How to Avoid Decision Fatigue by Setting Default Habits

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Which internet browser do you use? Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer?

When I read Originals by Adam Grant, one of the most surprising studies involved just that—your browser. It turns out, your browser can be an indication of conformity. Grant references a study conducted by Cornerstone OnDemand. In the study, they asked customer support professionals about various aspects of their work, and they found a link between which browser the employee used and their level of performance at work.

Grant goes on to hypothesize that the link between browser and performance has to do with defaults. Internet Explorer comes pre-installed on all Windows machines. Likewise, Safari is pre-installed on Macs. If you use one of these browsers, you’re effectively saying “The default is good enough for me.”

On the other hand, Chrome and Firefox are both available for free download, but you have to actively go out and install them on your computer. It only takes a few minutes, but it requires you to actively think “I wonder if there is something better out there.”

The takeaway from the study (and Grant’s book Originals) isn’t that we should all go out and change our browsers. Instead, the takeaway is that we should question default decisions.

Brief Primer on Decision Fatigue

I previously wrote about the decision making process and outlined Daniel Kahneman’s work from Thinking Fast and Slow. In short, Kahneman outlines two main “systems” of the brain.

  • System 1 is quick, primitive, and automatic. System 1 is part of the reason you can drive on an empty road while jamming out to music and letting your mind wander.
  • System 2 is careful, calculated, and conscious and is involved in situations that require mental effort. Compared to its counterpart that is responsible for finishing “2+2=_”, System 2 becomes active when you’re asked to solve the expression “1769 x 91″. It’s also the mental superhero in charge of parallel parking your car in a tight space.

System 1 is an automatic energy saver because we can make simple decisions quickly based on habits. System 2 requires effort.

You’ve probably heard the term “decision fatigue” before. You can think of System 2 as a muscle. Like any other muscle in your body, it can only perform so many reps before it becomes tired and weak. At that point, willpower fades and we start to make poor choices like skipping the gym on the way home from work or ordering the cheeseburger instead of the salad when you promised yourself all day you would do the opposite.

This is where default decisions come into play. They govern a large portion of our day whether we realize it or not. What you eat for breakfast, what you do when you’re standing in line at a grocery store, what you do after dinner in the evenings—you’re making these decisions based on habit and routine.

The good news is habits can change. We can set better default choices throughout our day to keep us honest even when we’re exhausted and drained of all willpower.

Default Decisions to Change Today

I recently bumped into an article on about how many books you could read in a month if you cut back on the time spent on your smartphone. Spoiler alert: a lot (including the entire Chronicles of Narnia series).

Swapping out reading a book when you would normally play around on Facebook is one example of setting a better default decision. Instead of scanning your feed, crack open the spine of a book and flip through a few pages. I promise your life will be better.

When it comes to analyzing default decisions, I like to focus my efforts in two areas:

  1. Decisions where there is a lot of pressure to make the wrong choice.
  2. Choices that are going to have a large impact with minimal input (kind of like the good ‘ol Pareto Principle).

Using those two guidelines, I can look at different habits and routines I have setup throughout my day. Then, I work to set a better default essentially saying “All things being equal, I’m going to make [this better choice] moving forward.”

Here are two examples:


I’m a big advocate for reading. Just ask my wife; she has heard me preach this story numerous times. If you read more books, I guarantee you will have a better life. Period.

Two default decisions appeared here:

  1. Remove social media from your phone. Instead, download Audible. Always have one audiobook going for while you’re driving or on a walk. Download the Kindle app and always have one book going at a time.
  2. Instead of watching TV to fall asleep, read. Bonus: You’ll fall asleep faster since you’re not staring at a screen.

Those two simple choices will add up to 20+ books in a given year.

Spending money

There’s quite a bit of pressure to make the “wrong” choice here meaning most of the influences (sales clerks, society, friends, etc) will push you towards buying a thing. Why not? You deserve it, right?

This is the perfect use case for setting better default decisions as it gives you a framework to fallback to when you’re feeling pressured and not sure how to proceed.

Some defaults I have set in place for myself:

  • Never buy something in the moment if you can help it. Give yourself seven days. If you’re still thinking about it in seven days, consider picking it up. Impulse buys will often come back to bite you with regret.
  • Ask yourself, “Is this purchase removing a negative from my life?” I picked this up from Mr. Money Mustache on the Tim Ferriss podcast. If you don’t have a solid answer to how this purchase is satisfying a real need, don’t buy it.
  • All of our saving/investing is automated, and we have rules for when we have to increase the amount we’re saving (every time we get a raise or a specific percentage of an unexpected windfall). I used to be an obsessive freak when it came to finances. I’ve calmed down a bit since we automated everything. Start with two automatic transfers each month on pay day into your savings account.
  • Buy the best version of a thing you can possibly afford. It’ll last longer, and you’ll appreciate the quality. Some examples from my own life: a premium coffee subscription, a $300 backpack (a gift, but I would’ve spent the money anyway), and $100 button up shirt from Trunk Club. If this purchase is really going to satisfy a need in your life, go all out.

How to Avoid Decision Fatigue Moving Forward

  1. Take out a piece of pen and paper.
  2. Right down all of the significant choices you had today. What did you have for breakfast/lunch? Did you walk or ride your bike to work? What did you do as soon as you got home from work?
  3. Scan through the list and find one area to improve on. Remember, we’re looking to replace choices that offer a high return on investment.
  4. Set a rule for yourself to walk to lunch instead of drive or make dinner instead of eating out.

Pick one thing. Focus on ingraining a new default decision. Then, move on to something else.

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