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Writer’s block. Procrastination. Decision Fatigue. Is there a link?
Chicken or fish? Coke or Pepsi? Dry cleaner or shoe repair? Helvetica or New Times Roman?
No big deal, you say?
Perhaps you might want to think again.
An article about the debilitating mental consequences of decision-making by John Tierney makes a powerful argument. I’ve condensed and excerpted the article below, but here’s a link if you want to read the entire article. It’s fascinating and, I think, relevant to some of the universal problems writers struggle with.
John Tierney begins his article with a story about prisoners seeking parole.
Three Israeli prisoners.
Three Israeli prisoners recently appeared before a parole board. The three prisoners had each completed at least two-thirds of their sentences, but the parole board granted freedom to only one of them.
Case 1 (heard at 8:50 a.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.
Case 2 (heard at 3:10 p.m.): A Jewish Israeli serving a 16-month sentence for assault.
Case 3 (heard at 4:25 p.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.
There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences. It was about timing.
Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time. Those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time, and indeed the individual in Case 1 was granted parole.
There was nothing malicious or even unusual about the judges’ behavior. Their erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider.”
The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore the judges down.
Doctors, brides, car buyers.
Further studies revealed that decision fatigue affects everyone from doctors who prescribed more unneeded antibiotics later in the day than earlier to car buyers who, after deciding on model, color, upholstery, and accessories, can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rust proof their new car.
Even brides aren’t immune. A postdoctoral fellow who started working at a research laboratory studying decision fatigue and ego depletion right after planning her wedding remembered how exhausted she felt the evening she and her fiancé went through the ritual of registering for gifts.
Did they want plain white china or something with a pattern? Which brand of knives? How many towels? What kind of sheets? Precisely how many threads per square inch?
“By the end, you could have talked me into anything,” she told her new colleagues.
Even children aren’t immune.
A friend told me of the time his parents took him to a big toy store just before his birthday and told him he could have his choice of any one gift. He first chose a toy train, then changed his mind and asked for legos. After that he decided he wanted the tank and, after that, the rocket launcher. Or maybe a toy car. Or a baseball glove? But what about some roller skates? A video game?
Overwhelmed, he was unable to make any choice. Exhausted, he burst into sobs, his parents took him home and, eventually, made the decision for him.
Decision fatigue routinely warps the judgment of everyone—doctors, judges, car buyers, brides—and, I wonder, writers? Few people are even aware of decision fatigue, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.
Decision fatigue is different from ordinary physical fatigue. You’re not consciously aware of being tired, but you’re low on mental energy because the more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes. Your brain, deprived of glucose, eventually looks for shortcuts, usually in either one of two very different ways.
One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?)
The other shortcut—the one that made me think about writer’s block and procrastination—is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid making any choice at all.
What does decision fatigue have to do with writers?
Writers make choices from an almost infinite palette of possibilities. Basically, we spend our working lives making decisions.
What, exactly, do we want to write? Mystery, thriller, superhero, romance, women’s fiction, historical fiction, cozy, sci fi, fantasy?
Gotta pick one.
Or maybe two if you have a mash-up in mind.
Anne’s post offering 10 tips for choosing a title contains excellent advice.
The plot, characters and POV:
Unrealiable narrator, first person or omniscient third person?
Who’s the good guy/gal? Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? And what about the side-kick? Or the incidental character who turns out to play an important role?
Not to mention the thousand (at least) details about what they look like, what they’re wearing, and what they do for a living.
Blonde, brunette or red head?
Touches of flattering silver or drab shades of grey? Dyed or natural? Highlighted? Straight or curly? Long, short or bobbed? Permed? Or ironed? Bald? Comb-over? Fro? Mohawk? Pony tail? Pig tails? Dreads?
And that’s just hair!
Blue eyes or brown?
But don’t forget green or hazel. Beady eyes? Almond shaped, wide-set or small? Near sighed, far sighted, color blind? And what about that squint? Suspicious? Untrustworthy? Or does s/he just have the bright sun in his/her eyes? 20/20? Contacts or glasses?
Fat or thin?
Tall or short? Bulging biceps or beer belly? Runner slim or linebacker bulky? Svelte and sexy or pleasingly plump? Stringbean skinny or XXL?
Big city, small town?
Mountains, beach or desert? House, mansion, apartment, penthouse, refuge camp, log cabin? Hotel, motel, tent, palace, homeless shelter, distant planet, undiscovered galaxy?
Jobs and careers?
Funeral director or Hollywood stylist? Cyborg or medieval knight?
Or? Or? Or?
OK. Need I continue?
You’ve got the point, but wait, there’s more!
Marketing—another bottomless pit of decisions.
A new blog post?
An Instagram account?
First free in series?
A guest blog post? (See Anne’s advice about how to approach bloggers.)
Keywords. Which ones work best?
SEO optimized headline or blurb?
It seems as if the list of choices writers must make is almost infinite.
No wonder we feel exhausted. And/or burned out.
No wonder we’re blocked.
No wonder we procrastinate.
Are we lazy? Untalented? Self-defeating?
Or, are we suffering from decision fatigue?
How to avoid decision fatigue.
James Clear, who writes about behavioral psychology and performance improvement, points out that making a few changes to your daily routine can help. “If something isn’t important to you, eliminate it. Making decisions about unimportant things, even if you have the time to do so, isn’t a benign task. It’s pulling precious energy from the things that matter.”
How can writers apply his advice?
Limit your choices.
Resist the lure of research and beware of over-researching. Too much information (or TMI as it is popularly known) will result in too many choices and, too many choices will exhaust/overwhelm us and lead to decision fatigue.
Make the most important decisions first.
Make your important decisions about plot and character at the beginning of a writing session before decision fatigue can lead you to make a poor choice. Leave decisions about minor details which can easily be changed later to the end of your session.
Consider writing a series.
The advantage of writing a series is that you automatically limit your choices. As you begin each new book in the series, you will already know the genre, the MC, the setting, the voice. Elizabeth S. Craig discusses the advantages of writing a series.
Have a snack.
Researchers found that when judges took a mid-morning break for a sandwich and some fruit (not cake or candy), their decision-making ability was restored. Writers can certainly follow their lead.
Suggested snacks include:
- Fruits and non-starchy vegetables
- Rolled or steel-cut oatmeal
- Lentils, beans and other legumes
- Sweet potato
- Brown rice
Keep a style sheet.
A style sheet provides a reliable road map to your book and will keep you from having to make extra, unnecessary decisions. If you keep a style sheet, you will not have to decide—again!—whether your character lives on Park Avenue, Park Street or Park Road. Check my guide about how to create a style sheet.
De-prioritize email and social media.
Don’t let email/FaceBook/Twitter/
Develop a routine.
Work at the same time every day. AM or PM depending on whether you’re a lark or an owl. That way you don’t have to decide what you’re going to do when the clock strikes thirteen. You already know what you’re going to do: you’re going to write.
Why not organize your research or write a brief synopsis of the next scene you need to write just before you go to sleep? That way, when you go to your desk the next day, you will have already made important decisions.
President Obama, Steve Jobs, and Zuck.
A Vanity Fair article states that President Obama “always wears a gray or blue suit with a blue-ish tie.” He explains: “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.”
Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are famous for, among other things, their daily uniforms: Steve’s black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance shoes, and Zuck’s hoodie. They never spend one second in the morning deciding what to wear. They already know.
You think maybe they’re on to something?
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