To learn about the curious malady known as “decision fatigue,” I was given a very simple assignment: Wear the same outfit and automate as many daily decisions as possible for two weeks, then write about whether it gave me more mental clarity. That was it. Easy breezy. I jumped right in.
On Day 1, I picked out a crisp white shirt, got dressed, opened the front door and promptly spilled coffee all over myself. The first lesson of automating your wardrobe: Select dark fabrics.
Why wear the same outfit every day?
By “automating your wardrobe,” I mean following the fashion examples of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and others whose jobs demand a daily deluge of global-scale decision-making. The idea is simple: To preserve brain space for the big calls, cut back on the less significant ones, because the collective weight of your choices, layered over and over each other, creates what psychologists call decision fatigue. Officially, that’s the “deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision-making,” says Jonathan Levav, Ph.D., the King Philanthropies professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Colloquially it means reaching 4 p.m. and no longer giving a damn about the logjam of problems in your inbox.
You can’t always control the flow of the big questions, but you can manage the small ones. Zuckerberg has a family and he has Meta, and he tends to both in simple gray crew-neck T-shirts. (On his first day back from paternity leave, he posted a photo of his gray-on-gray closet and asked what he should wear.) Jobs was too busy inventing the future to worry much about pattern-matching, so he stuck with jeans and black mock turtlenecks. In a July 2016 profile, The New York Times wrote that President Barack Obama—who wore only blue and gray suits—daydreamed about retiring to Hawaii to “open a T-shirt shack that sold only one size (medium) and one color (white)” with Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan and his former chief of staff. When he and Emanuel were faced with problems that had no conclusive answer, they’d turn to each other. “White,” Emanuel would say. “Medium,” Obama would shoot back.
Real consequences of decision fatigue
“Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs or illicit sex,” Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., president-elect of the International Positive Psychology Association told The New York Times in 2011. “It’s the same willpower you use to be polite or to wait your turn or to drag yourself out of bed or to hold off going to the bathroom.” He explored this and more with John Tierney in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
In 2011, Levav and two other researchers conducted a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found Israeli judges paroled prisoners who appeared early in the morning about 65% of the time, while those with late-session appointments were paroled nearly 0% of the time. After a meal break, the probability jumped back to about 65% before resuming its decline. The later-session prisoners weren’t significantly different. They just showed up when the judges had decision fatigue and therefore making the lowest-maintenance calls.
Generally speaking, I have fewer problems than Obama, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Israeli judges and most people on Earth. But I do have a wife, two energetic sons, a writing business and a daily grind. I also love making decisions in the most convoluted manner, which involves some combination of instinct, friend recommendations, Yelp suggestions, Amazon testimonials, Google searches and several competing strains of obsessive-compulsive disorder. (I once took two days to decide which NASCAR hat to buy.) There is more data available to us now than ever before, and I do cannonball dives into it.
I was intrigued to see whether eliminating the tiny decisions would truly free up space for the big ones. I dug in and made a plan to reduce my decision fatigue, and then I spilled coffee all over it.
Choosing an outfit to wear every day
First, I needed a new outfit.
This proved tricky. Deciding what to wear on a garden-variety Tuesday is one thing; picking an outfit to wear every day for two weeks introduces several new layers of commitment.
I considered my needs. Since I work from home, many days my interactions are limited to baristas and the lunch crew at Amore Pizzeria. I don’t need anything fancy, but I do need adaptability—something suited for home and the coffee shop, lunches and interviews, school registration and playgrounds. My outfit also needed to be temperature-appropriate. (I wrote this during a murderous July heat wave that inflated temperatures in my Indiana hometown from “comfortable low 80s” to “surface of the sun.”) I also hoped to be reasonably stylish—nothing sleeveless, no bracelets and no concert T-shirts, although I did look pretty hard at my Guns N’ Roses shirt.
Once I started considering these questions, others began bubbling up faster than I could swat them away: Should I wear button-up shirts? Will I be too hot? Should I stick with short sleeves? Jeans or shorts? I don’t like wearing shorts. If I wear shorts, does that mean shoes or sandals? Am I a hard no on the Guns N’ Roses shirt?
Then it hit me. This was the exact sort of unending, superficial, time-killing decision-making I was trying to avoid. Four minutes in and I was already slogging through an invisible decision swamp about choosing the outfit I would wear every day when I had specific orders not to.
I stopped it cold and went full Zuck: gray crew-neck T-shirt, jeans and a pair of Vans. It was versatile and inexpensive, and no one would notice if I coated myself in coffee. I stacked a week’s worth of outfits in my closet and did a hard reset.
Subconsciously preventing decision fatigue
When picking my official automated outfit, I realized an unsettling truth: I wear a lot of the same clothes anyway.
