September 8, 2016 | Alyson Stanfield

Don’t Even Think About It: Overcome Decision Fatigue

Every day takes too much thought. – Gwen Meharg

Gwen left this comment in our Art Career Success System private group. I was struck by her insight because I had been reading about this at the time. “Decision fatigue” is a real phenomenon in contemporary society.

According to researchers, we make over 200 decisions per day about food alone. Just food decisions! I don’t know about you, but all of these decisions wear me out.

©Karine Swenson, Sometimes it’s Fleeting
©Karine Swenson, Sometimes it’s Fleeting. Oil on canvas, 20 x 20 inches. Used with permission.

As an example, I spent 3 months last fall researching espresso machines – dreaming of holding the perfect cup of coffee while still in my jammies. But I could never click the button to buy.

My husband took me out of my misery. He decided on one, bought it, wrapped it, and put it under the tree. Best. Gift. Ever. No decision (on my part) was required.

Don’t get me started on making travel reservations. I can't stand to make plane reservations or to find a hotel. What if I book “the wrong” flight or land at the wrong airport? Don't laugh. I recently did this when I was confused about a small airport name, and it cost me a lot of extra driving time.

I contend that we’re happier when we have fewer decisions to make, and that we’re better with the important decisions if we don’t spend time on the little ones. That’s why I’m encouraging you to create routines, automate as much as you can, and turn repeated tasks into systems – so you don’t wear out your decision motor.

What can you do without thinking? Consider the following.

Organizing Your Time

Preparing for your day.

There’s a better way to start your day than jumping out of bed and checking email messages before doing anything else. It’s worse yet if you’re checking email while still in bed.

Develop a morning routine that sets the tone for the entire day.

Ending your day.

There’s no better way to get a good night’s sleep than to create space between your work, chores, and hectic evening. Here are some suggestions:

  • Plan the next day, making sure you’ve captured all of your to-dos.
  • Step away from all digital screens at least one hour before going to bed.
  • Stretch.
  • Meditate or journal.

Sales of Art or Services

©Lin Price, She Only Flies at Night.
©Lin Price, She Only Flies at Night. Oil on canvas, 36 x 46 inches. Used with permission.

Sending thank-you emails.

When someone signs up for your list or one of your classes, they should receive an email with your gratitude. Set up autoresponders in your sales process to take care of this for you.

Suggestion: Subscribe yourself to make sure you know what they're getting. Even if it’s automated, you still want it to feel personal.

Responding to donation requests.

Every artist should have a policy for handling requests for donations of their art that triggers subsequent steps.

You receive a request, and, because you have a policy in place, you send a standard reply instead of spending time deciding what to say.

Click here and here for examples.

Completing a work of art.

There are certain things that must be done when you finish a work. You sign it, give it a title, add it to your inventory, and photograph it.

What else is part of your routine after a work is finished? Write your procedure down and refer to it after you complete a new work.

Following up with someone who buys a piece of art from you.

When someone buys a piece of art, when and how do they next hear from you? And then what? And then what? Turn it into a system so that you don’t waste time and energy trying to choose how you should stay in touch.

Is your system different if they buy online than if they buy in person?

Packing and shipping your art.

When I used to receive online orders for hard copies of my book, they were automatically sent to my assistant on the other side of the country who prepared the shipping labels. We could go online, print the labels, and ship.

It was a small step in the process, but it saved loads of time.

What part of your packing and shipping can you automate or do without thinking?

Promoting a class, workshop, or other program.

If it’s your first time to teach or lead, write down everything you do to promote your teaching. Do the same for subsequent events. You will soon have the framework for how you promote in the future.

Sure, they’ll be tweaked each time, but there will be numerous steps that don’t require a lot of brainpower.

©Angeline Marie Martinez, Red Scallop Shell
©Angeline Marie Martinez, Red Scallop Shell. Oil on canvas, 6 x 6 inches. Used with permission.


Lucky you! Your finances can be automated in many ways. For example:

  • Contributions to your retirement or savings account
  • Notifications for low balances
  • Quarterly tax payments
  • Payments on a credit card
  • Paychecks to assistants

Do you have all of these set up to help you manage your money and save effort?

Your Turn

There is an endless supply of tasks that you can systematize and automate to lessen the negative impact of decision fatigue.

What do you do without even thinking? What can you do without thinking?

18 comments add a comment
  • I loved your example about the expresso machine! It’s happened to us all since the internet espeically. I recently made art about too much choice (and therefore too many decisions) and it was partly inspired by this TED talk. Very enlightening if you can find the 15 minutes to watch!

    The TMI (too much information) series is on this page if you want to check it out:

    And as always, thanks Alyson for great solutions! :)

  • A passage in the book Original Wisdom stated how indigineous children in a far away village in SE Asia could not comprehend a multiple choice test. People on this poor village never had to make choices because there were not any to make! I sometimes wonder if our brains have not caught up with all the info and choices that float by us on a daily basis.

  • I have definitely been lost in the decision-making process. When I feel myself going down that hole, I ask my husband or a good friend if they can help me out of it. Sometimes they’ll tell me it’s just not that important, but often they’ll quickly help me re-weigh the pros and cons, and I’ll be able to move on.

    Recently I asked my husband to help me organize and decide re: my lengthy art business to-do list. I mean, it had been accumulating for a year and a half. What should I focus on first? It’s all important! But I was paralyzed.

