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Decision Fatigue + Decluttering [Episode 29]

The other week, I found myself completely overwhelmed by a small decluttering project. It “should” have been simple, yet it wasn’t—and the reason behind my struggles was decision fatigue. Listen to this episode of The Simply + Fiercely Show to learn more about decision fatigue, how it impacts decluttering, and what to do about it.

In This Episode:

  • What is decision fatigue?
  • 3 practical ways to combat it
  • Decision fatigue in my life and how I managed it

Featured In This Episode:

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Note: this is not an exact transcript and has been edited for clarity.

Decision Fatigue & Decluttering

Hey, everybody, it’s Jennifer here, and welcome to the Simply and Fiercely Show. Today, as always, we’ll be chatting about decluttering and simplifying, but specifically, I want to talk about decision fatigue and how it can make everything harder than it needs to be.

This is a topic that’s on my mind because it’s something that I was struggling with last week. If you’re new here, one thing I have to say is that so much of what I talk about on the podcast comes from my personal experience. 

It’s everything that I’m going through in my life and the lessons that I learned. I process everything and then share it all with you in the hopes that we can learn from it together. 

So as I said, I have been struggling a lot with some decluttering and life in general the past few weeks. Looking back, I can see that decision fatigue was one of the major factors. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. 

What is decision fatigue?

But first, let’s start with the basics. 

What is decision fatigue? 

Wikipedia says that ‘decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It’s now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision-making’. 

If I had to sum that up, I would say that our brains get tired when we have to make lots of decisions and then the quality of our decisions degrades. 

We see this all the time in decluttering. From a really surface-level perspective, when you’re decluttering, what you’re doing is making lots of decisions on repeat.

You’re going through your items one at a time over and over. Am I going to keep this, am I going to get rid of this, etc? Lots and lots of decisions need to be made and if your brain is tired, if you have already made a lot of decisions that day, or if you’ve been decluttering for a while, the quality of your decisions goes down and it’s harder to figure out what to do. 

This is one of the core principles in the way that I teach decluttering. How can we reduce decision fatigue? Probably the easiest way is to pre-decide whenever possible and there are a few ways that we can do this.

Decluttering and simplifying life through rules and guidelines

What I teach the most often is to look for opportunities to create rules or guidelines for your decluttering. These are things you can think about before you actually start decluttering to make it simpler. 

For example, you might say, ‘I’m only going to keep x number of bath towels’. If you decide that before you start decluttering your bath towels, it’s one less decision that you have to make. 

Same with clothing. I’m only going to keep certain styles or something I do more often is to think about what I’m not going to keep.

I’m not going to keep anything in certain colors, right? There are certain colors I don’t really like to wear. I pre-decided that ahead of time and it made the decluttering easier. Or I’m not going to keep anything that doesn’t feel good on my body.

There are a million different ways that you can use this idea of rules or guidelines to simplify your decluttering. Ultimately, it is all about reducing decision fatigue. 

It’s also about creating intentionality so that when you’re decluttering you’re not just making random decisions but you’re working towards a specific end result. 

That’s not quite the topic of today’s podcast but I wanted to bring that up anyway because I think that’s an important point to make. There are other ways that we can use rules or we can create guidelines to reduce decision fatigue. 

Creating boundaries not just with physical decluttering

It’s not just with our physical decluttering. We can use it in our lives when we create boundaries. 

For example, we can create boundaries around when we say no. Pre-deciding before you’re in a situation about when you’re going to say no makes life a lot easier. 

One example with very few exceptions is that I don’t go places on Sunday night. I’ve made that decision ahead of time, and it makes my life easier. When I get an invitation somewhere, I don’t have to think, ‘Oh, God, I really don’t want to go, I just want to stay home’ because I’m tired and it’s the end of the weekend. But then I feel guilty like I should go. 

I don’t even have that whole conversation in my head because I’ve already decided on a boundary. Then I can just clearly communicate that boundary to someone. I’m sorry, I don’t go places on Sunday nights. Obviously, there are exceptions. These are boundaries, not rules, but having at least thought about it makes life easier. A lot of the heavy lifting has been done ahead of time.

Another way to reduce decision fatigue is called the ‘toddler rule’

Another way that we can kind of hack our brains to reduce decision fatigue is something that I call the toddler rule. It’s something that I observe with my kids. I have two kids, they’re six and three and I did this a lot especially when they were younger. 

