Mindful Money Habit #2: Avoid Decision Fatigue & Boost Financial Willpower
Have you ever been in the middle of a task at work or school when somehow you end up on Amazon (or a similar site) and order all the things you’ve been wanting but trying to resist? Or maybe you’ve come home from work, after a long and stressful day, hopped on a food delivery site and ordered EVERYTHING - even all that fried food you know you shouldn’t be eating. Later, after your spending or eating binge has subsided, you find yourself assuaged in guilt. What was I doing? What came over me? Why am I so weak?
Here’s the deal, kick the Shame Game. It doesn’t serve us here. Instead, let's dig deeper into how we can avoid decision fatigue, boost willpower, and learn to make better financial decisions.
One of my favorite research experiments was setup as follows. Participants were given a randomly selected number to remember the length of which was either 2-digits or 7-digits. They were then asked to walk down to another room for an interview. Subtly, they were told they would encounter a food cart along the way and they could choose a snack to eat.
Following the directions, the participants walked to their interview and stopped at the snack cart along the way. There, they were presented with two options: chocolate cake or fruit salad. Participants with a two-digit number to remember chose equally between chocolate cake and fruit salad. Participants with a seven-digit number rattling around in their brain overwhelmingly chose the chocolate cake.
The Daily (Lack of) Routine
Imagine yourself in a situation like this:
You’re late for work. As you stare at the clock, you wonder if you have fifteen minutes to spare for some yoga stretching. Ten minutes tick by as you lay in bed debating, consuming any time you actually did have. In an anxious rush, you hop out of bed and into the shower. As you stand under the water, you recount all the things you should do today. You were hoping to wake up early and finish a report that’s due later today, but your snooze button ended that dream. So, your report will have to be first on the list. However, you have an 8:30am meeting with your team and a budgetary review with your boss right after that. So, you’ll have to finish the report right after that - but you remember you’ll only have 15 minutes or so before you must head to that industry luncheon.
Still anxiously organizing your day, you hop out of the shower. What to wear? Should you go professional for your meetings? Business casual? Bright colors or muted ones? Stripes, dots or solids? Trendy or timeless? You nervously look at the clock as you can’t decide. Ultimately, you throw on an outfit that was hanging over the bannister and head out the door. You feel frumpy, but you are in a rush.
A block away from work, you walk by that new artisan doughnut store (whatever that means - can’t a guy/gal just get some plain, regular doughnuts?). You tell yourself that you’re trying to avoid sugar and carbs, but as soon as the thought enters your brain, you find yourself walking into the store. I’ll buy a dozen for the meeting this morning, you think. And you do. Except you end up eating three of them. Then you drink a bunch of coffee to overcompensate for the ensuing sugar crash. With this weird combination of overly-caffeinated sluggishness occurring in your body, you attend your meeting with your boss. Who is ready to talk budgets?!
Decision Fatigue is Real
This is your brain on Decision Fatigue. You see, it’s not that you don’t have any willpower, it’s that you are depleting it. Regularly. And depleted stores of willpower lead to decision fatigue, and, ultimately, poor decision making.
This is what happened to the participants in the above study. With only 2-digits to remember, many participants could make the healthy choice and eat the fruit salad (and maybe the others just wanted some good-looking chocolate cake!). However, when seven digits were on repeat inside their brains, the more immediately gratifying choice of eating chocolate cake became too tempting to pass on.
Now think about this: How many financial decisions do you make in a healthy state of mind? If you’re like most of us, not many. We are bombarded with advertisements, information, and news reports demanding some sort of action or decision. Listen to me! You must have an opinion on this! You must decide where you stand! Have you ever checked out a pair of shoes, passed on them, and then had that same pair of shoes follow you to every webpage you subsequently visit? Have you ever, like me, given in an hour later and bought those shoes? Well, now you know why. The continued advertising forced you repeatedly remake the decision not to buy the shoes. Ultimately, saying ‘no’ over and over again drained your willpower and you gave in.
Have you ever bought a new car? If you haven’t - good for you. It’s usually a terrible financial decision. However, I have (from mistakes come wisdom I hope). I came in with a budget, knowing full well the car I wanted and the dollar amount I was willing to spend. Then, I was presented with 173 upgrades, add-ons, and options to consider. After saying ‘no' to the vast majority, I started saying ‘yes’ to a few. By the end, exhausted, I looked at the final number. My monthly payment had gone up $75. Unfortunately, I was too tired to walk-away and re-start the process. I signed the papers. The car salesman won by ‘decision fatiguing’ me into more add-ons.
Learn to Boost Your Financial Willpower
So here is our mindful money habit: you can boost your financial willpower by acknowledging when you are in a state of decision fatigue. By simply understanding willpower as a depletable resource, and learning to take notice when your well is running dry, you can gain a better understanding of when it is time to step back and take a moment to refresh and rejuvenate yourself.
Don’t fight it. Don’t push through it. Just be mindful of it. When you notice you might be in a state of decision fatigue, take a break. No, not a stare at your phone break. A real break. Something rejuvenating. A short walk. Some light stretching. Sing loudly to your favorite song. Meditate. Dance around a bit. Whatever it is that helps re-focus and re-energize, go for it. Here’s a few more thoughts for you to peruse:
- First Thing First: Before making a financial decision ask first, “Am I in a place to make a good decision?” If not (you’re anxious, stressed, hungry, tired, etc.), simply decide not to decide until you are in a healthy state-of-mind and move on with your day.
- Expert Level: The more mind-space you free up, the more quality decisions can be made!
- Breathe: Take 10 deep breaths. Step away from the computer, phone, or store for a few minutes. Can you calmly decide now? If so, go for it. If not, move on with your day. Most of the time you’ll find you never think of it again.
- Decision-Making Time: Block out time to consider your budget or large purchases. Don’t decide at 9 p.m. after a long and exhausting day. Think about it on a Saturday morning, after a wonderful sleep and with a cup of warm coffee in your hand.
- Try Intently: Intently puts positive messages or affirmations in place of advertisements on your web browser. Now, instead of being bombarded by marketers wanting your dollars, you’re presented with inspirational quotes and beautiful pictures. Take that decision fatigue!
- Simplify your Routine: Deciding whether to attend that 6 a.m. exercise class tomorrow morning? Switch the decision to Sunday instead as you plan your week. Commit and move on. Don’t consider the ‘decision’ again. President Obama famously only wore grey or navy blue suits because when you run the country you have a lot of decisions to make. What to wear shouldn’t be one of them.
- This really works by the way, 75% of the time I wear some sort of blue shirt with grey pants. It simplifies my buying decisions greatly. It’s not a shade of blue? It has stripes? I can’t buy it. Dress Up? Put a sport coat on. Casual? A fleece should work just fine.
- Further Reading
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. One of my personal favorites.
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Potentially a new favorite.