Note: This is a guest post from Julia Ubbenga of Rich in What Matters.
One of my favorite quotes about clutter goes like this: “Clutter is simply the result of delayed decisions.”
When what we last touched—around the house, in our car, in our inbox—becomes “left for later” it becomes clutter.
So why do we do this? We want to live in an uncluttered environment, but our willpower doesn’t always win out.
Here’s one explanation: decision fatigue.
This term, first coined by social psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister in his research at FSU, simply means the more decisions we make, the more difficult making our next decision becomes. Baumeister discovered that humans have a finite amount of daily willpower that wears away as we make decisions.
Think of it this way. Our decision-making power source is like our iPhone battery. We start out the day on 100%, but as the day goes on and decisions are made, our mental charge depletes.
Do I hit snooze or get up with my alarm? Down to 99%.
Do I make the bed? 98%
Do I check my phone or do quiet time first? 97%
And so the decision making continues into our day.
Some are easy: “Mom, can I jump off the kitchen table and show how I fly?” (“Um, absolutely not—get down now!”) Down to 65%.
Or more weighted: Do we send our first grader to school this year or homeschool? Down to 40%.
With every decision made, our decision-making reserve decreases. When our battery gets low (could be by noon depending on the day), so does our willpower and ability to make good decisions.
This is why we’re more likely to grab junk food in the evening instead of a healthy option, leave the mail on the counter after work instead of filing it away, and drape those pants we’ll wear again over the exercise bike instead of hanging them in the closet. By this point, our brain seeks the path of least resistance, which often creates clutter.
So how can our decision-making reserve get a better battery life?
How can we minimize trivial decisions to save our mental charge for “bigger” decisions that matter (including those that help maintain a decluttered environment)?
Here are 7 ways to decrease decision fatigue:
1. Simplify your wardrobe
Minimizing your wardrobe reduces the number of outfit options you have to consider.
While you don’t necessarily have to take it as far as Mark Zuckerberg and basically own duplicates of one outfit, great minds like his are onto something.
By minimizing your wardrobe, you also minimize the number of morning decisions you make, saving your decision-making power for more important things later in the day.
One practical option is creating a capsule wardrobe comprised of interchangeable pieces to give your wardrobe variety while greatly simplifying the decision of “what to wear.”
2. Practice a morning routine
Implementing routines and rhythms into your day is key to reducing decision fatigue.
If your mind is bombarded with choices first thing in the morning, your mental energy will be zapped by noon. Instead, keep things as predictable as possible in the morning.
Get up at the same time, have coffee (or a drink you look forward to), spend time in quiet, read something inspiring, meditate on affirmations, exercise—whatever gets you most ready for the day, plan to do that.
Morning routines prepare your mind to tackle the day from a place of positivity with less decision fatigue throughout the day.
3. Reduce clutter in your environment
If your environment is cluttered, you’ll constantly see items that need addressed. The stack of bills in the corner … you weren’t planning to pay them today, but now that you see them, maybe you should. And the pile of broken toys on the counter … you weren’t planning to fix them today, but, well, maybe you should.
Bottom line: clutter is distracting and draining, leading to even more delayed decisions (which causes more clutter!).
4. Apply the Rule of 3 to your to-do list
Each night, write a list of everything on your mind to accomplish the following day.
Then choose the three tasks that are most important and commit to doing them (save the other tasks for another day).
By clarifying what you want to accomplish, you start your day with a plan. You work deliberately, not reactively. Plus, your mind stays sharp because your mental energy is not bogged down trying to decide which tasks to address and which to let go.
5. Slow down your schedule
Our culture promotes touting an overflowing schedule. But behind every overly busy calendar is an equally busy brain attempting to juggle it all.
Truth is, we’re not called to do it all. And every decision you make about trivial calendar items pulls precious willpower from the things that matter.
Scan your schedule for half-hearted commitments. Then eliminate them. Try rating each commitment on a scale of 1-10. If it’s not a 10, use that time and energy for more meaningful pursuits.
Then, practice putting boundaries around your schedule to keep it slow.
This may mean limiting your child’s extracurriculars to one a week, or only allowing one appointment a week. With guidelines around your schedule, you guard your time and your decision-making power.
6. Simplify your meal routine
Studies show the average American spends 40 minutes a day thinking about food.
That’s more than 240 hours (10 days) a year.
Save that brain power for more important decisions by creating a streamlined meal routine. Set parameters for your meals that allow for variety within your guidelines.
This might mean breakfast is a protein smoothie each morning, but you vary the added fruit. Lunch may consistently be a salad, but you vary the toppings. Dinner is meat and veggies, but you mix and match the pairings and cooking methods.
7. Ask yourself what decision would be best for your brain
Prioritizing and optimizing brain health will help reduce decision fatigue.
When faced with a decision during the day, try asking yourself this simple question: “What would be best for my brain right now?”
Watching Netflix or a walk in the sunshine?
McDonald’s for lunch or a meal made with unprocessed foods?
Time spent scrolling mindlessly through Instagram or quality time connecting with a loved one?
The more choices we make that support our brain health, the stronger our “decision making tool” becomes.
The late author Wayne Dyer said, “Our lives are a sum total of the choices we have made.”
His words put the importance of making good decisions into perspective—our decisions create our lives.
Let’s work today to reduce decision fatigue so we have more “charge” to live life intentionally, and ultimately, with less clutter.
Julia Ubbenga is a freelance journalist and mom of four who documents her family’s journey into minimalism on her blog Rich in What Matters. Her teachings on simplicity and intentional living help others live with less stuff and more life. You can find her on Instagram or check out her free decluttering guide.