The Risky Spoon

Decision fatigue is a real thing, my friend. Many clever people have come up with many clever analogies for it – one I particularly like is “spoon theory” – but one of my own design is the analogy of a car cruising down the road. If you’re moving along a straight road, the drive is pretty easy. It takes very little effort to keep the car on track; things moving straight want to keep moving straight. But each time you come to a fork in the road and have pick a direction, you now have to exert effort on the car. Muscle power, fuel, tires fighting friction, all of it to make a choice.

Going some distance down a straight road is much easier than the same total distance over many forks and turns. That’s a good analogy for why making a lot of decisions is tiring, even if you do the same total amount of work and even if each individual decision doesn’t seem that difficult.

(I just realized I totally could have made a “forks and spoons” pun out of today’s title. Forgive me.)

One way I deal with decision fatigue in my own life is to have a huge number of basic decisions on auto-pilot and a good system for installing ‘defaults’ into other decisions as well. By making a lot of decisions about small stuff in advance, I leave room in my brain for the big rocks.

But another way that I combat decision fatigue is to have a really high tolerance for risk in most situations.

When I’m headed out to a new restaurant, that presents me with some major decision trees. I’ve never been to this restaurant, and the menu presumably has more than one item on it. That gives me a huge number of choices, but the outcome is largely inconsequential – one way or another, the decision won’t matter in two hours. So what do I generally do? I don’t even look at the menu, I just tell the server that I’ll have whatever the special is tonight. It’s a risky move from a foodie perspective – the special could be anything! But I have a high risk tolerance here: I’m not a picky eater, I don’t generally care whether a meal was good, and a story about a particularly bad meal is as enjoyable to me as a good one. So in the absence of a good default, I default to – whatever!

I notice that many people develop a high risk aversion for even these incredibly minor risks. What movie to go see, where to go for a walk, what topping to get on a group pizza. These things have zero impact on your life past the next hour, so roll the dice! I’d rather default to a risk than burn precious decision-making power.

I have an almost infinite endurance against life’s “small disasters.” Oh, the burger joint got my order wrong? Whatever. One of my shirts shrank in the dryer? Doesn’t change the trajectory of my life. Kid spilled milk on the floor? There are paper towels on the counter, honey.

I do not, on the other hand, have infinite spoons – or forks (ha, got there). For me, making decisions is like going to a flea market with only five $100 bills, and no one can make change. In that scenario I (like you, probably!) would only buy items that cost $100 – you’d ignore items that cost $2 even if they were cool, because you’d have to pay $100 for them. Maybe I’d get a slightly better-tasting meal if I actually looked at the menu and decided what to order instead of saying “surprise me,” but the marginal benefit is just so incredibly minor and the cost (for me) is so high that I never do it. If you knew in advance that you could only make five decisions in a day, you wouldn’t waste one on what to have for breakfast.

Enjoy a little chaos in the small spaces, and impose your order on the big ones.

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