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If You’re in College, You’re Probably Suffering from Decision Fatigue

There’s actually science to explain why most successful people have routines.
June 11, 2017
8 mins read

Stop Overthinking

There’s actually science to explain why most successful people have routines.

By Fate Chernoff, University of Texas at Austin

When you wake up in the morning, what is your first concern?

Mine is always, “What the hell should I eat?” And, should I also drink coffee? But, maybe I shouldn’t drink coffee because I hear caffeine is addictive? Point in fact: From the minute you open your eyes, you’re bombarded with decisions to make.

Your thought process might go something like, “Should I wear this shirt? I’m showing quite a bit of chest hair, and I’m meeting my professor for office hours, so maybe I should opt for the other shirt? Plus, I look like a less attractive Wolverine…okay I’m changing.” Or perhaps, you wonder about little things, such as if the weather requires an umbrella. The list goes on and on. These relatively mundane decisions that you make early on and throughout the rest of your day seem to be irrelevant, but they’re not; in fact, they may actually make or break your day.

Barack Obama, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. If you google pictures of them from different points of their tenures as chief executives, you will find a common thread—they’re all worshiped by millennials. No, okay, here is the real common thread—they were probably wearing the same type of clothing in every image. Steve Jobs? I bet you just pictured him in his black turtleneck and jeans. Mark Zuckerberg? He always wears the same gray t-shirt and jeans, a style he clearly stole from the Winklevoss twins (yes, I’m still bitter). Obama? He always wore the same boring blue and gray suits (except that one time he went full badass and wore this tan one).

Image via Verge Campus

So, why does this matter? It matters because they all became slaves to boring fashion, and by God I want to make it my life’s mission to save them. Again, just kidding. They all opted for boring fashion statements, because they knew that a simple routine could make for a better and more effective person. Their sartorial uniformity is important to note, because by knowing the science that convinced these great men to adopt such unremarkable looks, you yourself can emulate them to increase your efficiency.

If a stranger were to have said to me a month ago, “Look, stop thinking about what kind of coffee you should drink in the morning and decide the night before. The result may be improved academic performance and an all-around better mood,” I would’ve laughed for numerous reasons. First, because I would’ve been so creeped out that a stranger approached me with advice for my morning routine that I would have laughed as a defense mechanism. The second reason, though, is the important one. I would’ve laughed because a month ago, I wasn’t aware of the phenomenon known as “decision fatigue,” and the substantial effect that it has on the brain.

There is a common phrase I used to say when hyping myself up to hit on girls during freshman year, which was “brains over brawn.” Now, I don’t bring this up to relive my past romantic failings, of which there were many, but, instead, because I want to revisit the phrase itself. The saying suggests that the brain and the muscles are two separate entities, but in order to understand decision fatigue, we have to first understand that the brain is, in fact, a muscle. (Yes, I’m aware that it is actually gray and white matter, but just stay with me here.)

Muscles become fatigued as you work them throughout the day, and the result is that your body craves rest. Anyone who has done a certain amount of sit-ups probably knows what I mean. It’s that feeling of burning that leaves you not wanting to do another motion with your abs ever again and go turn on Netflix. The brain is no different. Scientists have known for a while now that willpower is finite. As you go on making decisions—any decision, no matter how mundane—throughout the day, you slowly drain your mental capacity to function, and it negatively affects your work and mood.

There was a study done by the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 that found that judges who were on the bench all day approved substantially fewer criminals for parole at the end of the day than at the start. What this research proved to the National Academy of Sciences is that the decisions you make all day really do have a negative effect on your mood and productivity. In light of their findings, it now seems pretty obvious as to why some of the most successful people in history wore the same thing and practiced the same morning routine everyday.

It’s been a few weeks since I first learned about decision fatigue and how to combat it. Since then, I have won the lottery twice, gotten straight A’s on everything and I can bench five hundred pounds. Okay, so it wasn’t a huge change, but it was a change, and I noticed a difference. Think about it: I’m sure you’ve had a day where you’ve dealt with so many hard decisions early on that you just couldn’t do any work effectively later. It happens to everyone at some point.

While I can’t promise that laying out your clothes for tomorrow the night before will completely erase those days, I will promise you that it can make them more tolerable. Plus, some improvement is still improvement. So, maybe make the effort to sort out the mundane decisions the night before your big day begins; science shows that it could literally make your day.

Fate Chernoff, UT Austin

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Fate Chernoff

UT Austin

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