Decision Minimalism: The Quest to Make Fewer—But Better—Decisions

Productivity hack used of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg

In 2001, Apple held a keynote to launch their new product, with the tagline of the event invitation "Hint: It's not Mac." Rumors were that Apple would release a revolutionary PDA while it turned out to be a music player. That disappointed many in the tech industry. However, many were wrong, and Steve was right.

The launch of the tiny music player changed the world of consumer electronics and reshaped Apple. The iPod can be argued that it's the most important product Apple ever introduced. Before the iPod, Apple was a niche computer maker with a 3% market share and cool-looking iMacs and iBooks. The iPod eventually changed how we all consume music.

In 2007, the iPhone. Just before Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, he said,"Today, Apple is reinventing the phone."He was only half right. The iPhone did more than that. It redefined the entire mobile phone industry and the behavior of all mobile phone users. It created a truly personal computer—one that we can bring with us all the time in our pockets.

Steve Jobs in 2007 iPhone keynote event

None of us realize that we need a tablet (we didn't even know what to call it back then) when we have a powerful laptop and a brilliant smartphone.

Walter Mossberg, the principal technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal from 1991 through 2013, wrote, "It's about the software, stupid," meaning hardware features and build are less critical to the iPad's success than software and user interface, his first impressions of which were largely positive.

Steve Jobs in iPad keynote event

So what's up with all these Apple products? Besides the fact that these products literally changed the world.

In case you haven't noticed yet, Steve Jobs was wearing the same outfit in every single event, for the iPod keynote in 2001, the iPhone keynote in 2007, the iPad keynote in 2010, and almost every single keynote event he was in. To the point that the black turtleneck, blue jeans, and sneaker become the essential brand elements when people think and talk about Steve Jobs.

The chocolate-radish experiment

In 1996, psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted an experiment together with his former Case Western Reserve University colleagues Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice. They examined the effect of a tempting food challenge designed to deplete participants' willpower.

They kept the 67 study participants in a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate cookies and teased them further by showing them the actual treats alongside other chocolate-flavored confections. Part of the participants did get to indulge their sweet tooth, while the other part of the participants, whose resolves were being tested, were asked to eat radishes instead.

As the scientists noted in their Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper (PDF), many of the radish-eaters "exhibit[ed] clear interest in the chocolates, to the point of looking longingly at the chocolate display and in a few cases even picking up the cookies to sniff at them."

After the food bait, while the participants thought the experiment was over, Baumeister and his team then gave them a second, seemingly unrelated puzzle to solve. And this was not an average puzzle. It was almost impossible to solve, purposely designed to test the persistence of the participants.

Baumeister found that those who ate radishes made far fewer attempts and devoted less than half the time to solve the puzzle before they gave up, compared to the chocolate-eating participants and a control group that only joined this latter phase of the study.

In other words, those who had to resist the sweets and force themselves to eat radishes could no longer find the will to engage in another challenging task fully. They were already too tired. Their willpower had depleted. And this directly affects their self-control, discipline, and, yes, decision-making.

The research illustrates the relationship between our energy and our ability to make good decisions. Most of the time, bad decisions are made, not because we lack specific information and intelligence to make a sound judgment, it's simply because we don't have the energy and willpower required to process the problem we're facing at that moment. This research also gave us a clearer picture of how our energy and willpower affect our self-control and discipline.

To perform at our peak, a clear and sharp mind is required. Yes, there are numerous ways and techniques to strengthen our willpower and maximize our energy by training them regularly. However, the best way to optimize your decision-making is by avoiding decision fatigue.

The trend of minimalism is growing in many spaces like digital design, architecture, and day-to-day lifestyle. The core purpose is somewhat similar to what we like to achieve here — gain better clarity, improve focus, and keep only the things that matter.

Which is why I called this Decision Minimalism.

How to implement decision minimalism

The implementation of this concept breaks into three phases: Track, measure, and automate.

Phase 1. Track every decision

If you want to change what you eat, don't start by shopping for chicken breast. Instead, start by paying attention to what you're currently eating. The first step to behavioral change is not about changing what you do and how you do things immediately—but about observing and tracking your current behavior.

To practice decision minimalism, don't hop right into dumping all your clothes to mimic Steve Jobs. Start by tracking your current decision. Observe the patterns:

  1. When do you usually make good decisions?
  2. In what conditions that you make more mistakes and poor judgment?
  3. When are you most indecisive? And why?

Answer these questions provides a better layer of clarity on what you should change.

Phase 2. Measure effectiveness

Efficiency is about how quickly you make a decision or get the work done with very little input. The other side of it is effectiveness—how significant the impact of your decision or action creates. After you get a clear picture of your decision-making pattern, measure the effectiveness of every decision you make.

