How to ease anxiety by minimising your number of daily decisions

Sarah Wilson’s new book about anxiety, first, we make the beast beautiful: a new story about anxiety, which I raved about last week, isn’t a ‘how to’ book; rather, it’s her ‘personal exploration of anxiety and the latest research on it’. That means the book is heavy on information and rich and raw experience, and lighter on recommended actions for the reader to take to ease their own anxiety. There are no ‘shoulds’ in Sarah Wilson’s work (on anxiety or quitting sugar). But the suggested actions she has peppered throughout the pages carry weight, because they’re all tried and tested by Sarah herself. And it’s obvious she knows her stuff.

One of Sarah’s suggestions that piqued my interest was the notion of ‘choicelessness – streamlining your day, particularly your morning routine, so that you reduce the number of decisions (choices) you have to make to the absolute bare minimum.

You simply make decisions once, and in advance, for those areas of your life you can simplify, and then stick to those choices deliberately and indefinitely. And you’ll likely feel less anxious as a result. 

Clothing and breakfast food choices are ideal candidates for this ‘automating’ action. 

So, how does it work? Sarah says:

We think having options is a good thing, but there’s a flip side. An endless string of choices can lead us to feel anxiety and guilt, because we worry that we’re making the wrong decisions. 

And this:

When you're anxious, decisions can be your undoing. Anxious people are shocking decision makers. Plus, the process of making decisions heightens anxiety. Plus, any kind of indecision or pfaffing or vagueness around us tends to trigger anxiety ... To my mind, decision-making is a key trigger of anxiety.  

Sarah researched the theory, and then tested it in some focus groups she ran with the Black Dog Institute and SANE Australia. She says that both our biology (several brain and cellular systems tussle during decision-making) and our perception of the limitlessness of possibility can combine to be almost crippling in anxious people trying to make decisions. She refers to the work of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and says:

Anxiety is the dizzying effect of freedom, of boundless possibility, [Kierkegaard] reckons. As humans we want all options. But we have to choose one thing over another from the boundless, or unlimited, options to create our identity. This is angst-filled by virtue of the enormity of the task and the perceived risk of failure – what if we get it wrong?! 

So Sarah’s fix for this angst is to render herself ‘choiceless’ in as many ways as possible, and says we can all do it simply by reducing the amount of daily decisions we have to make. 

And there are plenty of famous people who’ve cottoned on to this formula, by eating the same breakfast or wearing the same ‘uniform’ of clothes everyday. People like:

  • Richard Branson (only fruit and muesli)
  • Leo Babauta (flourless cereal and soy milk)
  • Barack Obama (same style of suit every day during his time in office). In fact Obama made it plain to a journalist once when he said: ‘You’ll see I only wear grey 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’
  • Albert Einstein (same suits)
  • Mark Zuckerberg (grey t-shirts, and same daily breakfast)
  • Steve Jobs (black turtlenecks).

Sarah says ‘choicelessness’ is common among creatives, who ritualise everything except their creativity:

... I don't think I'm making too drastic a leap when I say I think anxious fold are not unlike creatives (if they're not already both) in needing to reduce the number of choices they have to make so that they can fly free.

Turns out, behavioural psychologists call this idea ‘dropping certainty anchors’, and Sarah says:

Drop as many as you can to hold you firmly so that you can flap about as creatively – or anxiously – as required, like one of those inflatable, fan-operated men propped outside used car yards that jerk about moronically. The flapping about is manageable – and creatively productive – if we know we're not going to fly away. 

So, what do you think? Could you pare down your daily decisions to next-to-nothing? Could you simplify your wardrobe, your day, your entire life so you render yourself choiceless enough to feel calmer, more in control, more creative or focused on the things that you can’t change? 

Start with some easy ones:

  • eat the same breakfast every day (or, change it only every other week)
  • buy your coffee at the same place every morning
  • put your simplest exercise gear into a box by the door or bed so you don’t have to decide or pfaff around about exercising (a Sarah Wilson special)
  • plan a month’s meals and rotate through the list for the entire year (check out this or this or this or this or this)
  • pare down your wardrobe and your kids’ wardrobes so you end up with a ‘uniform’ that works for you and the kids. (I used to work with a woman who only wore black and white to work; each piece was different and she added jewellery and scarves, but the foundation was always the same black and white – and she looked fabulous). Check out this awesome advice on capsule wardrobes from Styling You, or read this.  

The options will be different for each of us, but the concept is the same: Simply make decisions once, and in advance, for those areas of your life you can simplify, and then stick to those choices deliberately and indefinitely. And see what happens. 

Natalie Bartley