If you go to a restaurant and you read them the kid’s menu when there are 10 options to choose from, you’re just setting yourself up for disaster, right? You’d end up spending the next hour answering questions about what they want for dinner. 

Whereas if you make it simpler and you just say, ‘Okay, there are two options. Do you want A or do you want B? Do you want a hotdog? Or do you want chicken nuggets?’ It’s a lot easier for the brain. This is how we work as adults too. 

I’ve talked about this many times on the podcast, but whenever we can reduce decisions for ourselves it makes life easier. 

For example, if you’re trying to declutter your closet, and you’ve got, let’s say 20 pairs of black leggings and you’re thinking about which ones should you keep, your brain is going to want to explode because it’s very overwhelming. 

But if you just pick up two pairs of leggings and you ask yourself, ‘Which one do I like better? Which one would I keep out of these two?’ That’s a little bit easier for our brains to process. Making the decision between two pairs makes life a bit easier. 

These are just a few ways that we can try and combat decision fatigue, while we are decluttering. 

What happened last week that made Jen want to share with everyone what she did to overcome decision fatigue?

As I said, I had something that came up last week that made me realize that sometimes it’s a lot more than this. It’s kind of like when something happened in the past and you can reflect back on the situation, it’s so much easier to see things. 

That’s what’s happened here so I’m just going to tell you a little bit of a story to set the scene and then I’ll connect all the dots for you.  

As you know, I’m a minimalist. I live in 660 square feet with my family of four so my house is fairly clutter-free. 

A quick side note, I think this is a very important point to bring up. I think that in 99% of cases, there is no such thing as completely clutter-free living. 

If you think back to the definition of clutter, it is being rooted in alignment, or at least that’s what I believe. So what you own should be a reflection of who you are, your values, your priorities, your lifestyle, etc. 

Yes, of course, we can live more intentionally, and we can be conscious about trying to reduce our consumption. These are all things that I work on myself. 

But the idea of living completely clutter-free is really rare because people evolve. I have two kids now but I didn’t have two kids 10 years ago. My core values and my priorities haven’t changed but the way that they are projected into the world has, if that makes sense.

We change, our lifestyles change, etc. And as we change, what matters to us changes so it just makes sense that the things that we own change occasionally as well.

I want to make that point because I know sometimes people beat themselves up when they declutter and then they find that they have to declutter, again. There are things that we can do to break the cycle. In theory, obviously, because there are always exceptions. 

If you do a massive decluttering and you learn from your clutter, you shouldn’t be in a situation where you have to do all of that again. Although, of course, we’re human. 

But doing some decluttering over your lifetime is normal and I wanted to point that out so that you feel okay about it in case that’s something you struggling with. 

Now to bring you back to my point. Right now, I have been doing a little bit of decluttering. My kids are getting older and for me, three and six is a new level, I don’t have babies anymore. They’ve outgrown a lot of the toys we have.

I’ve been doing a lot of decluttering for myself personally. I am a small business owner, I have this podcast, I have this blog, and I teach programs. I have a lot of ideas so I have a lot of notes. 

In the past, I would keep them in notebooks or on note cards so I have piles and piles of notes. But I have been moving to a digital system more recently. I got a tablet, which for me is a godsend because it’s one of those that you can write on the screen so I no longer have 10 million notebooks but now I have to declutter the old ones. 

I’m in the middle of doing a bit of decluttering and for some reason, I decided that this would be a good time to declutter my unused makeup and beauty products, as well. So there’s been a bit of chaos happening in my house. 

Then on top of that, both of my kids got gastro last week back to back, which was very unpleasant. I’ve also been helping my husband a lot with one of his work projects. It’s just been a rough few weeks where I feel like my physical and mental space has been a big, giant cluttered mess. 

So with that background, I started working on this stuff. I’m trying to process it, I’m trying to declutter it, and it was just really, really hard. 

I was staring at this pile of stuff and I felt paralyzed. I had no idea what to do. No idea what my next step was. I was just sitting on my bed like a zombie staring at it thinking, ‘What do I do?’ 

And to be honest with you, it was the normal decluttering stress that I think a lot of people feel. But I also had this whole wave of guilt and shame, where I was thinking, ‘Jen, you have a podcast, you have a blog, you teach programs about how to declutter, this is so embarrassing, you can’t just be sitting here not knowing what you’re doing’. 

