Decisions, Decisions!

Which way?This morning in the hammock (oh, how lovely that sounds, and IS), after I’d written in my journal, I was trolling through Twitter on my phone, and came across a fascinating article from Sunday’s New York Times magazine: “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?

“Yes yes yes!,” I responded, silently, and clicked to learn more…and then read all seven pages of the article on my wee little phone. It is a fascinating read. In a nutshell:

No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain…

The article gets into the science of why this is true, and links the fatigue of too much decision-making with the erosion of willpower.

As someone who is constantly designing and redesigning my life, I can attest to the exhaustion of too much decision-making. On the one hand, what a wonderful freedom it is, to be able to be whoever you want to be in this world — to do whatever you want. Against the backdrop of so much suffering worldwide, this freedom is the most luxurious of luxuries. But ever since I graduated college and the world was my oyster, I’ve also been aware that the gift of choice is also a curse. Choices are stressful.

“An unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates, but as I said to a friend of mine the other day — sometimes examining my life makes it feel more like a petri dish than a work of art. The constant dissection, analysis… and decision-making. What do I want to be when I grow up? Where do I want to live? What creative project should I pursue next? Again, with full humility for the luxury of being able to make such decisions… as the article illustrates, the more decisions we make, the more exhausted our brains become.And of course, these life decisions are on top thousands of other decisions — what to cover for a blog I’m writing for a client, what to eat, how to respond to a prickly situation, etc.

No wonder I get so damned tired.

I’ve often wondered – if I lived in a society where they assigned me a profession as a teenager, and that was just that – would I be happier? What about arranged marriage? I can’t imagine it, but what if I’d been assigned a husband before I ever met Jordan… if I didn’t know what true love felt like, would I be able to make a happy life with an assigned mate?

Is free will the only path to happiness?

What about surrender? In yoga, sometimes I find the greatest relief when my intention is just “surrender” — let go. “I’m not in charge,” I told myself in a yoga class a few weeks back, when I was feeling particularly stressed out. Because that’s the real source of decision-making stress, isn’t it? We begin to think that our decisions control our fate, when really… we’re never in control. Life surprises us. The most perfectly plotted script can be upset in a heartbeat.

And yet, we have agency. We are not placid amoeba, being nudged along by fate. We do have free will. But maybe the answer is to try to make the best decisions for ourselves while maintaining humility – awareness that while we can often shape our fate, we can’t control it. Maybe that makes decision-making less stressful, less exhausting… knowing that no matter what we choose, the outcome is only partially in our hands.

What do you think? Do you feel the weight of too many decisions in your life?

Photo above by Paul Barnett on Flickr



6 thoughts on “Decisions, Decisions!

  1. Good post. I think your observation about control hits the nail on the head. My mother used to tell me that life was easier when you had no choice about what to do.


  2. Yeah. I have a tendency to put my life on hold in favor of analysis, emotions, stress, earthquakes, logistics … pretty much anything. OK, I think the brief attention to the earthquake wasn't so bad. ;-)Enough sarcasm. I do get worn out by things that happen in my life. And I also do get enlivened by some of the other stuff. I want balance. And — you're right — it's not always 100% in my hands. So I also want to be able to give it over to goddess, spirit, the universe in those cases, so that I can carry on.Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Have a great (not-too-overwhelmed) day.Stan (aka @muz4now)


  3. I never really thought about it that way. But it is true. Decisions are difficult. Sometimes they are fun and inspiring but too many at a time can really weigh a person down. I'm not someone who likes decisions made for me though. I like my choice to or not to. And I think I would stress out if control of my life were in someone else's hands. Balance, yes. Always balance! Great post!


  4. Your mention of arranged marriage reminded me of a project I did in 2007, where I took a job sorting potatoes (and blogged about it) as part of an exploration of "what the hell do I want to do?"Here's a snippet: "Part of me is a little scared of these people, their faith and their traditions. If I could turn the head of that big fellow in the ill-fitting Wranglers, how would I like a life of cleaning, cooking, praying and child-rearing? (Mind you, it's all just conjecture.) I'm a bit awed by the sheer practicality of their family system, comforted by its predictability and fearful of its rigidity, all at once. I get the feeling it's kind of like the Spudnik, chugging those spuds out by the ton — mighty powerful, but where do heart-shaped potatoes fit in?"There really is such a thing as a heart-shaped potato. You don't see them at the supermarket because they are culled out before they get there. What am I saying in this incomprehensibly clumsy metaphor? Okay, busted. Not sure. I do find that I function better when I have a certain level of discomfort — some constraint — an assignment. And I'm not sure it matters what the assignment is. Funny, huh.


  5. I've always thought this idea is what leads to abuse of alcohol and other items that impair judgement. When you have an excuse to not think about things too much and make rash decisions, it really takes the stress out of your system.Not that I'm championing drinking to relax (and certainly not to make decisions!) but if one could embrace that stress-free, immediate decision-making ability while completely sober, I bet it'd de-stress a lot of people.


  6. JW, GREAT point, I wish I'd seen it sooner (my comments alert isn't working right, gotta fix that pronto!)… it reminds me of something I learned in improv, which is that it often doesn't matter what choice you make so much as it matters that you MAKE A CHOICE. If you think about that, it's fairly profound… we put so much stock in every decision… but really… as long as you make a choice, and commit to it… you'll usually end up ok. Marla, your comment reminds me of an old adage I heartily believe, which is that constraint breeds creativity. I used to participate in the 48 hour film fest, where you create a film from soup to nuts in 48 hours. I've also been part of a project where you improvise a film in the time it takes an audience to watch it. Both yielded hugely entertaining results. You could take a year to make a movie, or ten years, or you could get it done in a weekend… it depends on what you (cough) decide. So, yeah… constraints can be a gift.


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