Gretchen wrote a great article last week on some of our family’s endeavors to simplify our lives more. While this certainly isn’t the first time that we’ve gotten simpler living in our blood, my hope is that our renewed motivation will lead to some concrete steps that eliminate some sources of stress in our lives. After reading that article, and realizing that this concept of decision management struck a chord, I want to touch a little more in depth on this concept in the area of our household finances.
I have read numerous articles lately on some of the studies being done regarding the ways that decisions and the exercising of will power fatigue us. I have personally found these to put words and a concept to things that I have been feeling for a while. More than ever in history, we have the world at our fingertips. And while this would seem to be ideal, in reality it can really wear us out! Our decision making organ, the will, is much like a physical muscle. It has a finite work load that it can handle and becomes fatigued when overused. The problem is that we are so accustomed to this decision fatigue that we hardly recognize its symptoms, or the effects that it can have on our lives (stress, anxiety, irritability, depression, fatigue, destructive habits, etc.).
While some may have stronger decision making organs than others, (and we can certainly train ours to be stronger – like a muscle), we often operate well below our true potentials mentally, physically and spiritually because we think we can handle all of the clutter of decisions around us much better than we actually can. We overestimate our ability to excel while inundated with options.
It goes without saying that as consumers living in a consumer culture, we are flooded with opportunities to spend our money. There are mountains of information and product reviews for literally anything and everything that we could buy. Again, this really is a good thing at times, as it allows us to make informed decisions. The problem is that it eats up so much time and, frankly, mental space that could be used on other, more important things. I am beginning to think more and more that our inability to remember simple tasks and schedule items is largely a casualty of our minds being filled with a whole bunch of shallow information on a gazillion different topics, products, you name it. It would be scary to be confronted with the number of hours I spent online in 2011 reading up on products. Usually, after an hour or so, I am about two more hours (and 50 bagillion less brain cells) away from making a decision than I was before starting (and a lot more confused – I know, hard to believe).
So what do we do about this? Well, for starters, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Access to information is a privilege (even if we can easily transform it into a curse). I think we just need to become much more intentional about limiting our options from the beginning and then sticking to our guns. I’ll give a couple of examples of things that I am already doing to work at de-cluttering my mind and will and that will also save money. I’ve shared some of these in previous blogs as well.
- No fitness equipment purchases for 2012 – For a long time I have enjoyed training with weights and reading about training with weights. I made several purchases in 2011 that allow me to do this from the uncomfort of my own garage. These were great purchases (cheap, used, quality equipment through craigslist) that get a lot of use. Even so, I realized that there will always be another training gadget that could make my workouts even better or more diversified. To free myself from all of the will power and decision making effort this year regarding these options, I made the simple decision that I have enough equipment to give myself great workouts and that I will be content with this for 2012. Since I will not purchase fitness equipment in 2012, my mind doesn’t have to expend energy evaluating options in this area.
- No technology purchases in 2012 – This was a very similar decision and frees me from another of my favorite mind-destroying activities – researching and dreaming about tech products that I am way too simple minded to ever fully utilize anyways (mainly because of all of the brain cells I have destroyed online reading tech and fitness equipment reviews).
- No significant unplanned purchases without talking with the spouse – Gretchen and I both strictly follow this rule. This frees our minds from stressing or weighing an impulse purchase on the spot. The answer is already made: not before talking about it. We allow each other to question the logic and reasoning of the purchase. More than once I have avoided a questionable purchase because of Gretchen’s gentle questioning of whether it really is the answer to all of the things I’ve been searching for.
- When you don’t know down from up anymore, step away from the check-out line – During our house search, we came to a point where we had seen so many houses that we had no idea what we even wanted anymore. We almost bought a house that we had no business buying, because we just couldn’t think straight. Fortunately, we realized what was going on and made the rare decision to step back (even though we reeeeeaaalllllly wanted a new house) and just take a break from looking at houses or even thinking about houses. About a month later I randomly drove by a “for sale by owner” house in a cute neighborhood that was right in the sweet spot of our price range…and the rest is history. We found the house for us when we stopped looking so hard for it.
These are some of the things that we do to try and avoid fatiguing our decision-making organs in the financial realm. I think we’ve probably only hit the tip of the iceberg and I’d like to implement a lot more strategies. I’d be curious to hear other suggestions that are working for people to eliminate stress in this area. Also, it’d be great fun to hear some stories of epic failures in this area (for instance, I’ve spent at least 3-5 hours this year looking online at Olympic bumper plates – wait Chris, I thought you said you weren’t going to spend mental energy on fitness equipment because …- yep…epic failure).