It’s probably no surprise to you that the number of decisions we make each day is estimated to be in the thousands! In this age of digital connection, the pressure to capture, filter and act on information has never been greater. The pre-frontal cortex (PFC), is referred to as our executive centre and is essential in decision making, yet in order to function well the PFC requires dopamine, the brain's fuel!
How many times have you found yourself at the end of the day, agonising over what to cook for dinner, or which TV show to watch? Seemingly simple decisions become mammoth tasks because our brains run low on fuel. Given that we all have to make many decisions on a daily basis, I want to share with you how and why I use the power of building positive habits to help combat decision fatigue so that you can do the same.
People often ask me about what I wear.
You see, when I work, be it facilitating or presenting keynotes, I only wear black. Sometimes, after the second or third day, someone will come up to me and say, “I noticed you’re wearing black again”. Even if they don’t, it still comes up when we get into how the brain is wired and how our brains suffer from decision fatigue.
You see, the PFC, while being the place where decisions are made, is also responsible for a lot of our cognitive processing such as self-regulation, paying attention, creativity, innovation, and being strategic. As a result, it requires a lot of fuel.
Habits, on the other hand, require much less fuel. The brain naturally wants to conserve as much fuel as possible and it does this by creating habits, which reside in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia.
I also travel - a lot – and I love it. Yet on some occasions I find myself walking in the door with one suitcase, emptying it out and repacking it for a flight out again the same day. Regardless of how many times I have to pack my bags, I never have to make a decision about what to wear. On any given day I just pick from approximately 10 black pairs of trousers and 20 black tops, never burning any fuel and making sure my dopamine stays at its highest levels. I also incorporate rituals when I’m in Sydney, Melbourne, or Auckland – in fact just about anywhere I travel to. I stay in the same hotel, I know where my running route is, am familiar with the swimming pool, and I know where to go and eat.
This is the reason I wear black. It’s the same reason why Steve Jobs wore a Mark Jacob’s roll neck jumper, and why Bill Gates has the same breakfast every day. By creating habits, we essentially put our activities on auto pilot. By not having to ‘think’ so much about what we are doing, we conserve fuel. As a result, we are able to stay fuelled up for when we really need to engage in higher order processing such as critical decision making, creativity, or focussing our attention. Think about what you do daily on a habitual basis – is it working for you and saving you critical dopamine?
So, you can see why creating habits is useful in helping avoid decision fatigue. In order to get the most benefit from our habits, they need to be effective and positive habits. If we can experience more positive emotion as a result of effective habits, Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory tells us that we can increase our positivity and wellbeing. Conserving fuel and increasing our wellbeing? That’s a win, win by anybody’s assessment!
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg outlines the habit cycle as one of cue, routine, and reward. For example, the morning alarm clock goes off (cue), you get out of bed and take a shower (routine), and as a result you feel refreshed and sparkling clean (reward). Over time, our brains crave the reward that the habit generates and the routine is reinforced.
Effective habits, once embedded, help to conserve fuel and enable you to perform tasks as a ritual. It is also why they are so hard to break. In order to break a habit, and replace it with a new one, our prefrontal cortex needs to get actively involved because now we need to think about what to do (the routine) when the cue shows up.
This takes time. How much time? The answer’s not so black and white and it will be different for different people. One way is to use concrete visual or physical cues when trying to create new habits. For example, placing a post-it-note on the floor beside my bed to remind myself about my nightly exercise routine.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you wear black or decorate your home with post-it-notes! Think about where could you create some rituals and habits that would allow you to preserve your fuel for the more important decisions in life.