Decision Fatigue

Posted on November 28, 2011
Filed Under life | 2 Comments

I’m still catching up on the unblogged items from throughout 2011, aka “The Year Lost to A Tiny Human.” Here is one from last August that I’ve been thinking about for months.

According to this article in the New York Times, there is a phenomenon called “Decision Fatigue.” I can’t attest directly to the science or the reportage of the science, but I do know in my life I feel like this is a big issue. In our modern first world lives, every single day I am asked to make dozens of decisions over and over that I don’t really care about. According to the article, each one of those whether profound or trivial is using up a bit of your store of “decision making mojo” (term coined by me, TM.)

A trivial example of this from the average lunchtime is this – compare going to Subway to Jimmy Johns. In either case, you walk out with a fairly similar sandwich. All told, you get more food for cheaper at Subway, but I prefer the experience of going to Jimmy Johns. Why? Because I walk in to Jimmy Johns and tell them I want a #6. I even make a substitution, deli mustard for mayonaiise but when I place that order, that is the end of it. I hand them money and shortly get a sandwich handed back to me. I can order three or seven, and the experience is the same. Contrast that to the Subway experience. Going to the head of the line at Subway is like being interrogated at the station house.
“What sandwich do you want?”
“What bread?”
“What size?”
“What cheese?”
“Do you want this toasted?”
“Which toppings?”
Even if you say ‘the works’, you still get asked “Do you want the jalapenos? How about the banana peppers?”
“What sauces?”
“Chips and a drink?”
“How about a cookie?”

By the time this experience is over, I’m exhausted from having to answer all of these frigging questions when truth be told, I don’t give much of a shit about any of it. You could hand me my sandwich on any bread, with any cheese, and with any permutation of toppings and I’d feel about the same about it. Scale this up to across your whole life all day, and it begins to get abrasive.

Recently we went to get photos of the baby taken at the mall, and we had not even thought about Santa being there. We’d already had a photo session when we saw the Santa stand and decided to do that one too. I didn’t even think hard about the options, I went straight for the top package with the most stuff. The reason was that the few dollars in savings mattered less to me than making an arbitrary decision I didn’t care about and trying to decide right there on the spot whether it was better to have 3 5X7 vs 4 5X7 and whether it was better to make a tradeoff on wallet sized. Further, the purchasing experience at JC Penney’s Photo Studio is such that they take photos and then 2 minutes later you have to make all decisions about which and how many to purchase, and if you don’t decide right that second the price skyrockets from $4 to $10 a sheet. It’s kind of a gross and unpleasant user experience but not at all atypical in modern American consumer driven society.

One of the things I do on a small scale is the invariant ordering at certain places. When I go to Starbucks, I get an Americano 99.5% of the time. I get the same sandwich at Jimmy Johns every time, and at most restaurants I frequent I have a small set of go-to options. For me personally, I’m happy to trade off variety for simplified decisions. In those places where I am a regular customer with invariant ordering, after a while they learn my choices. I’ve had my Jimmy Johns sandwich (with correct condiment substitution) waiting for me on the counter because they saw me parking my car and started making it. My regular Starbucks will often bring my drink to my table without us ever exchanging a word, which is fun because the beach tourists always look confused over how a guy who never ordered at all got a drink ahead of them.

I’m not telling anyone how to live their life, but if you are in the business of trying to shake money out of American consumers, you might want to consider the best ways to streamline decisions out of the process. Every one of them is a roadblock that might abort the transaction entirely. Think of the ways to reduce the whole transaction to “Yes, I want it” and then boom it is done. Amazon is particularly good at this. What is “one click ordering” if nothing but “decision free checkout process?” Brilliant.

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2 Responses to “Decision Fatigue”

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  1. Shannon on November 29th, 2011 2:25 am

    Yes, yes, yes. I’m trying hard to be sure that the current nifty techno gizmo that we’re working on will “just simply work” when plugged into whatever computer. This takes some thought and a dash of compromise, but part of our mission is to “delight our customers”.

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  3. J Wynia on November 29th, 2011 9:19 pm

    In as many places in my life as I can, I work to make decisions once and go with that decision going forward.

    Like I say at work:

    Always and never are cheap and easy. Sometimes is a pain in the ass.

    In software, as in life, it’s true. If you can say that a software feature should always do this or should never do that, it’s easy code to write.

    Whenever you can say, under these circumstances, I always do X, you no longer need to deal with it as a decision. That frees you to think about other things and save that decision-making energy for other, more important decisions.