Decision Fatigue: Does it Help to Wear the Same Clothes Every Day?

Ever since the late Steve Jobs popularized the idea, some folks have been enamored by the idea that by wearing the same clothes everyday, you are somehow setting yourself up for greater success. The psychological reasoning behind this is the idea that the fewer decisions you have to make every day on rudimentary tasks (like choosing your clothing, what you’re going to eat, etc.), the more brain power you have available for more important decisions.

But is that true? Does cutting out simple decisions about clothing really likely to significantly impact your overall brain reserve for the day?

Decision fatigue — more accurately called cognitive fatigue — is a well-known psychological phenomenon. It was first discovered in people who had cognitive deficits due to a neurological condition, trauma, developmental disorder, or brain injury. When faced with everyday decisions, psychologists found that people with such problems or trauma would often tire more easily and quickly than ordinary people.

Healthy, normal people, however, generally don’t suffer from these same cognitive deficits. A healthy mind has the ability to make thousands of decisions a day with very little energy. For instance, the average person person makes about 180 decisions per minute while driving. If you’re cognitively healthy, cutting back a single daily decision (or even 10) isn’t likely to have much of an impact in your overall energy levels — and ability to make good future decisions.

Is Choosing a Daily Outfit Fatiguing?

Here’s one recent example of this argument, written by Vincent Carlos:

Simply put, every decision you make uses up your mental energy. Just the simple act of thinking about whether you should choose A or B will tire you out and reduce your brainpower. This means that the more decisions you have to make throughout the day, the weaker your decision making process will become.

He cites John Tierney, coauthor of the New York Times bestselling book “Willpower,” who is one of many who’ve popularized the idea. And later, he notes President Obama subscribed to this same theory:

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.

Decision fatigue usually hits people when they are faced with a decision with nearly endless, previously-unknown options. Shopping for a new car, planning a wedding, or finding a new perfect pair of jeans, most people don’t realize all the choices they have to make before prior to the effort. It also appears to be a cumulative effect — the longer you are in the process, the more fatiguing the effort becomes.

But when it comes to picking out our clothes for the day, it’s not the same as decision fatigue studied in research — after all, we’ve already chosen our own wardrobes. That makes the decision qualitatively different than the kinds of decisions faced by people who experience decision fatigue in the many psychological experiments conducted on the phenomenon.

If you want to streamline your outfit-picking decisions, start by streamlining your closet and removing things you haven’t worn for more than 2 years. That doesn’t mean you only have to wear the same kind of outfit every day — just that you need to bring the number of choices more in-line with your current needs.

Decision Fatigue Shouldn’t Be an Excuse for Not Making Daily Decisions

One can use decision fatigue to justify practically any decision, any time you don’t want to make a decision about something. “Oh, I don’t choose my food any more, it was too much work thinking about what to cook or eat.”

It’s easy to cherry-pick a few successful people who engage in a behavior you admire. However, such anecdotal evidence doesn’t hold up to two seconds’ worth of scientific scrutiny. A simple survey of the CEOs and other executives of the Fortune 500 companies would clearly show most of these very successful people do not wear the exact same outfit every day (unless you include “suit and a tie” in your definition of “same”).

The opposite is also true — many unsuccessful people wear the same exact clothes every day with little positive effect. Clothing alone isn’t going to make you successful or contribute in any meaningful way to your success (as long as your clothing fits in with the norms for your workplace). Unsuccessful people buy and consume Soylent, an oatmeal-like nutritional substitute masquerading as “food,” too.

Simply choosing not to make a decision about things like clothes and food suggests cognitive laziness — not an attempt at building your cognitive reserve. And it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the research underlying this popular premise.

Routines & Habits Add Value, Sameness Does Not

People have long recognized the value of routine and healthy habits in their life. Doing the same morning routine every day grounds us, and signals to our bodies and brains, “This is the time to get up,” “This is the time to take a shower,” etc. Choosing healthy eating options as a daily habit over pre-made or fast-food does your body good.

But sameness for the sake of sameness (or worse, for the sake of believing it will somehow make you more successful in life) is an empty, silly goal. It’s like people who pursue happiness as an end goal in their life, rather than understanding that happiness comes with pursuing the things that make you who you are.

A dragonfly will land on your hand if you don’t go chasing after it. In the same manner, happiness comes not as the result of a concerted pursuit of it, but rather as a result of fully experiencing and living your life.

Justifying ‘sameness’ with pseudoscience about “decision fatigue” boils scientific data down into component parts that make little sense. The science is about how willpower works in conjunction with the depletion of cognitive energy over the course of a day. It’s not about removing daily decisions that have virtually no impact on your cognitive abilities or reserves.