“Only So Much Moxie” / Automating Decisions

Every so often some life coach or guru says that he/she always wears the same hoodie or eats the same thing for breakfast. The rationale is that the brain only has limited capacity-juice-willpower-attention-yada and is easily overwhelmed. Thus, if you save the brain the agonizing decision of which shirt to wear or eating what you are craving, you’ll have so many smarts left over to solve Fermat’s Penultimate Theorem, compose a small symphony or at least pay closer attention during the next meeting.

It’s true that automating decisions saves a modicum of time and energy. It’s probably not a bad way to inspire healthy habits. Just eating chicken breasts and salad might help you lose weight, for example, more so if you do it every day. But are these small decisions so arduous that it makes that much difference? Do you dress the same each day or “automate” any of your decisions? Does it help? Or is this just bull feathers - stuff people do that deprive them of choice while feeling superior to others?

I think it’s a load of bullshit. Most “life coaches” or “gurus” are full of it. Every time I hear one of those guys I feel like somebody’s trying to sell me amway. And usually these guys have a range of supplements or plans that they want you to buy, so they might as well be trying to sell you amway.

People answer their own questions more ofthen than they think.

No, I’m leaning towards BS. But I think many people would actually disagree, and I’m curious why.

Steve Jobs used to wear a black T-shirt pretty much every day. I don’t think his decision was based on saving “brain power,” but rather just efficiency - saving the few minutes it might take every morning to pick out the day’s clothes.

I doubt habitual behavior really saves much mental effort; these types of small decisions tend to be made rather subconsciously to begin with. Instead, I think it’s a behavioral priming mechanism that establishes the idea that “I am a consistent person.” Consistently eating the same meals doesn’t matter much (so long as they’re vaguely healthy). Consistently showing up for work on time and putting in a reasonable effort every day does matter. On the flip side, consistently getting an insufficient amount of physical activity also matters.

Or maybe I’m just self-justifying and I happen to really, really like the shrimp dish from the local take-out place. Who knows; we’re not the most objective observers of our own selves.

I think this is more suitable to IMHO than GQ. Moved.

General Questions Moderator

Sheldon did this in one ep of TBBT; made small decisions by rolling dice.

I’m reminded of the coders who drink Soylent instead of taking the time to eat. It makes good sense because food is a great pleasure, has never been more plentiful and delicious (if unhealthy) and the idea of having the same thing every day is horrifying. Not sure what is in “Soylent” - guessing it must be nutritiously complete, probably tastes mediocre and is expensive - but cheaper by the truckload.

Why assume that you have a finite amount of decision making ability? What if making decisions is a skill that grows with practice? You should incorporate lots of decision making over simple issues like your clothing and meals into your life as a warm-up routine making harder decisions.

You don’t see professional athletes spending all their time in bed in order to save up their physical strength for competition.

See Spoon Theory:

This applies to people with serious chronic illnesses, such as lupus, ME, clinical depression, and other illnesses where someone has very limited mental and physical energy for daily tasks.

I doubt that this can be applied to people in general.

Original article:

I will disagree. I think most people just have more spoons, and don’t run out as easily as those with chronic illnesses.

So everyone has the possibility that they will run out of spoons on certain days. The current situation is making life more difficult. Going out the door means remembering to bring a mask, gloves and disinfectant, something that is certainly not automatic. At least it isn’t for me. If it were a habit, it would probably take less energy, but I’m at home most of the time.

At the beginning of the shutdown I quickly realized that cooking lunch every day was going to be a source of stress. That meant that I tried to make other things simpler.

  • I reduced my wardrobe choices. This also means I make less of a mess looking for something in the back of the wardrobe. Also makes laundry simpler.
  • I keep track of what I’ve cooked, so I have an idea of what to cook next and don’t get bored. I’m trying new recipes and recipes that I haven’t made in years. Enjoying what I eat is important so I am willing to put more energy into this task.
  • I write lists. I have a to-do list for today, and also for when I have time. That gets things out of my head and helps me focus on what I’m doing.

