The Blog.

A thousand tiny decisions

13 Sep 2016 | Being Human, Clarity & Focus

Death by a thousand tiny decisions. This is a phrase that has been echoing in my head for the past few weeks, and one the quite aptly sums up my summer.

Big decisions we tend to plan for. We set aside time and headspace. We prepare ourselves, mentally and practically. We do our research, evaluate, weigh up options, seek help, ask for advice, talk it out, make a list or two (or five)… Sometimes we do a bit too much of that, granted, but we identify those decisions and we devote time, attention and headspace to tackling them.

Tiny decisions, on the other hand, can bypass our decision radar completely. They appear deceptively as simple tasks on our to-do list: Buy school trousers. Book train tickets to take the kids to stay with mum & dad. Buy new laptop. It’s not until we try to do them that we realise there’s even a decision to make.

‘Buy school trousers’ for example turned into a hunt on the internet for the one supplier that explicitly advertised ‘charcoal grey trousers’ only to find when they were delivered, that they were exactly the same grey as every other supplier.

‘Book train tickets’ required checking what time my parents would be happy for us to arrive, which station to travel to (the mainline one or the little one closer to them?), deciding whether to travel before, during or after lunch time and what to feed the kids if eating en route.

‘Replace laptop’ was one that sprung up when my laptop died rather unspectacularly (again) whilst on the road, after being fixed just months before. I’d already made the decision to replace it with a much lighter, travel-friendly MacBook Air, and as there was an Apple store close to where my parents live the decision of where to buy was pretty easy. The decision I hadn’t planned for though, was which configuration of RAM, hard drive, CPU – and once that was decided (less storage, more RAM), it then opened up a whole other set of decisions on external and cloud storage solutions, not to mention the massive file decluttering & re-organising I had to do before I could even migrate my data to the new machine.

Those were just three of the thousand tiny decisions I had to make over the summer. Don’t even get me started on trainers, bus routes and mouthguards!

When we don’t register these tiny decisions, we don’t see them coming – and we don’t see them piling up. What we dismiss as insignificant becomes a plague of locusts, or perhaps less dramatically, a ton of feathers. And because we don’t register them as decisions, we end up tackling them on the fly, reactively, at the last minute – and more than likely whilst multitasking. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taken the wrong turn on a familiar drive because I’ve been trying to work something out in my head.

So what do you do, when you find yourself being battered by a tiny thousand decisions? The key I’ve found is clarity.

1. Clear thinking

There’s a lot to be said for the power of simply knowing what you’re dealing with. We tend to resist writing down tiny decisions, either because it feels like overkill, or we’re actively trying to avoid thinking about it. But when we get everything out of our heads and into plain sight, we can see both the complexity and the boundaries of what we’re dealing with – where it starts, where it ends, and how much work is involved.

Instead of chasing the little buggers around our head, we can nail them down and actually spend less time worrying about them.

I found this with my son this weekend, when he had a moment of overwhelm over the amount of homework he had from his first week of high school, and I did what any mother with a stationery addiction would do… Twenty minutes of sitting down with Sharpies and Post-it notes and he had a plan that saved him a whole day of panicking.

2. Clear out

The more decisions we have to make, the quicker we reach decision fatigue, so reduce, reduce, reduce. Ruthlessly eliminate any unnecessary decisions. Delete files and emails you don’t absolutely need. Decline invitations and ideas where you think ‘well maybe I’ll come back to that’. Reduce the number of unmade decisions you’re carrying round in your head.

I must admit I didn’t relish the prospect of decluttering those old files, but boy did it feel cathartic once it was done. It reminded me how far my business has moved on, and it was good to let go of the things I didn’t need anymore, that I had almost forgotten about, but were probably still taking up a tiny corner of my mind somewhere.