I felt like a fraud, I was angry with myself, I was in a really crappy mood, and didn’t get anything done. 

The next day, I decided to go out and do some work somewhere else. Again, a bit of background. I’m self-employed and I work at home a lot of times, but I have a co-working office so I can get out of the house. 

So that’s what I did after my decluttering meltdown. I left the house still in a bit of a funk and still feeling very overwhelmed. When I sat down to work I felt like I couldn’t get any work done. I was still in this really mentally cluttered space. 

So I asked myself what I think is a really helpful question that anyone could use, whether you’re decluttering or just feeling a bit overwhelmed in life, which was, ‘What is the one thing I really need clarity about right now?’

For those of you who have worked with me in the past, you know that this is always my number one step for simplifying anything, it always starts with creating clarity. 

What came up for me when I thought about this question is with my work, I am a content creator. There’s a lot that I do, but a huge part of it is content.

I was feeling so overwhelmed even though this is something I love doing. I love creating this content, because I’m so passionate about these topics, but I was feeling overwhelmed by it.  

I realized it was because I didn’t know what content I needed to create. It was this big cloud in my mind and I was feeling very overwhelmed. 

So I ended up borrowing a meeting room where we have a giant whiteboard and I got everything out of my head. I broke everything down onto my computer, and oh my goodness it was like this huge weight off my mind and I felt so clear. I felt like a new person. 

I still had a ton of work to do but I had made the decision about what it was I was going to do so I was feeling really clear. 

To bring this back to decluttering, because you’re probably thinking ‘Why do I care about your work?’ When I got home that day, the funny thing is, even though I’d been out all day and I was working, and feeling a little bit tired, the decluttering was suddenly so much easier than had been the day before.

It really got me thinking about decision fatigue and I think that it’s not always as straightforward as what I talked about at the start of this episode. 

You’ve probably heard the saying that not making a decision is a decision. I think that’s what was happening to me. I had all of this stuff on my mind and I was feeling overwhelmed. 

I knew I had to get this stuff done for work but I didn’t know what it was and I think that that weighed on my mind. That mental load was actually fatiguing my brain. 

When I sat down to declutter, I honestly felt like I was struck dumb. I was staring at everything and had no idea where to begin. I think that my brain was exhausted from all the unmade decisions I was carrying around in my mind. 

I think that it’s really important to point that out because I know how easy it is when you struggle to declutter to have thoughts like, ‘I can’t do this, this is impossible’. ‘Something’s wrong with me.’ 

It’s easy to have these really negative tidal waves of thoughts, that make you want to throw in the towel and quit. You want to give up and you think it’s impossible. 

The reason for recording this podcast is to let you know that if you’re feeling that way, it’s not you, you just have something that you need to work on.

Doing the mental work first before the physical work and creating that mental space

In my situation, it wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t that I was, ‘too stupid to declutter’, which is how I was feeling at that moment. But it was because my brain was exhausted because I had these other things on my mind.

What I needed to do was step back and do that bit of mental work first. And what’s kind of funny is that this is something I’ve known for decades. One of the cornerstones of the work that I do with my blog, this podcast, with my programs, is teaching that some of us need to do the mental work before we do the physical work. 

This is a great reminder that we’re always learning, it’s something that ‘I know’, but I have to keep catching myself and practicing in real life. 

Also, I want to explain that I understand sometimes how hard it is to slow down and do the mental work first. Just like the vast majority of people, I feel the pressure to be productive all the time.

When my house is a mess, when I’m struggling with clutter, all I want is to deal with it. I want it gone. I felt like I couldn’t start my work until I decluttered first. 

But this is a reminder that sometimes you do need to switch that around, maybe you need to leave the house. I’m fortunate because I’ve got this co-working office that I can go to but if you are struggling with decluttering, you might need to go to a cafe or library, or somewhere where you can feel calm and peaceful, and get whatever it is that’s in your head down right now. 

You might need to work on clearing that first so that you can create the mental space so that your brain isn’t fatigued, then you can tackle the clutter.

Our decluttering is so connected to our mental space. The busyness and our schedules, all of that is all tied in. It’s so easy to want to compartmentalize decluttering. To think of it as another chore like cleaning the toilets, but in reality, it’s not.  

It’s a lot of heavy emotional work and it’s really important to acknowledge that. We need to create the space for that and so that’s what I hope you do. 

I look forward to chatting with you next week.

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