I’m a person of pleasant, arguably predictable, routine. I use one brand of toothpaste and shop at the same supermarket. I always order a burger with blue cheese and jalapeños at the local diner. We’ve made a 12-hour drive to visit family down South for years, and I find myself pulling into the same gas stations, grabbing to-go sandwiches at the same restaurants. Even my subconscious, it seems, is more comfortable with the familiar. I justify it as adhering to what I’m accustomed to, though the skeptical could say, “Try some different cheese, dude.” When I told friends about this assignment, they gave me a look that unmistakably said, “This will not be your most strenuous challenge of 2016.”
In all likelihood, you’re in a routine, too. “Most people have a fairly structured morning routine where they do the same things, eat the same foods,” Baumeister says. “The human mind is well set up to form habits and routines to conserve its energy.”
Over time, the plethora of decisions we make each day tire us out—and businesses know it, too. Levav found that by manipulating the order of choices to put the more expensive default options last—by which time people had grown weary of making decisions—custom-suit stores and car companies could encourage customers to spend more. (“High-end rims? Sure, fine, whatever.”)
A creature of habit
In most cases, we stick with what we like. For instance, I decided to automate my coffee orders and discovered that apparently I did that four years ago. This is common: Chris Garrett, manager at my local coffee shop, says nearly all of his regulars have a single order, which changes only when they earn a reward. Even then, however, they tend to order the same drink—just in a larger size or with an extra shot. Audrey Brinkley, a barista for just under a year, says customers don’t tend to venture out of their comfort zones unless pushed by a friend or seasonal menu updates. “They don’t think of changing their drinks until you put a new one in front of them,” she says. This was interesting to learn, and terrible for my science. What good was intentional automation if I was already mostly automating?
I started looking for anything I could drop from my daily decisions. I determined that my kids and I would have the same breakfasts: scrambled eggs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and a frosted brown sugar Pop-Tart. (Full disclosure: I’ve been eating the latter pretty much every morning for 30 years so that was no big deal.) To limit screwing around with music in my car, I packed a dozen CDs to cut down on my ability to fire up my phone and pick from every song ever recorded. I sought out low-hanging decision fruit: parking in the same place at home and the store, running the same loop around my neighborhood. I settled in and waited for the avalanche of crystal mental clarity.
How to avoid decision fatigue
- Make important decisions early, preferably right when the coffee hits your bloodstream.
- Don’t decide hungry. Pack decision bananas or some big-choices trail mix.
- Be easy on yourself. Willpower will come and go. Don’t pressure yourself to keep it up: Learn to manage it.
- If you’re not feeling a decision, put it off. Better to postpone a decision than rush one.
- Get plenty of rest. President Bill Clinton once told CNN, “In my long political career, most of the mistakes I made, I made when I was too tired, because I tried too hard and worked too hard. You make better decisions when you’re not too tired.”
What I learned wearing the same outfit every day
First: The good news. During the initial couple of days, a load came off of my shoulders—a light one, sure, but a load nonetheless. My wife works early shifts, so on mornings with coffee to be made, smoothies to blend, day cares to reach, Cubs scores to check and a clock supplying constant, low-level deadline pressure, every little bit of automation helped. I can’t say it revealed brilliant new horizons, but it trimmed the to-do list, which I always welcome.
What’s more, I grew accustomed to my uniform. It’s curious to have one, and I can’t deny the dullish 1984 vibe that surfaced from time to time. But there was also a vague calm to it. I could feel things becoming more efficient, less stressed—not a dramatic lifestyle upgrade, but extra bandwidth. The experiment was working! Life operated a little more smoothly. That lasted for a good four or five days before everything suddenly got super boring.
Turns out when you’re already automating much of your life, making it official can feel suffocating. Right around the beginning of the second week, I began to feel severe burnout regarding gray. I started to miss my other shirts (especially you, Guns N’ Roses). I felt less like the experiment was streamlining my decision process and more like it was eliminating choice. Eventually it felt like work. “Maybe dressing the same is restful for Zuckerberg, but you reacted against it,” says Levav (who, for the record, dresses each morning in whatever T-shirt is closest).
Having a routine helps with decision fatigue
But I missed the point, Levav says: “The critical issue here isn’t wearing a gray shirt every day, but routinizing your behavior. It’s not about a specific routine, it’s about having a routine.” For me, while too little choice was limiting, too much created a paradox wherein I required two days to buy a Brad Keselowski hat.
That said, drawing from a smaller, preestablished pool positively cut down on time and energy. My closet is a lot of blue and gray, sure, but I got to pick which blue and gray. Too little choice scrambles the system; too much oversaturates it. When my experiment of wearing the same outfit every day ended, I went to the coffee shop in sandals and my Guns N’ Roses T-shirt and ordered an iced green tea, something I rarely drink. After all, some choice is good.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Jeff Vrabel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as GQ, Men's Health, Time, Billboard and the official Bruce Springsteen site, because though he's had many bosses, there is only one boss. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two sons—the older just stole bacon off your plate and the younger was personally approved by Springsteen (long story). He can be reached at the cleverly named JeffVrabel.com.