Likewise, when my sister-in-law told me she had started selling at car boot sales, I made one decision – to give her all the stuff that we needed to get rid of. No more deliberating whether it’s worth putting that leather jacket on eBay, figuring out which charity shop will take what kind of stuff, or wondering which of my Facebook friends would be in the market for a big box of Bionicles. I simply don’t have the headspace for it. The very next day I grabbed a ton of clothes that were taking up space in my wardrobe, loaded the car and took it to her. It wasn’t all of it, but it was enough to get started and make me and my wardrobe breathe a sigh of relief.

3. Clear space

I’ve come to realise that the main source of all these tiny decisions is simply the season of new starts we’re in. My eldest has just started high school, and my husband only started his new job 8 weeks ago. It’s so easy to underestimate the number of decisions each new start can spawn.

Just factoring in one new set of school start and finish times has had multiple knock-on effects on morning routines, bedtimes, meal times – even what meals can be cooked on which day, especially when after school activities have also changed. All mundane decisions I’ve made many times before – but I hadn’t appreciated just how many shortcuts my brain had built into our old routine, and how many I needed to recreate to avoid daily brain melt.

The best thing I could do was to give myself space – extra margin to account for all the new decisions, recalibration, shortcuts and checklists my brain needed to work on – and acknowledge that while a ton of feathers may not seem impressive, it’s still a ton of feathers. While I may not be writing a book, launching a product, or preparing a conference keynote, I am still lifting the weight of a thousand tiny decisions, and my brain needs space and energy to do that.

With the helpful nudge of a horrid cold last week, I gave myself permission to have a few zombie days, and ignore all the other people on Facebook who seem to be hitting the ground running and taking great strides. After all, the only pace that truly matters is the pace I set myself.

4. Clear purpose

While all these tiny decisions may feel mundane, it wasn’t until I stumbled on this TED Talk on how to have a ‘good life’ in the 21st century, that I realised, all my tiny decisions add up to this one question: How do we live – as a family, in this new season? When I tell myself that, those tiny mundane decisions stop being a source of frustration, They become thoroughly meaningful, well worth making space for, and that’s where I find peace with the work I have before me.

How about you? Have you experienced death by a tiny thousand decisions? What strategies have you found helpful?


  1. amanda_alexander

    oh boy – I completely relate to this! Death by a thousand tiny decisions.. or more probably, overwhelm. We do it every day. We get a grasp on it and then another one pops up – another contact to hook up with, another call to schedule, another email to action, another packed lunch to make. And how do I strike a balance between making it reasonably healthy with what they’ll actually eat. And that’s different for each boy – both seem to eat the opposite of the other. The elder won’t take any green things in his lunch box as it’s not cool. Cue another decision – how to compensate for that?

    The bit that really landed with me is about the decisions of what to put on ebay etc.. I loved your positive acton of giving it all to your sister in law!

    One of your best post yet, Grace. Thank you!

    • Grace Marshall

      Thanks Amanda, good to know I’m not the only one!

      Incidentally my son’s just started high school and last Thursday his lunch from the canteen was a bowl of roast potatoes. With gravy. That was it. But then I’m not sure our packed lunches are any more healthy as my two won’t have any greens in theirs too. I compensate by piling on the veg in other meals and hope that their bodies are clever enough to store it up for the other days!

  2. Lotte Lane

    A thousand times this! It’s those pesky little decisions that completely do my head in… and no matter how many I ‘clear’ from the list, more come creeping in.

    I’ve found that when the weight of ALL THE THINGS gets too much, the best thing to do is STOP. It’s counter-intuitive (‘but I’ve got so much to do’), but when I’m stressing like that it’s the thing my brain really needs.

    Thanks for the post – always good to know I’m not alone!

    • Grace Marshall

      Thanks Lotte! This came up in a workshop this week too – the power of the pause. Definitely helpful.

  3. Sue Steel

    Hello Grace! Just found your email, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has missed you over the summer.

    • Grace Marshall

      Ah thanks Sue! Nice to know I’ve been missed. I’m definitely back, so feel free to fire over any questions or challenges you’ve had over the summer 🙂

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About Grace

I coach, train, write and speak on productivity. I help people adopt new ways of working and thinking about their work to replace stress, overwhelm and frustration with success, sanity and satisfaction.

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