I think having too many choices can be overwhelming. Having no choices is also not good.

One famous study took place in a grocery store. They gave the customers free samples and then tried to sell them jam. Sales were much bigger, by an astonishing amount (seven times?), when they had (say) four flavours for sale instead of fifteen. Too much choice is bad. (Can’t say I remember the exact numbers).

I would believe the “bad day hypothesis” where someone is more likely to lose their temper when pushed if this is preceded by twelve annoying things than if it is not. I keep this in mind when someone is being a jerk the first time. But this is limited patience, and I don’t think it is affected by trivial decisions like getting dressed. If it did, wearing black turtlenecks didn’t help Steve Jobs’ alleged reservoir of compassion.

There’s plenty of research that decision fatigue is a real thing. People aren’t assuming it; they’ve done experiments.

People who have to make lots and lots of decisions start to get worse at it after a while, not better.

It’s one of the reasons it’s really hard to be poor. When you’re poor you constantly have to make decisions about things related to resources. When you’re richer, you don’t have to worry nearly as much because minor cost differences are not something you have to actually consider as part of a decision.

I’m sorting through the third box of papers in 2 days. I am definitely getting overwhelmed with this task, and I am nowhere near done. I would think this kind of decision fatigue, even if it is for unimportant papers, is the reason many people never really clean out their closets, stacks or papers, etc.

Physical fatigue is a real thing too. But when people find themselves getting tired during physical activity, sitting down and doing less activity is not the ideal solution. Sure, you’ll feel better right then. But in the long term, you should exercise and develop the ability to do more activity without getting fatigued.

Here’s an experiment somebody should conduct. Take two groups of people and give them a test in decision making. Record the results.

Then for the next six months have each group show up for hour long sessions each day. One group gets to engage in relaxing passive activities with no decision making required. The other group spends the hourly sessions doing simulations which involve having to make lots of difficult decisions in quick order.

After six months, have the two groups take the tests again. (The tests are not directly related to the content of either set of daily sessions.) Then compare the results with the results from the original tests. Has either group shown an improvement or a decline in average scores? If so, which group and in which direction?

I think you’re probably right that we have the capacity to expand our decision-making ability, but that works on a different timescale. It still makes sense to automate routine decisions so you can focus attention on the important decisions.

Exercise improves physical ability, but someone who knows they’re going to do a lot of strenuous activity later in the same day doesn’t start the day off by doing squats. Similarly, if you know that you’re going to tax your decision-making ability because you’re a CEO and you spend all day making decisions, it makes sense to skip decisions about what to wear or eat.

Again, I feel that’s a false equivalence. We’re talking about people avoiding decision making over issues like what to wear or what to eat on an ongoing daily basis. That’s not the equivalent of skipping your squats on the morning of a day when when you plan a lot of strenuous activity. That’s the equivalent of deciding you should stop doing squats altogether, which I think everyone would agree would not be good preparation for some future strenuous activity.

People with jobs that involve lots of physical labor often don’t exercise much, because they get plenty of exercise from their jobs, and there’s a limit to how much benefit you get from extra training compared to just wasting energy. My sister-in-law, for example, who is a mail carrier, walks 10+ miles a day. She doesn’t get up and go for a run in the mornings because doing so would not meaningfully increase her stamina, but would just make her tired for her actual job.

People whose jobs involve tons of high stress decisions all the time eliminate minor decisions from their lives for the same reason. At the margin, they already have a highly developed ability to make decisions, but at some point adding on more doesn’t make them better at it, it just makes them more fatigued.

On a bad day in the emergency room, I wouldn’t be surprised if a doctor made ten thousand decisions a day - Which drug? Which dose? Which route of administration? The decisions are important, quick and every one can be questioned by anyone and can be rationalized.

But I’ve never seen a health care worker drinking Soylent. Or not have a preference for what they want for lunch.

Soylent, as in soy and lentils. In the obscure 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, a food shop is looted for “soylent steaks”. In the considerably less obscure 1973 movie adaptation, Soylent is made of (spoiler) dead people. But the real life drink contains

Soylent Drink Original