Decision Fatigue and Sloppy Shopping

The mission was simple: Buy a spice rack. I figured my best shot was at Bed, Bath, and Beyond; 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 I figured 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 keep myself focused. I smugly glided past the out-front holiday specials to the kitchen department. Lo and behold, there were spice racks. And all kinds of other racks. And 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, aluminum, and chrome gadgets, doodads, and whatchamacallits for kitchen storage problems I didn’t even know I had. It felt like a decision assault. 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, appeared and 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, this 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 the label is suggesting you 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.

Fatigue Leads to Sloppy Shopping

By then, Martha and Jean had gone 144 rounds. I felt drained. So why did I feel like, oh, just taking a look around the rest of the store to see if there was anything 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 stopped and 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.

Beware – Decision Fatigue is Real

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. After exhausting our quota, it’s free-for-all shopping, chocolate, nagging, smoking, sleeping, 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 powerful.

2020 will likely be the biggest online holiday shopping season ever. Bed Bath Beyond and other savvy retailers are perfecting the presentation of temptations on our phone and computers as well as they do in the stores. It’s devilishly easy (and I confess, enjoyable) to click and shop.

Yet, it’s not only decision making that drains our willpower. Stress of any kind – like being shut in; worrying about our families, our careers, or our health; sadness at missing friends and family….2020 has delivered enough knockouts to cause an epidemic of behaviors over which we’d like to have more control. All of these changes are likely to erode our ability to resist knee-jerk reactions and irrational decisions.

How To Maintain Your Mental Wellness

Some solutions? Get plenty of sleep. Find a way to put fewer decisions in your own way every day. Try meditation or mindfulness. Take more frequent rest breaks. Have someone, or a group, with whom you can share your struggles.

I had never considered a retail store to be a threat to my health, but after that trip, I think even once a year is more than I can handle.

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

Holly Donaldson

Holly P. Donaldson, CFP® writes and consults on the psychology of money. Her fee-only, product-free financial planning practice focuses on increasing financial self-efficacy for those seeking a financial navigator to help them make good decisions. She 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." With a fully virtual practice in Seminole, Florida, she primarily serves clients located in the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater areas. Holly will also work with clients who are a good fit located elsewhere in the United States.

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