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Same shirt, different day. How to reduce decision fatigue and help you think clearer.

Journey of an experiment by Robb Lockwood

People have often joked with me for wearing the same shirt to work every day (to be clear - by “the same shirt” what I really mean is “one of several shirts which look almost identical”). Whenever someone asks, I’ll happily explain to them the reasons behind it. In fact, someone asked me about it just the other day and, whilst explaining it to them, I realised that my response had become a lot longer than it originally was. What started out as a small experiment in 2018 has become an important part of my daily life which, by the end of this post, I hope to have successfully articulated.

What I thought would happen:

- Reduced Decision Fatigue

- Reduced Cognitive Load

- Clearer Mind

What has happened (so far):

- Reduced Decision Fatigue

- Reduced Cognitive Load

- Clearer Mind

- I no longer had to worry about how smart or scruffy I looked.

- I no longer had to iron my shirts!

- I was saving time.

- Easy mornings.

- Anchoring my state

- Better relationship with my kids during lockdown.

(And I’m probably missing loads of others)

Clear your mind

Being a coach, it’s really important for me to have as clear a mind as possible so that I can best support my clients. To this end, I meditate before each session; practise mindfullness; and have developed a set of anchors which help me get back into the appropriate state when I need to. But it isn’t always as easy as that. Especially when working within organisations and the adhoc nature of support that comes with it. There isn’t always time to prepare. I knew something had to change and that’s when I remembered Steve Jobs’ turtle-neck.

Steve Jobs was well known for wearing the same thing each and every day (black turtle-neck and jeans ring a bell?). He didn’t do this as a fashion statement or because he wanted to hide his neck. It turns out, he did this in an attempt to help combat decision fatigue.

Decision Fatigue

Wikipedia describe decision fatigue as:

"the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making"

So it would make sense that the fewer decisions one makes in a day, the better the decisions they do make will be*. So wearing the same thing each day was one way in which Steve Jobs was able to remove some of the decisions he had to make.

*This isn’t the whole story, of course. There are many ways in which one can increase cognitive load to the point where decision making abilities deteriorate. Though that would really take us down a rabbit hole so I’ll stick with decision fatigue for now.

Initially, I didn’t think that decision making was a critical factor in increasing my cognitive load; however, as I started looking into it, I realised how many decisions I made each and every day. Let’s take emails, for example. You open your email client and see twenty new emails:

- Do you read all of them?

- If not, which ones can you avoid?

- Is there one that’s more important than the others?

- Or do you just read them in order of when they came through?

- Once you’ve decided which email to open, do you respond?

- Are there questions to be answered in the email?

- What should you say?

- Who/ what would it impact?

- You’ve written your response - does it come across as rude?

- Maybe I should change this word?

- Or maybe it’s ok?

For what seems like an incredibly simple practice, there’s actually a huge load placed on you. So I decided that decision making was something that I could actively reduce.

What was I expecting to happen?

Starting out the experiment, I bought five navy polo shirts embroidered with the Atticus Hunter logo on the chest and two pairs of khaki chinos (TMI alert - I also bought the same brand of under crackers and socks too). My hypothesis was simple - by wearing the same clothes every day, I would reduce the number of decisions I had to make which, in turn, would reduce my cognitive load and lead me to having a more clear mind. I would give it three months to see how well it worked. Why three months? Your guess is as good as mine.

Expected Benefits:

- Reduced Decision Fatigue

- Reduced Cognitive Load

- Clearer Mind

What actually happened?

The experiment didn’t get off to the best start. I hadn’t laid the clothes out anywhere so I forgot to wear them initially. Not only did I decide what to wear instead but I also then had to get changed again once I realised. What a waste of time. Throughout the day, however, I did come across my first bonus benefit (BB) - because a polo shirt and chinos is a fairly smart-casual look, I no longer had to worry about whether I looked smart or scruffy!

BB1: I no longer had to worry about how smart I looked.

By the end of the first week, I didn’t feel like I had changed much (cognitively, that is. I WAS changing my clothes. I swear). But I was now hanging my clothes in the same place each time; and I also realised another BB whilst doing the laundry.

BB2: I no longer had to iron my shirts!

