How Many Decisions Do We Make Each Day?
The number of choices is hard to estimate, but it’s higher than you'd expect.
Posted Sep 27, 2018
How many choices have you made today? I have made rather many, and it isn’t even nine o’clock yet. When my alarm went off this morning, I decided—grumpily—to get out of bed instead of pressing the snooze button. I decided to challenge myself to a fast-paced yoga session, to have a long hot shower, and to put on a fabulous glittery princess dress plus tiara for work.
Just kidding. I obviously chose a smart, inoffensive and suitably boring shirt-and-skirt combo. I decided to breakfast on fruit with yogurt, ditch the bus and walk to work. On my way, I chose to listen to some upbeat pop classics rather than tuning in to BBC Radio 4 news and what would have been another dreary half-hour or so of Brexit updates. I decided to walk fast because it was drizzling, to pop into Sainsbury’s, to dodge a colleague, to pet a dog, to smile at a stranger, to text my sister, to use the main work entrance, to check my pigeon hole, to take the lift upstairs and to make tea rather than coffee.
I guess we can all agree that (1) my early mornings are insipidly predictable (shame about that princess dress!), and that (2) I, like most people, make lots of decisions all the time.
In fact, some sources suggest that the average person makes an eye-popping 35,000 choices per day. Assuming that most people spend around seven hours per day sleeping and thus blissfully choice-free, that makes roughly 2,000 decisions per hour or one decision every two seconds.
But does this enormous figure really hold up? You just spent about 50 seconds reading the first paragraphs of this blog. In theory, you should have made 25 decisions since choosing to give this post a try. In reality, that number seems counterintuitive if not outright silly. Chances are, you won’t recall making any decisions at all during this short space of time. But didn’t you make a quick judgement whether or not to carry on reading after the first sentence? (By the way, thanks for sticking with it.) Didn’t you decide to ignore a smartphone notification, or take a sip of coffee, or reposition yourself, scratch your arm, suppress a yawn, pick your nose?
Granted, it might be rather difficult to put a hard number these decisions. I do wonder how the estimate of 35,000 choices was derived in the first place. Did some poor research assistant spend a whole day taking note of every minute detail of every fleeting choice that crossed her mind? Furthermore, any estimate will heavily depend on a person’s very own definition of decision making. Was that nose-picking a conscious choice or more of an unconscious reflex? What does it matter anyway? Finally, not all decisions may be important in the grander scheme of things. At the end of the day, what difference does it make if you decide against an immediate response to the ping of a new online message?
While all this is true, we cannot deny being faced with a never-ending stream of decisions from the moment we crawl out of bed in the morning. And—even if it's rare—small choices can have big consequences. We must not underestimate the butterfly effect, a concept according to which even tiny actions such as the flapping of a butterfly’s delicate wings can result in big events such as raging storms. By momentarily ignoring your phone, for example, you could miss an offer for a lifetime dream job or a one-in-a-million match on a dating app.
Now, I’m definitely not suggesting we obsess over every single phone notification so as not to miss opportunities. Too many people suffer from phone-related distraction and procrastination already, which in itself can influence decisions in other areas of life. Instead, I am arguing for more awareness of the vast quantity of choices that present themselves each day. No matter the exact number of daily decisions, we might as well pay attention to them, because—as author John C. Maxwell famously put it—“Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.”
Yoga to increase awareness
In this post, I have been trying to demonstrate the plurality of choices we are faced with on a daily basis, many of which are made on autopilot. Sometimes we aren’t even aware of having an option. Increased awareness and mindfulness can help us navigate our daily maze of decisions and support our concentration.
One way to increase awareness through yoga is to practice pranayama or conscious breath exercises. Breathing typically happens automatically and often goes unnoticed. By focusing in on this natural process, we can become more aware of ourselves and our surroundings. A great place to start a conscious breath practice is alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhan pranayama), expertly demonstrated by the one and only Adriene Mishler. Why don’t you give it a try?