The Signal and the Noise

Have you ever wondered why you are so exhausted after an expedition through Costco or Home Depot?  If you’re like me, going into one of these box stores for even one or two items zaps your energy faster than any sleeping pill on the market.  If we could bottle this effect, we would have a nation of very well-rested people!  For years now I’ve just accepted this post-shopping lethargy as a fact of life without really understanding why it happens. Until recently.

A few weeks ago I was watching an interview with a man who shadowed Barack Obama for several weeks as part of the research he was doing for a book about the President.  During the interview he mentioned that Mr. Obama intentionally only wears navy or gray suits because he has so many important decisions to make each day, he wants to reduce the amount of energy he spends on less-critical choices.  At this moment it dawned on me that all of us have a limited amount of decision-making energy, which is why shopping can be so exhausting — even on a quick trip through the store, we make hundreds of small decisions both consciously and unconsciously:  What part of the store am I heading toward? Should I grab a cart? Oh, light bulbs are on sale — do I need some?  How many do I have at home?  Is this the right aisle?  And so on, so that by the time we return to our cars, we are entirely drained!

Great! Mystery solved, right?  Yes, but then I started wondering about the total number of decisions I make on a typical day, and decided to try to count them one day.  So how many did I make?  No idea. I was so worn out from counting after the first hour, I gave up the quest.  But upon reflection I did learn one thing — most of the decisions I was spending my energy on are really unimportant. I mean really unimportant.  Should I get dressed now or after I eat breakfast?  Does this box go into the garbage or recycling? Do I want strawberry or raspberry yogurt?  And the learning didn’t stop there, because I also realized how much worrying was involved in many of these decisions.  In short, there’s a whole lot of noise in my head all day about things that don’t matter.

So now I’ve made another decision:  I will minimize the number of decisions I make every day and stop worrying that some sort of calamity will occur if I don’t manage every last detail of our lives during every moment of every day.  These details are just the “noise” that distracts me from the “signal”  (to borrow from Nate Silver’s book title “The Signal and the Noise”), or what is really meaningful.  I am freeing myself from small decisions and worries, which will allow me to be more present and available for the big ones. How will I do this?  I’ll keep you posted — I’m still deciding…

About Lori Dunlap

Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director and adjunct faculty member. In addition to homeschooling her two sons, she writes regularly about education and parenting issues. You can read her blog at, or connect with her on Facebook:

Posted on November 28, 2012, in Education, Parenting. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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