Social issues

A Twentysomething’s Adventures With Decision Fatigue

– by Yunnita D. Mattoha

If there is one thing that I hate more than a flying cockroach, it would be making a decision – anything from deciding what ice cream flavour that I want, to what I am going to do with my life after graduating from university.

We who are the so-called twentysomething might see the pilgrimage to adulthood as adventurous and exciting. Some of us may imagine that life will be sweet and peaceful as we can finally settle down after a long journey of self-exploration.

Getting a dream job with a great salary and a cool boss, and having a family with well-behaved children and cute dogs running around in a big, beautiful house seems like the kind of life that most people want to live.

‘Completing school’, ‘leaving home’, ‘becoming financially independent’, and ‘marrying and having a child’ are the five milestones of what sociologists traditionally refer as a ‘transition to adulthood’. Unfortunately, reality slaps some people hard in their faces – not everyone’s transition to adulthood will be smooth sailing.

Twentysomethings might think that graduating from top universities with straight HDs will bring them to their dream jobs straight away after graduation, or they think that having a long-time partner will guarantee a happily-ever-after marriage life.

Or even when most twentysomethings think they have reached almost all of the five milestones, they start worrying about other possibilities that they might have missed – ‘what if it turns out that this job will be my nightmare job? What if my partner is not “the one”?’

There are other thousands of what-ifs and infinite possibilities that could make so many twentysomethings feel clueless and give up on their lives. After all, watching YouTube videos of dogs and cats is preferable to making big decisions in life because it is so much more fun (or maybe that’s just me).

From all the what-ifs and infinite possibilities that twentysomethings might or will experience during their transition to adulthood, the book Twenty Something – Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? has concluded one thing:

“Being twentysomething has always been about making commitments and closing some doors… it just means you should be aware that every decision has a cost and your time has value.”

It seems that twentysomethings think that the more choices they have in life, the better it is for them. It is true that having choices and the freedom can improve the quality of our lives.

The more choices you have to make, the likelier the brain will take shortcuts, such as the ultimate energy saver: doing nothing.

But having too many options can actually make things worse and would lead us to a phenomenon known as ‘decision fatigue’ – “the depletion, over the course of the day, of the mental energy it takes to remain rational and prudent.” An article from the NY Times Magazine by John Tierney brought up an interesting point about decision fatigue:

“The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts – either by being reckless and impulsive, or by turning to the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonising over decisions, avoid any choice.”

So, how many choices are too many? According to Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University, the maximum seems to be about six. Any more than that might throw us into decision fatigue.

For me, my own decision fatigue becomes frustrating when it comes to ice cream (yes, choosing ice cream is a serious matter). I keep walking back and forth, looking at all the ice cream flavours for around the next fifteen minutes. And the same old story happens, and I will end up with the same flavours: green tea and chocolate mousse.

Another run-in I have had with decision fatigue is when it comes to my education. At different points for around five years, I have wanted to become an economist, pastry chef, writer, journalist, politician, web-designer, professional dancer, historian, and a cute puppy (does the last one count?).

I would call the expensive education fee in Australia a blessing in disguise – it has calmed down any wild ideas I might have to do all I want (continually changing my majors for maybe ten years would be an expensive way to find my passion, hey). And somehow, my financial issues has taught me to choose my major carefully and responsibly.

I would say that I am happy with my decision about education. At least I haven’t ended up being a cute puppy, or even worse: doing nothing and avoiding any choice because of decision fatigue. Maybe it’s time for us twentysomethings to keep in mind that:

Some choice is better than no choice, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that more choice is better than some.”

At the end of the day, we cannot do it all, can we?

At some stage of our lives, we might make a wrong decision and it hits us so bad that we think we won’t be able to get up anymore. But wrong or right decisions will shape us as who we are today – it’s a great teacher that will give us important life lessons and the wisdom to move on with our lives.

Photo credit: Ian Sane

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