Creative director Matilda Kahl was running late for work. She was scheduled for a meeting with her new boss in less than an hour and still hadn’t decided what to wear. Despite being in a creative role and having flexibility with her outfit choices, Kahl wanted to make the right impression. When she finally picked an outfit, she regretted it almost immediately after boarding the subway. Stressed and not entirely confident in her clothing decisions, Kahl arrived to the meeting late. To her dismay, she saw that her male counterparts were already chatting up the new boss, likely having spent less than fifteen minutes choosing which suit to wear. It was in that moment that Kahl realized she would have to change her morning routine.
In her article for Harper’s Bazaar, Kahl writes about her revelation:
Should [choosing an outfit] really be this hard? I knew my male colleagues were taken seriously no matter what they wore—and I highly doubted they put in as much sartorial time and effort as I had. But gender issues aside, I needed to come up with a solution to simplify this morning struggle.
Hence, her work “uniform” was born: a pair of plain black trousers and an asymmetrical white top. Since 2012, Kahl has worn this simple yet chic ensemble to the office every day, amid some skepticism and raised eyebrows. However, she isn’t alone in doing this: CEOs, founders and leaders across all industries, including Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, have adopted uniforms for themselves as well. Even former president Barack Obama limited his clothing options to a just a few colors. In an interview with Vanity Fair he mentioned, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make a decision about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Kahl, Obama and others like them are onto something: they know that constantly making decisions is tiring. Individuals have a finite amount of energy in a day and expending an inordinate amount of effort on relatively trivial matters, like picking out an outfit in the morning, leaves you with less capacity for more important decisions and tasks later on in the day. This phenomenon is known as decision fatigue .
The concept of decision fatigue partially explains why people are prone to making bad decisions. For example, a person on a diet may start out her day on the right foot. She’ll eat a banana and oatmeal for breakfast and swap her usual cup of coffee for some green tea. But as the day goes on, she is inundated with emails, midterms and meetings. Deciding how to word a message to her professor or whether to skip lunch in order to study a little longer takes a toll on her. By the end of the day, she doesn’t have the willpower to go to the gym and reaches for a cookie instead. This doesn’t mean that she isn’t enthusiastic about changing her eating habits or that she doesn’t want to better herself; it simply means that the constant decision making she does throughout the day is exhausting.
While it is certainly possible that males face the same dietary dilemma, being a woman in the workforce poses several unique challenges. Like Kahl, many women must make a slew of clothing decisions before they even walk into the office every day. The appropriateness of the length of a sleeve, the height of heels and the fit of a skirt are all factors women must consider when getting dressed, whereas a simple dress shirt and slacks will suffice for men in most situations.
In an ideal world, women would not have to grapple with these extraneous decisions, but the unfortunate reality is that these challenges are real and they do affect women’s ability to create quality work in professional settings. Luckily, there are measures we can take to ensure that we spend less time on trivial choices and reserve our energy for the day’s most important tasks.
- Plan and pre-cook your meals. Meal planning isn’t just something for dietitians and nutritionists with fancy pictures on Instagram – it can be for you, too. Planning out your meals, or at least some of them, decreases the amount of time you’ll spend at the grocery store debating what to pick up for dinner. Because you deplete your energy reserves throughout the day while making decisions, planning for your dinner is extremely important. Pre-cooking could be the difference between having a balanced, healthy meal, and opting for yet another order of Chinese takeout.
- Make a budget. The phrase “shop ‘til you drop” isn’t for the faint of heart. Any kind of shopping, whether it’s for food, clothes or something else, is mentally taxing precisely because it necessitates constant decision making. By setting a budget – and sticking to it – you can dramatically reduce your shopping time. Suddenly, picking out a shirt is easier than before: only allowing yourself a $20 budget will immediately decrease the number of options you have and make your final decision that much easier.
- Create a capsule wardrobe. Maybe a single work “uniform” isn’t for everyone, but implementing a capsule wardrobe is a nice compromise. Having fewer articles of clothing that are not only of higher quality but also more conducive to mix-and-matching will decrease the number of sartorial decisions you make throughout the week.
- Start small. Whatever changes you make, remember to start small. What’s one thing you can do right now to reduce your cognitive load? Streamlining your daily routines and processes is meant to make your life easier, not to stress you out.
These measures aren’t necessarily difficult to implement, but decision fatigue often reduces our willpower to make productive changes to our routines. But whether you have enough energy to reengineer your daily routine with full force, or if you’re just barely refraining from reaching for that second cookie, the first step to making your life easier is understanding how decision fatigue affects your work. We are almost never afforded the luxury of having all the resources we want in our lives or in the the workplace, so focusing our limited resources – including our mental capacity – where it matters is imperative. And who knows? Maybe you’ll get a new favorite outfit out of this – one you’ll wear day after day.