A friend pointed out this quote from a Vanity Fair profile of Obama.
This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. “You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “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.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
It is hard not to love it when the President of the United States makes your case for you. I haven’t gone so far as to wear the same clothes every day, but I have done some careful buying so that any two random items from my closet will match each other. And that, I think is the next step in choice reduction and my main reaction to its critics: it isn’t about not choosing, it is about choosing when to not choose.
I think it is good to have expressions of your personality and selfness in your life. Johnny Cash went with all black, I picked cowboy boots, and I’m sure one day I’ll raise kids with some equally odd way of going about it. But even though I sometimes want to wear something distinctive, I’ve setup my life so that I don’t have to if I don’t want to.
Take, for example, the incredibly burdensome decision of “what to eat for dinner”. Yes yes, first world problems, but a real one none the less; when I was a kid, my mother never minded cooking dinner nearly as much as she did trying to figure out what to cook (resulting in her trying to force my brother and I to plan the menu, which we were smart enough to avoid). I hate trying to choose what to have when I get home now, which is why I have a default: the Matt Wallaert Salad. Entire bag of lettuce, peanuts, cheese, fat free honey mustard dressing. Instant dinner, and I make sure to always have the components in my fridge.
I also have the New York lifestyle down: a standard rotation of four resturants that I know are good, where I can always order the same thing, and I can go to any of them randomly when I feel like outsourcing food choice. Sure, in some sense, I’m “choosing” but not in the active, cognitive-resource depleting way the President is pointing out. And when I really care about what I’m eating, when I want to make that choice, I can.
Setting up defaults doesn’t mean you always have to go with them, just that they are there when we need them, and I think that is something we often forget. Which may be the start of a followup post…
(Thanks to Sarah Duve for pointing out the original article.)
Update: Apparently, Zuck does the same thing.