Previously, I wrote about some of the issues I’ve encountered in moving back to the U.S. after a few years spent living abroad. I suggested that any time spent living outside one’s home culture can result in a case of post traumatic stress disorder.
One of the symptoms I’ve noticed is a difficulty making decisions. I heard about this problem before we left Nicaragua, but didn’t think it would apply to me. Surely I wouldn’t run screaming from the salad dressing aisle like others who’ve gone before me, right? No, my re-entry decision breakdown took place in a different type of store.
Here’s a tip: if you’re returning from life abroad, you might not want to renovate a house within your first three months Stateside. Or if you do, plan on leaving the bulk of the decisions to someone else.
I went to Home Depot no less than four times with the sole purpose of buying a ceiling fan. I even took helpers! Once, my daughter and I spent 30 minutes staring at the plethora of options. And I even had incentives! Another time, my dad went with me, offered his discount coupon, and then promised to help with installation. Both times I left empty handed. HAVE YOU EVEN SEEN ALL THE CHOICES FOR MOVING AIR FROM OUR CEILINGS? Seriously.
And then one day, I entered the store to buy paint. (Choosing colors was another major issue. And I went to art school! I used to work in the paint department! This should not be an issue for me! But it was.) Anyway, the kind folks at Home Depot must have been looking out for me and my PTSD-self that day, because they put a new ceiling fan in a special spot right next to the paint counter. This fan had a fabulous price, and only came in two options: satin nickle or something else (my brain must have blocked the other choice from my memory in an effort to protect me). Two choices! I can do that! Especially when there are lots of other satin nickle stuff in the house already. So I actually came home with a fan that day. And then when we needed another one? I bypassed the huge display in favor of those two choices, and bought the same one, again. And again.
Oh and the paint? I picked up a predefined color chart that had a group of six coordinating colors on it and purchased two gallons of each color. I figured I’d make them work somehow… and did eventually (when my brain wasn’t so overwhelmed).
Part of the issue stems from the sheer number of options available to us in the United States. In our spot in Central America, at my normal grocery store, I had a sum total of one brand of brownie mix to choose from. Easy decision. Yogurt? Plain, fruit flavored, oh and plain. I might have complained about the lack of choices at first, but eventually my brain thanked me.
Turns out all that energy I had previously devoted to making so many daily (hourly!) decisions could now be spent doing the work I’d come to truly love in our new home, and I still had leftover reserves to devote to family and relaxation. In effect, I found myself feeling so much more purposeful and my life felt more balanced. Now, back in the US, there are at least 100 different yogurt options. And dozens of brownie choices. And all those ceiling fans. I know, I know… but options are good, right? The United States is the land of plenty, after all.
Yes, and all of that plenty comes with some consequences.
The Diagnosis: Decision Fatigue
I did some research and was surprised to find my condition actually has a title: decision fatigue. Essentially, our brains get tired from making so many decisions that we just can’t make any more. It’s a real thing. Go figure. Decision fatigue is common among people like us who are renovating or building a new home, for example, as well as engaged couples planning a wedding, and anyone whose job requires a lot of decisions to be made each day.
This works against us in a variety of ways. You know those candy racks by the checkout? It’s not just our kids those racks are targeting. For a lot of us, if we’ve spent focused brain power on making purchasing decisions before getting to the checkout, we’re much more likely to add an impulse candy bar. The funny thing is that the added energy we get from eating food in situations like that actually refuels us, so to speak, to help with making more decisions. (This is particularly tough on dieters, because you need food to keep up your decision-making willpower, but then you’re trying to eat less to lose weight. Ugh. Lose-lose.)
It also means we sometimes make poor decisions simply because we can’t focus on the details. A New York Times article put it this way: “Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making… You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. Or you indulge yourself by looking at quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying).”
Decision fatigue is exactly why many people eat the same food for lunch everyday or the wear the same clothes to work. President Obama has said he does those things in order to preserve his decision-making power for the important stuff. Once you stop to think about it, this line of thinking makes a lot of sense. And as I have seen this playing out in my own life these past few months, here are a few ways I’ve had to adjust my own expectations to fight off decision fatigue.
- Reduce the number of menial decisions being made daily. For example, I gave away a lot of my clothes in Nicaragua and expected to replenish heavily when we got Stateside. Instead, I’ve kept a very pared down wardrobe as it’s been surprisingly comforting to have so few options each morning. 🙂 The point is this: simplifying is a good thing on multiple fronts. And whenever a repeated decision can be automated (such as having your bills paid automatically a few days after they are received into your bank account), do it!
- Cut out the noise. Now that I’m working outside the home again, I am having to readjust to life in an office. The first three weeks, I felt constantly distracted by people walking by. Then, I finally started closing my door. Sounds anti-social, but I realized that each time someone walked by, I had to actually decide whether to talk to them and then for how long. With the door closed, I get fewer “stop-bys” and can remain focused on the more significant decisions I need to make to do my job.
- Stick with what you know. Sure, there are times to try new stuff, but when everything feels so new, now is not the time. I left my favorite sandals behind before traveling Stateside. I couldn’t decide which ones to replace them with, so I ended up buying the closest match to the pair I gave away. Whatever works.
- Carry snacks. In Nicaragua, I got in the habit of always carrying snacks and bottled water because I never knew when we’d find ourselves in a place without access to those. When we moved back, and found fast-food on every corner, I initially stopped doing so. But after reading about decision fatigue, and living it, I’ve seen how prone I am to making unwise impulse-driven decisions in those moments of weakness. So I’m trying to prevent them before they creep up.
- Give it a rest. In the words of Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, “Don’t be afraid to ‘sleep on it’: It’s tricky, because the height of decision fatigue can lead someone to make the easiest possible decision: no decision at all, even if consequences will pile up. But if you know you’ve fought your way through a day of self-restraint, or made too many stress-inducing moves at work already, try to move your decision to the next morning. Or at least ask if you can grab a bite first.”
Throughout this process, I’m learning to better recognize where I’m over-extended. It’s actually quite freeing to reduce the number of decisions that need to be made each day, and focus on the most important stuff.
If you’ve noticed your own case of decision fatigue, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How has it impacted your life?