Decision Fatigue and Shopping

retail shopping fatigue

Decision fatigue is a real thing. I discovered this poignantly on a recent shopping trip. The mission was simple: Buy a spice rack. I figured the best shot was at Bed Bath Beyond (BBB); a store I had not entered in over a year, much less at the holidays. I had a specific size and type in mind, so there was no doubt BBB would provide all the choices I needed. Little did I know that trip would be the beginning of the end of my day’s productivity.

Upon entering, I scanned quickly, bypassing a cart to stay focused on the single item I wanted. Smugly, I glided past the holiday specials to the kitchen department. Lo and behold, there were spice racks. And all kinds of other racks. An embarrassment of choices.

Because I like choices (or thought I did until this day), before long, I was nose to nose with shelves and shelves of plastic, rubber, wood, aluminum, and chrome gadgets, and doodads for kitchen storage problems I didn’t even know I had. It was an assault on my single-mindedness. More than once, something other than a spice rack caught my eye. At first, I had the mental wherewithal to ignore them.

Decision Fatigue Begins

As the minutes wore on, my brain was presented with dozens of items for which a decision had to be made. Does it look like what I came for? If yes, is it the right size and type? If no, move to next item. As this process continued, some strangely gleeful part of my brain, a la Martha Stewart, said, “It’s not the spice rack, but….is it something I COULD use? Hmmmm…it looks very handy. And sleek, too! After all….maybe it could make even more room in the cabinet?” The cabinet, of course, had nothing to do with the spice rack.

“STOP IT,” another Jean-Chatzky-part of my brain, said. “You are here to get the spice rack. Move on.”

Next doodad. Does this look like the spice rack? No, not quite. Yet, the label showed the entire matching doodad set in a fantasy-organized kitchen. Then that Martha Stewart voice again, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if my whole kitchen looked like this doodad’s label?”

“STOP IT,” Jean intervened. “You would have to buy every doodad like it in here, which is a) exactly what you did not come here to do and b) doesn’t even include a spice rack. Next item!”

And so it went….back and forth over a dozen items for fifteen minutes. My mental wherewithal was waning.

Finally, I found exactly what I was looking for and grabbed it.

Decision Fatigue Leads to Aimless Shopping

By then, Martha and Jean had gone 144 rounds. I felt drained. So why did I feel like, oh, taking a look around? Just to see if there was something I couldn’t live without? I got to the bath side and wondered what got into me.

To check out, I had to walk the gauntlet of holiday specials again. I actually pondered chocolates. That’s how beaten-down my willpower was.

When I left the store only $8.35 poorer, I felt like Rocky – beat up, but victorious.

I needed a nap.

Emptying the Decisionmaking Fuel Tank

Dr. Moira Somers, a decision fatigue expert, talks about the mental energy required to make decisions, particularly ones avoiding temptation. It seems we wake up each day with a finite amount of mental decisionmaking energy, like a full tank of fuel. After exhausting our tank, it’s free-for-all shopping, chocolate, smoking, sleeping, nagging, drinking, or whatever your personal favorite fallback behavior happens to be. That devilish irrational voice, (“it’s ok to have it this time” “I won’t do it again” “I can make it up later”) is most powerful when we’re depleted.

To make it more challenging, now we have online shopping. Savvy retailers are perfecting the presentation of temptations on our phones as well as they do in stores. It’s devilishly easy (and I confess, enjoyable) to click and shop.

Finally, stress of any kind (had a little bit of that the last 2 years?) burns fuel in the tank too. When we worry, we erode the ability to resist spontaneous decisions we later regret.

How To Keep the Tank Full

Some solutions? Plenty of sleep. Meditation and mindfulness. Frequent rest breaks. Having someone with whom you can share your struggles.

Also, put fewer decisions into every day by asking whether they can be:

  • automated
  • delegated
  • eliminated or
  • date-activated (meaning putting it on the calendar so it doesn’t take up space in your head).

For more on decision fatigue, see Dr. Somers’ work at http://moneymindandmeaning.com, or Chapter 6 of The Mindful Money Mentality: How To Find Balance in Your Financial Future.

Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® runs an hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice virtually from her Tampa Bay, Florida office. She also works with clients throughout the U.S. (except Texas) interested in retirement and tax planning advice without product sales or investment management. Holly is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch."

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