As adults, sources suggest, we make around 35,000 decisions every day. That is one choice every two seconds. Most of these are simple decisions—straightforward and easy to make, like what dress to wear to the office today.
Now, some people would not call that a simple decision, and that is why Steve Jobs wore the same black turtleneck and blue jeans every day. And Mark Zuckerberg always wears the same gray T-shirt to work.
The gist of the Stoic way of decision-making is this: The Stoics suggest we deal with whatever life throws at us by deciding first whether we control it or not. The things we do not control, we let go. The things that come under our control, we sift them through the four cardinal virtues. If they are virtuous, we could do them. If they are not, then we must not.
Let’s dive in to understand it better, in fact, so better that we do not ever forget it!
What Is Decision Fatigue
Decision fatigue refers to the worsening quality of decisions after one has involved in decision-making for a long period with no interval of rest. Usually, the decisions made towards the end of the day are poorer than the ones made at the start of the day or after a break time.
The more decisions we make in a day, the more mental energy we lose. It happens because our willpower is a limited resource. There is only so much we can draw in a day from our well of will.
Decision fatigue is also called ego depletion or willpower depletion.
People having decision fatigue also feel less guilty about their actions and are less helpful to others. Those under high stress seem to get it sooner and oftener.
John Tierney, who co-authored the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength with Roy Baumeister, says, “Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.”
How The Stoics Decide Quickly
The Stoics have it easy. Their philosophy trains them to think clearly, decide quickly, and rarely regret. So, how do they think clearly? Here is how to make a quick decision like a Stoic would when you stand at a diversion and cannot seem to decide which way to go:
First, decide if the situation you are facing is under your control or not. If it is not under your control, then leave it there and stop overthinking or worrying about it. If it is something you can control, then sieve it through the four cardinal virtues. If it passes the test and proves to be a virtuous thing, then do it. If it does not pass the virtue test and does not come across as a thing of virtue, then do not do it.
Stoicism emerged in ancient Athens around 2,300 years from now when Zeno of Citium, a Phoenician (Lebanese) migrant to Athens, Greece, began to teach his philosophy under the Stoa Poikile (Painted Porch) beside the Athenian marketplace (the Agora).
The Greek philosophy appealed to the Roman elites because one of its fundamental purposes was to find “Apatheia”—a balanced state of mind—while living a life of repetitive challenges and impediments. We could translate apatheia to mean “without passions,”—not without emotions (which is apathy, an English word that was borrowed from the Greek apatheia).
For doing some complicated thinking before making a decision, the Stoics can achieve exceptional results using the bare minimum mental energy. They can make hard choices while remaining unruffled. The Stoic calmness has roots in the way they learn to prune off the wild offshoots from their decision tree.
The Stoics say we should try our best to live as rational beings, in harmony with nature and other beings. To do so, we must screen all our decisions and actions before carrying them out, with wisdom, while watching closely if they are in agreement with nature and social good.
So then, what is the Stoic idea of wisdom?
It is wisdom that is grounded in practicality and guided by morality. It is the intelligence we could apply to everyday situations, and also for making big decisions. A Stoic describes wisdom as the ability to distinguish between the good, the evil, and the indifferent, with virtue (morality) as the key deciding factor.
By the way, we need to acquire wisdom is because it is the only way to reach any correct reasoning.
Here is how they think clearly. They start with what they call the Dichotomy of Control. The dichotomy of control is simply the Stoic way of separating things into ‘under my control’ and ‘outside my control.’ It means when they face a situation, this is the first question they ask themselves: Is it under my control?
So now, think of an undecided problem in your life, and ask yourself the same. And then proceed as follows.
- If it is under your control, then simply go ahead and do it.
- If it is not under your control, then leave it where it is. Stop worrying about it right away.
- If it is somewhat (partially) under your control, then you may attempt it. On attempting it, if the result doesn’t turn out as you had thought it should have, then categorize it as not under your control. And if the result is exactly or nearly what you had expected, then mark it for the future as something you control.
Once you learn to sift things this way, you are halfway to reach a final decision. It helps you avoid wasting your energy and time trying to control what you simply cannot control. Now, here is a succinct guide from the Stoic master Epictetus to know what things fall under your control:
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.
— Epictetus, Enchiridion 1
How The Stoics Think Clearly
Now you know you have in your hand something you control, so how do you decide quickly?
This is what you do next: Run it through the Virtue Model. That is, scrutinize it though the microscope of virtue.
So, what is virtue