Decision Fatigue, Packing, and Writing

Some things are more tiring than others, obviously. I always found both packing and writing to be particularly exhausting. A recently article in the New York Times suggests why.

Last week, I packed up some boxes of my stuff. Like everyone, in packing, I noticed I had too many things. I had too many books, printouts, and notes. So I sifted through them for several hours, throwing them into two piles, of things I needed and those I didn’t. There were some close calls, like “Will I ever read this biography of Justice Brandeis? Should I keep my research and notes about innovation theory? Would I ever reread ‘True Blood and Philosophy’?” Actually, there were a lot of close calls. There were hundreds of little decisions about what to keep and what to dump. They weren’t high-stakes decisions–the books can be replaced, I could review sources instead of my notes, and True Blood is not Rawls.

But during the hours of packing, I felt almost completely depleted mentally. The packing was far more tiring than hoisting and moving heavy boxes, which required more physical energy. The mental component was surprisingly more exhausting. To me, this didn’t make sense.

The New York Times’s article on decision fatigue explained the mystery. Every word of the article is worth reading, but it has three main points: that making decisions is extremely tiring, that it saps our willpower, and that glucose reverses these effects.

I want to focus on the first point–that making decisions is tiring. Even deciding between vanilla and chocolate takes a toll. Making a decision is more tiring than contemplating or following through on the decision. Using the terminology of Caesar deciding to cross the Rubicon River to invade Rome, the author writes:

[C]rossing the Rubicon is more tiring than anything that happens on either bank — more mentally fatiguing than sitting on the Gaul side contemplating your options or marching on Rome once you’ve crossed.

This research suggests not only that the Grand Inquisitor may have been onto something (he thinks that many people don’t want to make decisions). It also helps explain why writing is tiring. Writing always feels so exhausting, far with its dozens of little decisions, from structure to syntax, from subject to sound. Even this post, like any post, requires dozens of little decisions with every conjunction and reference. But writing longer projects are even far more exhausting. It’s always easier to read and research and keep researching; the key decisions, and decision fatigue, come in writing, not in researching.

Maybe, to relax and do something less exhausting, I’ll read something… or lift and move heavy objects.

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