Decision Fatigue

Saturday, January 24, 2015

I joined a new critique group this month which meets at a local restaurant for a light dinner and discussion every two weeks. Although I knew two of the members from a writing group I belong to, I was going to meet two new people in a new place and, as people usually do, thought about the first impression I’d make as I was getting ready. It was then I realized that I almost always wear the same clothes. Not literally, but I have multiple similar pairs of jeans and shirts—short-sleeved tee shirts for summer and long-sleeved sweatshirts for winter. I have variant “dress-up” versions of the shirts, meaning they have collars on them, for when I leave the house, but there’s not much variety in what I wear: jeans, a shirt, sneakers with white, ankle-high socks.

I have a few outfits I wear to church on Sunday, casual slacks instead of jeans, a blouse instead of a shirt, and shoes instead of sneakers. It doesn’t take me long to decide what I’m going to put on on any particular day as long as I stick to my routines.

So it surprised me how much angst I was having over deciding what to wear that night. I pushed hangers along the rod, examining every shirt, blouse, vest, and sweater I owned, evaluating whether it would give the proper first impression. I took a fresh look at the pants I had worn on Sunday, wondering whether they were too old and faded to wear to dinner that night. And I got frustrated at how much time and energy this simple decision was taking.

Coincidentally, I ran across an article on decision fatigue soon after. The term is self-explanatory. It turns out the more choices you have to make, the more tired you get. People unconsciously realize this, so they have a tendency to eliminate decisions in their lives to leave energy for the things that really need deciding. My boring wardrobe is nothing compared to Johnny Cash and Steve Jobs always wearing black. I at least give myself the challenge of what color shirt to wear on any particular day.

There are other things you do to minimize the number of decisions you have to make. You drive the same way to work every day. You don’t decide which route to take unless your normal way is blocked by a major accident or a jackknifed tractor-trailer or road construction. You run errands on the same days. You sit in the same pew at church every week and the same seat in class every day and you’re grumpy if someone sits where you expected to.

Decision fatigue also explains brand loyalty. I buy Progresso soup, Thomas’s English muffins, Bumblebee tuna. When I get to the shelves with all those cans of tuna on them, I don’t have to decide; I reach for the green can of Bumblebee and move on. Menus get routine: roast on Sunday, pizza Friday night, hamburgers and beans on Saturday.

Routines make for efficiency as well as eliminating decision fatigue. I’ve noticed this when starting a new diet. Most plans—Weight Watchers, Spark People—require planning menus in advance so you can shop and have the components on hand. You’re given sample menus, but you still have to decide which ones to use, which have foods you like versus foods you don’t like, which you can make with ingredients on your shelf rather than buying, which will satisfy you. Because many foods are new, you have to decide which brand and size to buy. All this deciding takes time and energy. This factor is probably why plans like Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig work—they not only do the menu planning for you, they ship you the meals. Phew!

As I was mulling this over off and on for the next week, it dawned on me that decision fatigue explained why planning a novel was so exhausting. Not only do you have to make countless decisions, you also have to come up with the choices! Which means more decisions.

For me, a novel starts with a concept, generally a fairly vague concept. For “Faith, Hope, and Murder,” it was “the border problem.” Not much to go on, right?

Then I start thinking about the characters. The sleuth: Male or female? What does (s)he look like? Fat, thin, medium; short, tall, average; long hair, short hair, bald; blue, brown, green, hazel, or violet eyes; what’s his or her job? The victim: how does (s)he die? Poison—which one? Knife or gun—what kind? The killer: What’s his or her motive: greed, jealousy, revenge, fear? Why? What happened to give him or her that particular reason to kill the victim? Suspects: They have to have motives, too. And all of these characters need physical descriptions, likes/dislikes, homes, jobs, friends, enemies, families, hobbies, cars, pets, etc. You don’t have to come up with everything for every character, but even which characteristics you need requires making a decision. Does it matter whether the killer has a pet or not? Does it matter whether it’s a dog or a cat or an iguana?

You have to think about where and how the crime is committed. What time of day it is. What season it is and does that matter. Who could have witnessed it. Did the victim make noise? What kind? Would that matter?

In one scene, your characters go to a restaurant. What kind of food? What’s the decor, the color scheme? Is it crowded or empty? Is it downtown or at a country club outside city limits? Is the waiter pleasant or surly? Is it a waiter or a waitress? Do they wear a uniform?

In the process, a writer has to make as many of the decisions easy as they can so as not to get bogged down by the choices. For that restaurant, you pick a restaurant you’ve been to, picture it in your mind, then use those descriptions because the details aren’t usually important to the story—it’s just a location for your characters to have a discussion or meet a suspect or an expert witness. Unless it is important—a character gets food poisoning or the restaurant has a common rear entrance with the crime scene location.

Orson Scott Card cautions about making these decisions too prematurely. If you go with your first idea, it’s most likely a cliché, something that’s been used so often as to present no surprise to the reader. They’ll get bored. So you ask a lot of questions to give yourself several ideas to use, then decide which is the best one for this story.

No wonder the first draft seems easy compared to the prep work! Unless I’ve decided not to do so much planning ahead of time, to write it in “pantser” mode. Writing by the seat of your pants doesn’t eliminate the decisions—you just have to make them as you’re writing instead of ahead of time. Sometimes that’s fun. You never know what your muse is going to come up with when you don’t think about decisions until you need to make them. Other times it’s a disaster. Some decisions make it impossible to construct a coherent story. You wind up throwing out whole scenes and writing new ones because they just don’t work. Or you abandon the story altogether. So, as I’m deep into that decision time as I’m planning my third Community of Faith book, I try to remind myself that I might be getting exhausted by making all these decisions now, but, hopefully, writing itself will be a lot more enjoyable—and a lot less tiring!

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