What do I mean by this? Find out the decisions you made that deliver the greatest impact on your life, your visions, and your goals. At the same time, identify the decisions that make little to no impact on your current priorities.

According to the Pareto Principle, 20% of your decisions generate 80% of the results—good or bad. Find out both the 20 percent that generates good outcomes and the bad outcomes, and channel your energy to do more of the former and avoid the later.

Phase 3: Automate repeated decisions

The third step is to put part of your decision-making on autopilot. There are always important decisions and obligations you need to make consistently on a regular basis.

For example, what to eat. It's an important question because it directly affects how we feel and perform. The thing is, it might not be aligned with your current focus if your number one goal now is to build your business. So instead of thinking about it before every meal, automate it.

Ramit Sethi solves this by hiring a nutritionist to plan what he should be eating and a personal chef to prepare him the meals. In his words, these are important decisions related to health, but he prefers to put his energy and focus on his businesses.

The practicality of decision minimalism in daily life

You might be thinking: "Are you kidding me? Not everyone can afford a nutritionist and a personal chef."

Yes, I get it. Hiring a personal chef may not be for everyone. However, the purpose here is to demonstrate a real-life example of decision minimalism.

I'm a big believer in starting small. You don't need to hire a chef to begin practicing decision minimalism. There are a few ways to achieve the same results without spending a dime (some of them even save you big bucks).

  • Trim the wardrobe. Unless you're a celebrity or someone in the fashion industry, what you wear is not crucially important. It's not a life-or-death kind of decision to make. Pick a few styles of outfits you like and stick to that, so you don't need to think about what to wear every day. Besides, you also reduce the need to shop for clothes regularly (save yourself another decision to make).
  • Design a morning routine. We are full of energy, high in willpower, and sharp in decision-making in the morning after a good night's sleep. Designing a morning routine to schedule the most important tasks during this period. Think about one thing if you complete it, you will consider yourself productive even if you get nothing done for the rest of the day. Another excellent morning routine will be cultivating a creative habit. If you're an artist, paint in the morning; if you're a writer, write in the morning.
  • Eat fewer, same meals. If you're like me, you don't yet have a personal nutritionist and chef, here's what you can do. Do some upfront research on what to eat, design a few recipes for each meal, eat the same thing for a week, then switch. Besides eating the same meals, I also skip breakfast because I'm practicing intermittent fasting.
  • Unsubscribe from information addiction. Before the Internet was invented, information was scarce. If you have a piece of information that others don't, you're going to make a fortune out of that. Today, information is everywhere, battling against each other to grab your attention. Go on a low information diet. In most cases, you don't need to know more, you just need to act upon what you have already learned.
  • Jot down key objectives before bed. This practice helps you gain better clarity for the next day. It doesn't need to be a to-do list for the next day. Write down what you want to achieve, get done, and improve for the next day. They will eventually become the framework for all the decisions you need to make for that day.
  • Simplify. Set ONE goal so you have fewer things to focus on. Limit tasks on your to-do list so you know you are going to complete them. Buy less stuff so you have fewer decisions to make and fewer things to worry about.

Who else wore the same outfit?

Now, let us get back to Steve Jobs's outfit for a moment. Did you notice anyone else who wore the same clothes all the time?

Mark Zuckerberg wore the same outfit

In 2014, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg had his first-ever Q&A publicly. He answered many questions in that session, but one of the most interesting questions is this: "Why are you wearing the same t-shirt every day?"

In case you haven't noticed, Mark Zuckerberg wore the same gray t-shirt at most public events. While everyone was expecting a playful answer, Mark said this,

I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.

Of course, he needs to wear something, but he doesn't want to think about it because it doesn't fall under the 20 percent of the decision he should be making. Instead, he decided to focus all of his energy on how to serve the Facebook community best and simply wear (automate) the same gray t-shirt.

By the way, here is Mark Zuckerberg running in Beijing.

Mark Zuckerberg jog in China

Often, less is more

Many creatives and entrepreneurs who are working in a highly competitive space want to maximize their performance in both work and life. And there is no shortage of tricks and gimmicks that claim to do that.

Here, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who impacted the world with their creativity and innovation (and made billions at the same time), opted for this simple strategy to improve their decision-making with almost no extra effort and investment required.

Before you consider other "proven" productivity tips and "approved" performance-enhancing drugs, implement decision minimalism to reduce the choices and decisions you need to make to reduce decision fatigue and improve your judgment. Even if making fewer decisions doesn't save you tons of time, it will still help you perform better by making you happier.


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