I Automated My Decisions For a Week and Found Mental Clarity
Taking the concept of decision-automation for a test run.
This post is part of Thrive’s “We Tried It” series, where Thrive employees experiment with strategies to improve their work and home lives, perform better and boost their well-being. Up this week: a real-life investigation into decision fatigue.
We make thousands of decisions each day, according to some estimates. Not all of them are equally important. Deciding what pants to wear and how to support a friend in need require different amounts of attention and mental energy, for example.
There’s some research suggesting that making decision after decision can drain your brain, leaving you less capable of handling hard choices as the day goes on. And though there’ve been questions recently about how valid that research is, it does make you wonder whether making fewer choices each day could be beneficial.
This got me thinking about whether automation could put me on the path to clearer thinking. So I decided to take it for a one-week test run. As context, this was not just a professional decision (or, assignment) but a personal one too — I am terrible at making decisions. I say this as someone who literally flipped a coin about where to go to college (and ended up transferring). For me, decisions often involve agony, hair pulling, sweaty palms — making minor choices throughout the day is totally overwhelming for me, and by the evening, simply choosing what to eat for dinner or listen to on my commute home feels like a Herculean task.
The plan: For one week, I’ll make fewer decisions by automating “inconsequential” choices so I (hopefully) have more mental clarity for the important things. I’ll tackle food, clothing and media. I’ll eat the same taco salad for lunch every day (from by Chloe), wear blue jeans and a black turtleneck a la Steve Jobs and adhere to a media diet — a predetermined list made Sunday night of what I’ll listen to, watch and read throughout the week. I know I’ll be tempted to cheat on my media diet, so I’ll automatically set my phone to go into “do not disturb” mode between 10:30 p.m. and 7 a.m. so social media notifications don’t pull me in.
Here’s a recap of my days:
Monday, Feb 13
I am casually emulating Steve Jobs (it was a tight race between dressing as Angela Merkel, Zuckerberg or Jobs — I chose Jobs) in hopes of becoming a “uniform dresser.”
It did feel great not having to fret about fashion this morning — I was out the door faster than I’d been before (maybe ever) and not having the choice to try something else on, while limiting at first, was ultimately freeing. I set my alarm for 7:20 a.m., meditated for ten minutes at 8:00 a.m. (this trend didn’t last throughout the week, to be clear) and ate my daily breakfast of granola with almond milk. At the end of the day, though, I have to say I don’t feel drastically different.
Tuesday, Feb. 14
You know what the most romantic thing in the world is? Dressing like Steve Jobs on Valentine’s Day. You’re welcome, world (and partner).
On day two, I have not yet tired of my by Chloe salad. I did have to announce in a team meeting that I’m wearing the same outfit everyday, not the exact same items of clothing (I have 6 black Uniqlo turtlenecks).
My important musings of the day: I haven’t felt a remarkable, overwhelming sense of clarity, nor any “lightness” by being lifted from such weighty decisions as choosing clothing and food. I will say, however, it’s given me much less time to dawdle (one of my favorite activities) in the mornings. I used to be stressed to get out the door on time, or I’d get distracted by something completely irrelevant like investigating grout on the shower tiles and then scramble to get out the door on time.
Because social media isn’t explicitly part of my media diet, I’m not really engaging in it. Yesterday, I felt like I was missing out. And the impulse to scroll through Instagram or pull up Twitter when confronted with a semi-awkward situation where I would have to stand silently next to other humans scrolling Instagram, i.e. riding the elevator or waiting for coffee, is hard to resist. But being unplugged in a world of people staring down at their phones is proving to be liberating and eye-opening — you don’t realize how often we default to staring at screens until you’re the only person in the room who’s not doing it. That said, the media diet is shaping up to be the greatest gift of all. Unplugging is…magnificent. Especially today, because someone, not naming names, has an ex-boyfriend who is prolific with posting pictures of himself and his new girlfriend on Instagram. His magnum opus, I swear.
Wednesday, Feb. 15
I’m still not sick of the salad and feeling pretty damn confident in my blue jeans/turtleneck combo despite being greeted with “Hey Steve!” when I walk into the office. There are worse people to emulate.
