The average adult makes about 35,000 decisions—every day. Yes, if you've ever felt like your mind is a snow globe that's been turned upside down, spinning with incessant, half-finished thoughts, you're not alone.
This statistic might seem absurd, but according to researchers at Cornell University, it's just the base figure. As your level of responsibility increases in life, be it from starting a family, paying off a mortgage, or rising through the ranks in your career, the number of conscious decisions you have to make each day skyrockets.
Decision fatigue can be a huge productivity drain, but a handful of CEOs, politicians, and thought leaders have found a way to combat it (or at least mitigate the negative effects). The answer lies in scrutinizing your morning routine and learning to streamline the choices you make from the moment your alarm goes off. Barack Obama practices this method each day, The Muse founder Kathryn Minshew swears by it, and our very own co-founder Hillary Kerr says it's a crucial part of her a.m. ritual.
Take note: Successful people follow these three simple rules to boost productivity and avoid burnout.
When you're faced with literally thousands of choices, it's important to be discerning. "Without understanding what decisions are worth your time, it's natural to just get stuck—you waste too much time figuring out where to even start," says Kathryn Minshew, CEO and co-founder of The Muse.
So how do you make a call between two seemingly pressing decisions? Muse says it's crucial to understand your values.
"Figuring out what matters to you as an individual is really key. Where are the areas you want to focus your attention?" she says. "Start big [by] figuring out what areas of your life are most important: family, work, friends/social, fashion, food, fitness, hobbies. Once you establish the areas that matter to you most, you can break those buckets down into smaller items and the decisions you need to make around those items."
"For example," she continues. "I know for me that work and family are my two priorities, with friends and getting enough sleep ranking a close three and four and that, as a result, hobbies and fitness take more of a backseat." Therefore, Minshew's morning routine is centered on kick-starting her workday by responding to important emails. "Your priorities will naturally change in different phases of life, and that's okay."
Without ample preparation, mornings can be a chaotic time. Do you choose to fit in an early workout, respond to urgent emails, catch up on news, whip up a nutritious breakfast, take a moment of mindfulness, or hit snooze? It's exhausting, but there's one tip that will help you minimize decisions: Make all non-essential choices the night before.
"I avoid making decisions first thing in the morning, especially outfit decisions," says Hillary Kerr, co-founder and chief ideation officer at MyDomaine's parent company, Clique Media Group. "I try to prep as much as possible the night before—planning tomorrow's outfit, packing my gym bag, making lunch—so that I have less to do when I wake up. The more streamlined my morning process is and the fewer decisions I have to make, the better!"
If you know that certain choices are time-consuming but rank very low on your priority list, follow the likes of President Barack Obama and Polyvore CEO Jess Lee and remove the decision altogether. Both swear by an office "uniform" that varies very little each day. "You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits," Obama told Vanity Fair. "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."
This high-value, low-effort systemization is a productivity hack leaders and CEOs swear by. Why? It'll help you make smarter choices when it counts. An Israeli university study found that prisoners who had morning court hearings were granted parole 70% of the time while afternoon hearings had a 10% chance of success. In other words, your willpower is like a muscle, which can get fatigued when overused. Minimizing non-essential morning decisions like what to eat or whether you'll work out will leave mental space to tackle crucial challenges head-on later in the day.
Productivity experts agree—the best way to start your day is by automating important habits and decisions. Career and self-help expert James Clear says the secret is to stop making decisions and start making commitments. "Rather than hoping that I'll make the right choice each day, I've found much more success by scheduling the things that are important to me," he explains. "For example, my schedule for writing is Monday and Thursday. My schedule for weightlifting is Monday, Wednesday, Friday. On any given Monday, I don't have to decide whether I'm going to write. It's already on the schedule. And I'm not hoping that I'll have enough willpower to make it to the gym. It's just where I go on Mondays at 6 p.m."
Minshew agrees, saying that it's an oft-underutilized productivity tool. "I do think making commitments instead of decisions can help people to be more productive. For example, I commit to working on emails every evening from 10 p.m. to midnight. I know that I operate best late at night and can be incredibly productive during those hours, so creating a nightly routine helps me to ensure that nothing else gets in the way during those hours," she says.
By learning to anticipate and prioritize challenges, tackling menial tasks the night before, and making commitments, not decisions, you'll find that mental shaken–snow globe feeling will settle. As Minshew explains, "It's easier on [your] willpower than remaking the decision every day: It's simply a given."