DEF: “In decision making and psychology, decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making. Decision fatigue may also lead to consumers making poor choices with their purchases.” –

To begin looking into this, let’s take a look at the perinial question: “What makes successful people successful in their chosen vocation?”

This is an interesting question, especially when you look at the different kinds of people that are successful. Some are kind, generous and brilliant. Some are cold, cut-throat and heartless. So if ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people can equally be successful what do they have in common?

To be real… I don’t know. But I do have a hypothesis. 

In an interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast with one of the all time great authors Jim Collins Jim talks about the big decisions that make the smaller decisions meaningless. Now what does that mean? 

Well famously Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg made a decision to wear the same thing most of the time, Even Barack Obama would wear a similar suit every day he was in office. This removed the need to make a decision on what to wear. It was already taken care of. Even the idea of a basic uniform (or capsule wardrobe) can help with this. Hilary Clinton famously did this during her presidential campaign (which garnered WAY more attention than the fact that her predeccessor basically wore the exact same thing all the time…) This may seem trivial and honestly it probably is in isolation. However, if you can stack a few of these bigger decisions together then you really have a playbook for how you intend to live your life. This frees you up immensely to think harder about more important decisions that make a bigger impact. 

Elements of this way of thinking come up again and again in some classic books that I have been re-reading recently. In Steven Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” he discusses the ‘Character Ethic’ vs the ‘Personality Ethic’ Where

“The Character Ethic taught that there are basic principles of effective living, and 

that people can only experience true success and enduring happiness as they learn 

and integrate these principles into their basic character.”


“The Personality Ethic. Success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques, that lubricate the processes of human interaction.” 

The Character ethic is a set of principles which you live by whereas the personality ethic is a series of decisions (or band-aids) that you make all the time in an attempt to ‘fix’ your personality or enhance your image. 

The benefits of the Character ethic are echoed in Clay Christensian’s ‘How Will You Measure Your Life’ and preceded as far back as Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and even before that. In fact, Covey posits that post WW1 about 75% of the ‘self help’ literature is based around the personality ethic “How to attract $1 million in 90 days”. Band-aids and PR quick tips to make you look like the person you want to be. Whereas 65% of what could be called ‘self help’ literature from 1776-1926 centre around the character ethic, how to actually be a good person and live a good life.  

It makes sense. When you boil it down the Character Ethic is simply making decisions on how you will behave ahead of time. 

Here’s the thing… This character ethic doesn’t need to be a good character to work which is why some truly awful people can still be successful. 

If you decide that you value money above all else then this decision is pre-made and you won’t stop at anything for a ‘win’, if you believe that relationships can create more value that ‘winning’ than that decision is made ahead of time. Both people will probably end up with a lot of money but who would you rather be?

In Ryan Holiday’s book “The Ego Is The Enemy” he talks about bad people being their own punishment. When you interact with people that drive you crazy, remember that they have to live with themselves… every single day. 

The purpose of this post is not to tell you which path to choose, it is simply a thought experiment (that I hope turns into a practical experiment) in what decisions can I make ahead of time to make my life easier? 

I think the character ethic serves not only this purpose but also, if chosen well, can affect some higher order needs like impact and legacy. People still aspire to live like Benjamin Franklin (hopefully like Franklin AFTER he realised that slavery was abhorent!). I think this is for two main reasons, first his amazing list of achievements and second how he made the decision early in life to live up to a set of principles and measure himself against those principles every day to try and be a better human. I also think that the second reason made the first reason possible. 

So… How will you measure your life?

About the author 

Need A System

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