At the start of 2015, I decided for various reasons to change my shopping habits and can now explain having experimented for nearly 5 months, how this has helped me retain more energy and more money every day I visit the shops. It’s all to do with reducing decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue is essentially a name for what happens when we expend our psychic energy during the day making decisions. When we wake up in the morning, most of us generally feel fresh and ready for the day, able to make good decisions about the choices that we have. A good analogy for this would be to think of us as having Hit Points (for the old Dungeons and Dragons players among us – you know who you are!) As the day wears on, we use up these hit points when we make decisions.
This explains why when we get to the end of the day, feeling totally shattered and emotionally drained, we go into the kitchen to be faced with the choice between having a piece of fruit or sitting down with half a Tolberone, we make the bad choice and the health conscious diet goes out the window.
Bad decisions can have a variety of costs, from financial, health and relationship and so minimising these costs helps us all to lead a better life. One small area where bad choices are especially painful is in an everyday activity most of us indulge in each and every week .
The nature of shopping has changed dramatically over the last five decades. American supermarkets in the 1970s carried 9,000 products but fast forward twenty years later this figure was fast approaching the 40,000.
By increasing the choice available to consumers, supermarkets were able to take advantage of decision fatigue and apply marketing tricks to products that they wanted to push. When shoppers were already in a fatigued state (or low on hit points to continue the D&D analogy from earlier) they would be less resistant to the subtle cues from the marketeers.
No prizes for guessing that this combination of fatigued shoppers and clever marketing strategies resulted in boom times for supermarkets. In the UK, Tesco’s share price increased nearly 300% from the turn of the millennium (from 176 in 1999 to a peak of 487 in 2007). Only since consumers began the process of belt tightening in the wake of the recession have supermarkets started to feel the effect of the consumer pound going somewhere else.
Working in retail and food, shopping for me has always been something I’ve had an interest in and I’ve always done the weekly shop. I’ve probably tried every variant of cost cutting that there is from online comparison sites to shopping around to get the best deals.
A couple of months ago I’d made another decision to switch the regular shop to LIDL rather than one of the big four multiples and found my weekly bill dropped dramatically. Sure, their prices were cheaper but was there something else at work here? Then it hit me.
Or rather the lack of at any rate.
I’d been struck by how LIDL just seemed to have only the things that I was planning to buy, since another element of my strategy was to buy more ingredients and less pre-prepared. Their stores are small (they range from 8,000 to 16,000 sq ft) but the number of lines they stocked seemed limited but sufficient.
With a bit of research, I discovered that LIDL routinely stock around 1,500 to 1,650 products (stock keeping units or SKUs in supermarket speak) in their 600 UK stores which is a massive reduction in the potential options when shopping. They are a bit of a throwback to the stores of the 1970s when choice was limited to the bare essentials.
In fact, a recent article in the Telegraph by Graham Ruddick said that many city analysts were referring to LIDL (and its category competitor AIDL) as “limited assortment discounters.”
But that’s the secret of their rapid success in the UK. These days decision fatigue is a first world problem and with social media, email, smartphones and longer working hours, most people have made more decisions by lunchtime than their Grandparents made in an entire week.
In fact, David Allen author of Getting Things Done has often said that “there’s nothing new in the world except how fast it shows up”. He says that clarifying our inputs and deciding appropriate action is the cornerstone of personal productivity and, ultimately, having a productive life leads to that satisfied feeling inside us all.
So while I’m highlighting that shopping in LIDL is a conscious choice you can make to reduce decision fatigue in your what other practical steps can you take to manage decision fatigue in your life?
Well, here some of my tips you can implement today:
- Keep decisions around food simple – Tim Ferriss’ Slow Carb Diet is excellent in terms of it’s simplicity and a key element is to limit your meal choices to 4 or 5 key dishes and try, where possible, to use the same ingredients in different combinations to generate those 4 to 5 dishes. Examples of this might be using mince beef as the basis for several dishes like chilli, spaghetti bolognese, mince and vegetables or even a stew. My personal favourite has been to buy only chicken fillets in bulk and then use them in curries, sandwiches, vegetable dishes and even as a replacement for the weekly Sunday joint.
- Decide what you are going to do for the first hour of your day. List out all the steps as if you were a pilot going through their pre flight checklist. It so be so clear that anyone could do your routine from the notes.
- Standardise what you wear – Steve Jobs, Neil Gaiman and several others have practiced this – almost having a uniform that makes choices automatic about what to wear in the morning. That’s another choice avoided.
- Set yourself up for success by arranging things ahead of time for minimal resistance. If you’ve decided to go to the gym early one morning, then make sure that you set out all your gear and use it to block the door. That way, you don’t have to make the choice to go and it’s as close to automatic as it can be.
- Make decision quickly if they are reversible – to decide and move on is more important sometimes especially when you can always change your mind later on. Keep up the speed and simplicity.
We could all do with a little less fatigue in our lives and practicing some of the above has been a massive help to me – and saved some money too!