Decision Fatigue and the Creative Process

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There are only so many decisions you can make in one day. And when you have made too many, you lose your willpower. Rolf Dobelli reports on the psychological studies that demonstrated this very clearly, and also shows some of the consequences for real-life situations such as the criminal justice system. But, apart from recommending a rest and a snack to recover, he doesn’t really offer much help in dealing with decision fatigue.

This matters to everyone, but I’m particularly interested in how it impacts on the creative process. We often talk about creativity as if it is some kind of magical thing bestowed on us from above, not least because the source of our best ideas is only partly and intermittently susceptible to conversant self-awareness. But the actual activity of generating creative products is essentially one of making decisions. Global decisions (what to produce, for whom, of what size, with commitments to which genre(s)); artistic decisions (expressive register, characterisation, emotional shape); technical decisions (key, voicing, texture, chord choice). Think how much time you spend in planning, day-dreaming, and trial-and-error tinkering - all those are species of decision-making activity.

It follows, therefore, that if we have a limited capacity for decision-making before we give up, the quality and quantity of our creative output is directly dependent on our not squandering our decision-making capacities on other things.

(As an aside, you rarely see people really unpack the relationship between decision fatigue and loss of will-power. But reflecting on this makes me realise that willpower is essentially about making decisions that vary from the path of least resistance and/or the will of others. If somebody offers you a cake, they have decided it would be good for you to have one, and if you are out of decisions for the day, you are more likely to accept even if you know your waistband is already a bit too tight.)

There are two corollaries to this if we are to be effective in our creative endeavours.

The first is about focus. If we try and maintain too many different activities at once, we can’t really get our teeth into our major projects. This is why it is valuable to have a sabbatical in order to write a book. It’s not just the time needed, but you don’t want to use all your decision-making capacity up on marking, lesson-planning and departmental meetings. While I was doing the final write-up of my second book, I didn’t do any arranging for four months. After seven hours a day writing, I had no capacity left for any more decisions.

And focus is not just about balance of professional/creative activities that demand decisions, it’s also about all the minutiae of everyday life. You don’t want to be using decisions up on choosing which coffee to buy while you’re deep in a big project; just pick your current favourite, and save experimenting for your subsequent well-earned holiday. The advice about minimising distractions in your workspace is primarily to stop you having constantly to decide where to direct your attention.

These observations about purging your life of the need to make trivial decisions lead onto the second corollary for creative work of decision fatigue: the importance of routines and methods.

I have written before about discipline’s role in getting us through those frustrating stages of development where we’re skilled enough to know when our outputs are good, but not so skilled as to be able to achieve this reliably and at will. The external rule that we have to do x amount of work before we stop frees us up from the constant self-critical judgement that asks: am I any good?; should I pursue this goal or should I give up?

That is, it absolves us of a whole load of decisions that would otherwise use up our daily quota. Not just those surrounding the internal dialogue of self-doubt (important though it is to be freed from those), but the simple decisions of when to start work and how long to continue.

Work habits are like following a diet in the way they leverage decisions and thus get far more use out of them. Instead of having to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to eat a biscuit, you can just decide not to buy any. Instead of having to decide every day when you can stop writing and have a martini, you can create a rule that it will be once you have written 1,000 words. One decision covers 365 days a year.

(This example may be apocryphal, but it is appealing because of its reconciliation of disciplined and hedonistic lifestyles. Having said that, the method includes a definition of the form of hedonism involved rather than wasting any extra decisions on which cocktail to have any particular day.)

And as your technical fluency in your chosen field develops, technical skill serves the same kind of function. You build up a repertoire of solutions to standard problems, default decisions of your preferred way of doing things that your years of trial and error suggest are the best place to start. You always still have to do trial and error of course, but the elements you were wrangling over 5 years ago get largely automated and so leave brain-space to ask new questions. My blog posts on the technical nuts-and-bolts dimensions of arranging pretty much document my process of generating decision-making methods out of the nitty-gritty dilemmas of specific examples.

Discipline and technical control thus don’t win you any more actual willpower - you still only get so many decisions per day. What they do, though, is minimise the number of decisions wasted on the basics of the craft and matters external to it. You can then make more substantive progress before creative exhaustion sets in.

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