    He looked at the list and made these comments: Firstly, stop making lists. ;-) Secondly, just make art (I’ve begun in a new medium). Thirdly, stay in touch with the art consultants you already work with to promote your already finished pieces. Don’t worry about expanding your consultant or gallery contacts, or your e-mail list, or putting your art up on another site on-line, or anything else, at least for the next 6 months.

    While this may put my business a little on hold, it is freeing me up to dive into the learning curve of a new medium, and to just simplify for now. It has not stopped me from reading your great posts, though! Learning never stops.

    Thanks, Alyson.

  • Another great post, Alyson. My morning routine is one that I never think about. I get up, have a bit of coffee, get dressed and immediately go for a hike with the dog. Being outside first thing is the best way for me to start my day. It happens before computer, before art, even before breakfast!

    Thank you for featuring my art – I am honored that you shared my work.

  • AS I am still working at my ‘regular day’ job, I have different routines for those days and days I’m not driving to work. The evening before I prep my to-go bag that contains my timesheets, my reading materials, phone cord, and equipment. I make sure there is a lunch/snack for the following day—and hopefully have also filled my tank with diesel. When I get to work, I unpack my bag, clean the computer keyboard and any place I put my hands, plug in my phone–and maybe get a cup of coffee. Leaving work means unplugging phone, picking up lunch bag, repacking bag, getting timesheet signed and in folder.

    When I end an art work day–I always close it up by leaving at a place where I know the next step; wind a bobbin, and organize my tools on the right side of my sewing machine. I can tell when someone else has sat in my workspace and moved my tools—I have major frownie face with this.

    While working, I put all the materials for that project together–including threads, cartoon, reference photo. I may work on another project but robbing anything from that project is forbidden until it is completed and then the fabrics, threads are returned to their respective bins—I sort by color or function.

    My grandfather was an accountant—and I guess I picked up the detail oriented work style from him. But I still lose things in the chaos that is my work area and then when I have a general cleanup because I’m stuck on something I’m always surprised by the goodies I find—including a needle threader I’d been hunting for months.

  • I think the biggest problem is obsessing over the minutiae of life. As for internet research – I have done tons of it, being both the project manager and builder in my recent home renovation and the fact that I live in a remote location means all shopping gets done online. I like to do a reasonable amount of general research on a topic or product, then decide what criteria are important to me, then go looking. If something doesn’t meet all or most of my criteria it is quickly stricken off the list. No equivocating, no maybe……Be brutal and you’ll get exactly what you want, faster and with less hassle. Most importantly keep research/online shopping sessions time limited or you will end up going down a rabbit hole. As for the day to day – just stop overthinking it, in the end most of the choices we make have no real impact on our lives.

  • So much of what we read these days is all about making the Right Decision about every little thing. All advertising is about that and we are drowning in advertising. There are enough important decisions in our lives, and we have had enough experience with the consequences of bad choices that we know that there are a lot of times it pays to be really careful. For those of us just getting going in an art business or a new medium, a lot of it is too new to automate. For example, I spent weeks agonizing over whether to get my own mat cutter, then choosing it, then finding the courage to push the button and buy it already. I got a great deal, too. It arrived and now I’m too scared to pull it out of the box. Now that I have it, I really need to decide what kind of mat I should use, which has the best long term value for me and future collectors, etc. And since it’s easier just to go with one color, I have to choose a color. Fine. White. Did you know there are EIGHT different whites? And no samples to look at first. It’s terrifying. And once I get the mats, I should really settle on frames. Which frames? What size? What if people don’t like the ones that I like? And should my decision about frames affect my decision on what size paper to use for ALL of my paintings …. so I can automate better later? Should I get a little drill so I can do the strap wires myself? … and I haven’t even begun to think about shows and marketing. All these decisions really suck the fun out of the art. It’s much easier just to go the studio, do the art and let the stacks of paintings pile up. [No one should ever diss the amount of energy it takes to art and make it a business.]

    • Robin: Oh,my! Yes, so many whites. Here’s something to think about: Consider the mat as an extension of your piece. It’s how you want your work to be shown and appreciated. I hope this helps you make a decision and not worry about whether other people will like your white or not.

    • Oh Robin. I completely relate. I just bought frames for paintings — researched too long, then asked a friend what she used — and now that I have them, can’t decide if they’re perfect or take away from the art. But… I decided I had to just dive in. Sometimes you waste a little $ while you figure things out. Kind of like dating the wrong person helps you figure out what’s right!

  • What a great read! You’re so funny Alyson! I actually thought this might be a guest post – you seem like one of the most decisive people I know.

    Planet Money did a story on making decisions – if I remember correctly – flipping a coin worked just as well as anything else.

    My problem is having so many priorities that needed to be done yesterday. Sometimes I write each one on a separate piece of paper, fold them, toss ’em in a bowl and then pick one out. It’s very freeing – allowing you to forget the rest and just focus on what you picked. Kinda fun.
    Thanks for your great blog!

  • Decisions, decisions. Too many choices, too much information overload. In fact, often too much sensory overload. I spend about fifteen minutes early in the morning while it is quiet, to make my list of things to do, including making decisions. I leave some flex time for those things that pop up, to try to ease the pressure. There are fewer distractions then. Once done, it frees me to do what needs to be done.

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