Why Your Brain Can’t Decide Everything

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It takes just seven numbers to break you down.

Psychologist George Miller revealed this back in 1956 and wrote a paper entitled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two". The findings being that the average person can only keep seven random digits in the front of the mind's memory (the RAM of their brain).

Baba Shiv, a professor at the Stanford School of Business, took this one step further by tricking students to test their mental capacity. (Hear the story on Radiolab.) Shiv had a typical subject in a room. He gave this person a number, between two and seven digits, and then asked them to walk down the hall and report their number to the study organizer in another room. Simple.

But the trick happens when another organizer stops the subject in the hallway and offers one of two snacks for being such a great helper: chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit. The choice is theirs and the results were powerful. When a subject had seven digits to memorize and report, they were twice as likely to choose cake over fruit. Why? Besides the fact that chocolate cake is awesome and everyone should pick it? The theory is the brain is overwhelmed by choice and information by just memorizing seven numbers. The rational side of the mind is working so hard on memorizing that the emotional side of the brain handles the snack choice. And, of course, your emotional brain knows a big gooey dessert when it sees it.

And this is just one decision in the scheme of things. There is growing evidence that there is only a finite amount of decisions we can make each day. And when you consider how much you decide, from the clothes you wear to the breakfast you chomp, your brain can be left gasping by the time you get that 2:30 feeling. It's no accident that we do some stupid shit late at night, like drunk werewolves forgetting what a hangover feels like or that we have responsibilities to attend to the next day.

Some call it ego depletion. Or decision fatigue. Call it whatever you like, the idea is simple, your brain can only decide so much in a single day without getting lazy. Some say the total number of decisions in a day is 35,000. But the reality is it's infinite. With every decision you make, you're making endless decisions not to. And when your brain gets tired or stressed over making so many decisions, it relies on the easy stuff. Most often that means not doing anything at all or relying on habits you've already made. 

The classic horror story of decision fatigue is a study done reviewing the actions of an Israeli parole board. Eight judges over the course of ten months decided the fates of over 1,000 prisoners and the numbers revealed a terrible truth. As time passed each day and more cases were decided on, less and less prisoners were paroled. Except the small boost the judges received shortly after taking a lunch break, the judges' decreasing energy ran parallel to how often they gave a prisoner parole. It just made more sense for the judges to play it safe and keep the criminals locked away. They got lazy with their decisions and prisoners remained in prison.

Now think of how often you and your friends come home for a long workday and can't be bothered to decide what's for dinner, Netflix, or an appropriate time to get off the wonderful Internet and go to bed.

When you think about all the moving parts in our lives, the window gets smaller and smaller for how you can make a dent in the bigger things, like paying off your debt, finding a new job, or finally eating right and hitting the gym on the regular. Designing your life starts to seem like a marathon. You can blow past your personal best and redline your brain, but there is no guarantee you're making the best choice. You're probably not.

The late Mitch Hedberg found humor in this. He said, "I think we should only get three honks a month on the car horn. Because people honk the car horn too much. Three honks, that’s the limit. And then somebody cuts you off, you press your horn, nothing happens, you’re like “Shit, I wish I wouldn’t have seen Ricky on the sidewalk.” 

Instead of using our decisions where they matter most, we waste our time, our resources, and our mental capacity on stupid shit. On stupid Ricky.

But we don't have to!

There are some small and simple ways to take back control every day. Consider these:

Sleep

This is a head-smacker. No duh. Sleep recharges your brain and gives it a bath. And according to a small study from UC Berkeley, it might be fucking with your diet and decisions too. 

Be proactive

Chess master, author, and jiu-jitsu black belt, Josh Waitzkin said, "We obviously live in a world that bombards us with information, and we feel the need to respond to stimulus as it comes in. The problem with this is that we get stretched along the superficial outer layers of many things." Wake up tomorrow and follow a routine of your own. Don't give your mind up to emails or social media or television or anything else that requires your supposedly immediate attention. I promise everything will be fine if you take ten quiet minutes to just be yourself.

Create habits to decide less

This might be stupid simple too. Ever notice that Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg don't dabble in fashion? They wear the same thing constantly without wasting mental energy deciding what outfit makes them look the coolest. (For the record, Zuckerberg wins.) Decide small things in advance. Create regular meal plans. Schedule recurring meetings. Run the same route. It doesn't make you a robot if it means you can decide better on more important things. 

Offloading

Getting Things Done author David Allen centers his productivity philosophy on the idea of dumping every single task and idea out of your head onto the longest to-do list you'll ever make. Once it's down on paper, you're bound to feel better because your mind is clear to act in the present and move forward. Or you can take it to the extreme and tattoo personal truths all over your body like Leonard (Guy Pearce) did in Memento.

Small goals

Remember what happened when Neo went into the Matrix? He freaked out and puked. It can be overwhelming to learn kung fu and have to fight Morpheus right away. So start small and don't hurt yourself.

Now I feel part of you pushing back already. Of course I'm simplifying things here, but the idea makes people uncomfortable. Limiting yourself to routine and baby steps goes against what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the "official dogma" of all Western industrial societies - Maximizing the welfare of our citizens means maximizing our individual freedom, and the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.

But the writing is on the wall - you can't decide everything to the best of your ability. You need to surrender to the truth.

And if you're like me, you might still be wondering, why? Why are we so weak? What's wrong with that wrinkled computer behind our eyes? Why can't we decide more, decide better, decide more perfectly? 

I like to think there is a drop-off for a mysterious reason, a force of nature we can't reckon. We're not meant to fully control ourselves and our lives because it would mean we fully control our world around us. And there is no "our world". There is the world. And the world has a mind of its own. Our decisions are just a drop in a bucket of rippling consequences. To dream of controlling everything and becoming everything is the work of a cartoon supervillian. You can't take over the world.

How did I come to this? It's a religious opinion. I put my faith in a pencil. The Leonard E. Read essay I, Pencil makes this clear. In a first-person account of the genealogy of a pencil, we're able to see how damn much goes into making something so simple and taken for granted. A pencil is just graphite, rubber, metal, and cedar upon first glance, but each of those elements requires the careful and chaotic functions of industries worldwide. Including shipping the materials and manufacturing the piece itself, you can't forget the people that feed and clothe and even care for the people that do this work. 

While our minds aren't well-oiled international networking machines, the world tends to be. I understand it's hard to surrender to this idea. We don't want to imagine the world is in control, or even that some politicians or super CEOs have a more influential say than we do. And the thought that someone makes more far-reaching decisions than you do is scary. There is some idiot in this world that might one day be able to press one big, red button and end it. Like comedian George Carlin joked, "The planet is fine. The people are fucked."

But while you're here, you matter because you exist. You bounce greetings off waitresses in diners and send emails that could change people's days. You squeeze into subway cars and you cheer at ball games. They may just feel like everyday niceties and nuisances but it's an undeniable start. They affect other people.

And if you want to be as influential and important as possible, you can decide with others in mind. It may sound daunting, but it's not. Anyone can make coffee or order lunch or present a proposal at work. The best kind of people make ripples. They offer something of value. And when it's all said and done, it's just a choice, as Bill Hicks said, between fear and love.

What we're heading toward, hell in a hand-basket or techno-utopian bliss, we can't be sure. But that's the beauty. We're playing a part in this massive experiment and it can mean whatever you decide. Every day.

Take care.