Reply
  • I like dressing up too much to completely switch to a “uniform” but I did manage to find a solution that worked for both me and my productivity. I stopped wearing anything other than yoga pants. I realized I was wasting too much time and money on finding new pants to wear every time I gained or lost weight (I do a lot of weightlifting so this fluctuates often). That being said, I make sure that they’re made out of a thicker material so they feel more like pants than those “see-through-omg-look-at-her-butt” kind of thing haha. So now I own 5 identical pairs of black yoga pants and pair them with everything else from my wardrobe! Win!

    Reply
  • Getting dressed is my least favorite part of the day, every day. Please tell me exactly what shirt you bought so I can be you. Thanks!

    Reply
  • I’m a depressive, so I know all about decision fatigue. I now eat protein bars during the day so that I only have to worry about dinner. Trying to figure out what I wanted was, for some reason, exhausting and stressful.

    Now that my mother-in-law is going to make extra whenever she cooks (she’s in the guest house), I’ll barely have to worry about dinner. I’m inordinately excited.

    Reply
  • This reminds me that I need to stock up on t-shirts! I like to do that when the Gap is having a ridiculous sale, buy a whole bunch online for ~$10 each with taxes, and then return the ones that don’t work out. I used to be against t-shirts (don’t want to look like an engineer), but now I don’t worry so much about it. I can always dress them up with a necklace and a cardigan. People at my new job dress MUCH more casually than at my last one (which was still reasonably casual), which is sweet. I feel less like I need to think about what I’m going to wear in the morning.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Lindsay Tithecott
    April 22, 2015 4:08 pm

    My mom taught me the wonders of having a ‘uniform’. I wear jeans, t-shirts, and cardigans (always cold) all the time. I sub in, like you, blazers/jewelry/heels/black pants if I’m going to a meeting/luncheon. Best choice I’ve ever made. AND it reduces the desire to buy new trendy items that in reality I won’t feel very comfortable in.
    I have 7 Cardigans (though some came from clothing swaps), 10 tanks, 3 jeans, 2 black pants, 2 skirts. Life solved!

    Reply
  • I have GOT to do this. I posted about it on FB but seeing someone I know actually try it and like it is very very encouraging!

    Reply
  • Did you buy the Aritzia Tandis t-shirt? I have like 8 of them in different colours, they’re great! I actually decided a few years ago that the “base” of my closet would consist of white t-shirts since they’re cute, comfy, can wear them literally anywhere, and it’s such a nice background for accessories. I’m not a big fashion person to begin with, but I do want to look good so this works really well for me.

    If I find a pair of pants that I like, I always buy multiples in different colours. Same with tank tops, or even leather pumps. It just makes dressing so easy and I never am that girl who has to try on multiple outfits making a mess before she goes out because everything in my closet:
    A. Love how it looks and feels on me
    B. Everything is usually in either super neutral colours, or random pops of super bright colours, like neon pink, so it all matches

    I also find this saves me money and “decision” time.

    Reply
  • Just found this blog a few days ago, as a fellow young(ish) Canadian looking to reduce / live simper, I’m hooked and have been binge-reading non-stop. Love your mostly-index-investing-but-also-do-stock-picking strategy. What would be a good percentage to start out? You also mentioned using only certain sources of information about your stocks, do you have recommendations on some good sources? I’m just starting out, and would love to get some tips!

    Reply
  • Decision fatigue literally consumes me. Choices confound me all day long. I am always longing for someone to just tell me what to do. My husband laughs at me because I am always so excited when the weekend comes and nothing is on our calendar – until I am anxiety ridden and paralyzed trying to figure out what to do. What to cook, what to wear, what to read – it never ends! I’ve taken to planning out my day on paper (even on weekends) in half hour increments so that I think about it once and the decision is made. Otherwise my brain is a hamster in a cage all day.

    Reply

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