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The Choice Obama (And My 4-Year-Old Son) Won't Make

09/20/2012 05:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2012
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President Barack Obama and my son have something amazing in common. It takes them almost no time at all to get dressed. I wish I could say the same for myself.

This is no trivial matter. Spending little or no time deciding what to wear, or what to eat, could be key to success in life.

As Obama explained to Michael Lewis in this wonderful profile in Vanity Fair, he only wears gray or blue suits.

"I'm trying to pare down decisions," he says. "I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make." Lewis writes that Obama "mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one's ability to make further decisions. It's why shopping is so exhausting."

Indeed, the way I see it, the differences in the amount of time men and women spend deciding what to wear may represent a new kind of gender gap previously unrecognized in the conversation around women in the workplace: Many of us are wasting precious decision-making resources standing in front of our closets, determining whether it's a pants-day or a skirt-day. As managers, by the time we need to decide whether or not to restructure a business plan or hire for some crucial role, we're tapped out.

My 4-year-old son has one pair of shoes. (Unrelated: They light up.)

I have at least seven pairs of black shoes of varying styles -- strappy wedges, hand-me-down suede numbers that look vaguely masculine, pumps -- as well as many levels of other-colored boots, varieties of sneakers and some odd teetering heels that I try on and discard every other week when I'm feeling game to tower over others. Sometimes, my son chimes in while I'm deciding and remarks on what looks "pretty."

He likes the shinier numbers.

I floated my gender-gap theory to Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota's business school who has published some influential research on decision-making. Since the Vanity Fair story came out, Vohs has heard from friends who are excited that the president referenced her work and the research of others who have looked at the intersection of choice and self-control.

In one widely influential experiment, Vohs and her colleagues looked at the behavior of college students, who were asked to choose from an array of objects -- vanilla-scented candles vs. lemon-scented, different T-shirts, mugs -- and were told that they would ultimately receive one of the objects as a prize. A control group was assigned to write reports but make no decisions. Afterwards, the two groups were given a task that required self-control: plunging their hands into an icy-cold basin of water.

The result: The group that did not make any decisions was able to withstand the cold water for longer, exhibiting greater self-control.

How does chilly water apply to my wardrobe decisions? "The main point is that whatever sphere you have a lot of options in is one where decision fatigue is much likelier," Vohs explains in an email. "So, if a woman has a lot of clothes, the need to make repeated decisions grows." That leads to mental fatigue, eroding your ability to make more important decisions that may come up at the office or at home.

"What Obama's doing is extremely smart," says Vohs when I reach her by phone. She mentions that "Albert Einstein had a closet full of same grey suits because he didn't want to waste energy on making his choices."

My son doesn't wear suits, but his wardrobe essentially consists of a few matching T-shirts and pants and shorts. He can dress himself in four minutes -- unless he is distracted by a cartoon or his sister plays with one of his favorite toys, inciting panic, screams.

As for me, since I went from relaxed single person sipping coffee and contemplating my day to frenzied working mother trying to get out the door while fending off small peanut-buttered hands, I've pared back my closet. Still I face a much wider array of choice in the morning than my son. Some days garments pile up at my feet as I decide which goes with what and determine if I look half-way presentable. Some mornings the process takes far too long. Somehow it's an agony deciding if I need to tuck in a shirt or just go with the same old print blouse I wore four business days ago. (Gloria Steinem, I'm sorry.)

The answer is to pare back the wardrobe even more, I suppose. But it's not totally clear to me that my wardrobe panic is eroding my ability to focus at work and make decisions -- there are so many other factors at play, including distractions from email and social media. I do know that on the mornings where I just pop on jeans and a shirt, I get more time to play with my kids or just talk to them before we dash out of the house to school and work. Still, the idea that I must drill down to a uniform to achieve maximum productivity seems a bit too Soviet for my taste. I'll leave that to the president whose decisions are literally a matter of life-and-death for the globe -- mine, let's be honest, not so critical. So I'll sacrifice a bit of mental anguish for the luxury of weird and varied wardrobe.

Vohs says she doesn't stress too much over decision-making. Although she learned through her research that Starbucks offers a dizzying 2,800+ beverage choices, when she goes there she already knows she'll get one of her two standbys: a grande coffee or, if it's a special occasion, a grande soy latte. But, "That's just me," she says.

Talking about decision-making may seem like a 1-percent problem or a "white whine," but for some the mental fatigue of choice has wrenching consequences. Researchers have looked at economic decision-making among the poor and found that mental fatigue actually reinforces the cycle of poverty.

Imagine food shopping at the supermarket and constantly restraining yourself from buying certain pricier items. Eventually you tap out of your willpower reserve and give in when your child asks for a treat at the checkout, or when you see one item you really want -- you think, "What's the harm?" Your budget suffers.

In this era of big-box stores and endless choice, decision-making seems a topic worthy of everyone's attention.