During the second week, the jokes started. Folk were ribbing me for wearing the same thing every day. And I didn’t blame them at all! Other than if I had dropped some beans down myself, they’d have no way to tell! This did take some extra effort for me to explain it to them and did start to go over in my mind quite a bit as to whether to carry on. This wasn’t making my mind any clearer. But as time went on, people got more used to me wearing the same thing and less people would ask. In fact, on occasion, people would answer for me if someone asked. Which was pretty sweet.

The third week was when I started realising that I didn’t have to think about getting dressed in the morning. Not ”which clothes?“ or ”where are my clothes?“. Just get and put on (BB3). I was also not explaining myself to people in the office quite as much and I felt myself being slightly clearer of mind later on in the day than before. And this feeling only got stronger with each passing day and week.

BB3 - I was saving time.

As time went on, I wanted to remove more decisions from my day. Not wanting to abandon the experiment, but also not wanting to miss out on the opportunities available, I decided to close the experiment after only two months. Still way long enough for me realise that the simple act of wearing the same thing each day made such a huge difference in myself.

After the two months, I started to remove more decisions from my day. I won’t go into all of them here - I’ll just focus on my mornings. After waking, having a shower, and get dressed; I would then head downstairs and have the same breakfast cereal. Whilst eating that, I’d make my coffee; then I’d brush teeth and leave the house as soon as I was done. This mean that, unless I woke up late, I’d arrive early for my train; I’d wait in the same spot; and sit the same seat. My entire morning was automated. Most days I could make it the whole way to work without having to make a single decision. I would arrive fresh and ready for whatever the day may bring.

BB4 - Easy mornings.

Having got so used to my routine, I decided to buy some new shirts in different colours. That small of a change could be implemented pretty easily, right? How wrong I was! Each morning, I would look in my wardrobe and decide which colour I wanted to wear. I’d sometimes stand there for minutes thinking about it. I even put one on then swapped it for another a few times. It took me a wee while to realise what it was going here. And it was pretty simple. I didn’t like all the colours that I had bought. Once I had understood the reason behind the decisions I was making, I was able to remove those from my wardrobe and then I could happily take a shirt without caring which colour it was.

One of the more interesting things that happened was that by wearing the shirts, I could almost immediately tip into ‘work mode Robb’. If you were to see me at home, you’d probably see a guy wearing shorts and a vest. I’d probably call you “dude“ and my answer to most things would be “sweet”. But as soon as I put on my shirts, my attitude would change and I’d become more focussed. So, if I need to get some work done, even at the weekends, I could chuck on a shirt and would shift into the associated mental state. My shirts had become an anchor.

BB5 - The shirts were an anchor to a more productive state.

All change for lockdown?

I had been wearing ’the same shirt’ for a couple of years with amazing benefits. Then came lockdown. Working full-time from home wasn’t something most of us had ever planned on doing. I did the odd day here and there but most of my client work was on-site, face-to-face. I didn’t have an office space to be working from so, for the first six months, I took over the dining table; setting it up each morning and clearing it away again at the end of each day. To add to this, I had my two kids running around. This is where the shirts really came into their own. Shifting away from decision fatigue, cognitive load, and all the other benefits they gave me; they were now about identity.

As much as I wasn’t used to working from home that often, my kids were even less used to me being home so much! Of course, I was able to take time out here and there to do things with them, but what if I was in the middle of a meeting and couldn’t respond, or had to rush my lunch to get back? We needed a way to help differentiate between ‘Work Dad’ and ‘Home Dad’. To facilitate this, as soon as I had finished for the day, I’d change my shirt then go outside and play or go on the X-box, or whatever else was being asked of me. It took a few weeks for the kids to get used to this; however, they did come to understand that when I am wearing a work shirt, they know I’m working. At the end of the day when I swap into a t-shirt, they have my full attention.

BB6 - Better relationship with my kids during lockdown.

Made to stick

To be honest, when I started doing this, I truly never thought I would stick with it. Three (well, two) months was fine but after then? I was half expecting the shirts to be forgotten about in the pile of clothes destined for painting or gardening. You know the ones I’m talking about… the free conference t-shirt you got ten years ago and was too good to throw out but not the kind of thing you want to be seen in outside of the house. Anyhow, what I found as time went on was that it did stick. The idea that wearing the same things each day would make my life easier just sounded unrealistic. But it was true. My mind has never been clearer and I thoroughly enjoyed finding new ways to make less decisions.

If there was one thing you could change to reduce your decision fatigue, what would it be?

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