As the week continues, I’m realizing that the media diet is really my favorite aspect of my decision fatigue experiment. I find myself using technology less (except for my computer at work, of course). It does feel very strange that I’m deliberately cutting myself off from the digital world though. Fear of missing out is waning for social media but being disconnected from the constant news cycle — while incredibly freeing — is a blissful ignorance that I’m not sure I can entertain for more than a few days. The positive side of this is that I’m relying on my coworkers and friends to keep me in the loop — a novelty these days.
Another plus of my predetermined media diet is the time it’s saving me. We can all relate to wanting to watch something, then spending a sitcom’s amount of time just looking for the perfect show to sate your palate. Even better, I haven’t felt this engaged with a book since college — truly (I chose to read a book of stories by Ted Chiang). The lack of options while commuting (usually I spend at minimum three stops deciding what music or podcast I want to listen to halfheartedly while I struggle through the NYT crossword) has also made for a more peaceful and screen-free ride.
Thursday, Feb 16
It’s my fourth day of channeling the more famous Apple-related Steve (sorry, Wozniak), eating my by Chloe salad for lunch and adhering to a media diet.
I have to admit that making fewer decisions in other areas of my life feels relatively anticlimactic. I’m not more decisive or clear about a whole host of overwhelming things that have come my way this week. However, as the days have progressed, there’s been something wonderfully easy about knowing that, in a world of inconsistencies, a few things are constant — clothing, food and media. Even when I woke up later than I expected this morning (blaming the snooze button, my arch nemesis) it didn’t really matter — getting ready took literally half the time it used to, and it took the “frazzle” out of being behind schedule.
Friday, Feb 17
It’s 6 p.m. on my last day of being Steve. I will miss it, and the excuse to dress like the liberal-arts school cliche that I am.
I spoke about this in the previous entries, but I’ll say it officially now: The media restriction, for someone as media hungry as I am, has been the most important aspect of this experiment. And it revealed the enormous amount of media-based decisions we make not just daily, but every second. Should I like that post, should I retweet this, should I watch this show or that one, what about this movie? Oh I really should share this photo. But what filter? Or do I even need a filter?
It’s maddening. I’m grateful for the wakeup call about my relationship with media. I knew the relationship needed some work, but until I took away the media options, I didn’t really feel it.
I spend all day on the computer. Which has me asking, why would I choose to come home and unwind with more computer after already being in front of a screen all day? At times, I would come home from work and watch Netflix while eating or scroll through Instagram while waiting for water to boil — the deliberate media break made me feel incredibly self conscious, in a positive way, about how often I reverted to these options not out of genuine desire, but out of habit. And perhaps that’s the greatest gift of this experiment — the self-awareness that when I hop onto my computer after work, it’s really a reflection of not knowing what it is I want, or need, to truly unwind. It feels revelatory, though deceptively simple: Taking away the options reveals that the options, of which there are endless, are really just a crutch. Being forced to “make do” with less allowed me a slowness, and contemplativeness, I haven’t enjoyed in months.
Which is to say, I had enough time to make dinner, and curl up with a good book — although curling up in denim dad jeans is just about as unpleasant as it sounds.
I tried it. Should you? Yes! Regardless of whether you’re unbearably indecisive like I am or a self-proclaimed expert decision maker, it’s an easy experiment to try, at least for a few days.
If wearing the same thing, choosing what to eat and deciding what to watch, read and listen to leads to more mental clarity — and more brain power to tackle the decisions that really matter — isn’t it worth the 15 minutes of planning it would take on a Sunday night?
The update, one month later: Since The Week of Being Steve Jobs, I haven’t continued with the same rigorousness of decision-automating, but I have adapted the experiment. I have a few rotating options in clothes, food and media to choose from, which feels like a healthy balance between having one clear-cut decision and having the world as my oyster. I cycle between a few outfits, have coffee and lunch spots that are go-tos (by Chloe salad included) and have tried to make media-consuming simpler — when browsing Netflix, I give myself a cap of how long I’m allowed to search. Same goes for podcasts, and if the shot clock runs down, I pick the first thing on my favorites list.
My phone is still set on silent from 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m., and as a takeaway from both I Tried It’s, I’m more mindful about my relationship with my phone, especially when it comes to social media. As a general rule, I’ve been prioritizing reading a book in moments when I would revert to social media, particularly during my commute. I’ve since read more than I’ve read, truly, in years.