Battling Decision Fatigue: An Article a Day

My morning random article reading on the deck.
My morning random article reading on the deck.

I don’t know about you but I have been afflicted with decision fatigue for a long time now. Some of it comes from my job as a software project manager. There are constant decisions to be made every day, from what to tackle on a given day, to how best to organize my day based on the tasks that I need to complete, to many smaller decision: delegation, who to include in a meeting, whether or not something is worthy of sending an email. Outside of work, it seems, there are just as many decisions to make each day, not the least of which include adjudicating the numerous daily court battles between the kids, or deciding what to make for dinner. If we go out to eat, a dozen more decision spill into the cut like a decision-landslide.

It is for these reasons that I seek out routine. I’m tired of making so many decisions, especially trivial ones. I generally go long stretches eating the same thing for breakfast and lunch because that simple act eliminates many decisions throughout the week: not only what to eat, but what I need to buy at the store. When it comes to clothes, I keep things simple, too. For 8 months of the year, I put on short and a t-shirt, often grabbing whatever shirt I happen to reach for without much consideration. For books, the decision of what to read next is often made for me through the butterfly effect of reading. When that fails, I make the decisions in bulk, outlining a list of books to try to read in the coming season.

Finding ways to battle decision fatigue helps reduce the stress of the day, but the routines can become monotonous. Which is why the solution I came up with for deciding what magazine article to read in the morning has been such a success for me.

In addition to book reading, I try to keep up with a variety of magazines. With magazines, however, my goal is to spend that time reading completely off-screens. Thus, I subscribe to quite a few magazines that arrive in the mail. These include: Scientific American, Smithsonian, Harper’s, the New Yorker, Down East, Outside, and WIRED. I subscribe to The Atlantic as well, but that one is online-only. I also subscribe to 3 Substack newsletters, which I consider to be similar to magazine subscriptions: Joe Blog’s, a sports newsletter by the great sportswriter Joe Posnanski; Breaking the News by James Fallows; and The Long Game, a baseball-centered newsletter by Molly Knight.

My goal is simple: read one feature article each morning. Typically, after my morning walk, I’ll head onto the deck and sit with a magazine to read an article. But which magazine? And which article? More decisions!

To eliminate these decisions and add some spontaneity to my day, I recently wrote a script that selects a random feature article for me. I don’t have to pick a magazine or an article. I just run my script in the morning and it spits out what article to read and where it can be found. For instance, here is the result for this morning’s article:

Today's results from my "article" script.
Today’s results from my “article” script.

How does my script know what magazines and articles are available? For this I make use of Gina Trapani’s todo.txt system. Each time a new magazine arrives in the mail, I add the feature articles to a toread.txt list using the simple commands in Gina’s system. For a typical magazine this takes less than a minute. Then, when I run my “article” script each morning the selected article is removed from the toread.txt list and added to a read.txt list, which gives me a nice history of the articles I’ve read.

Putting the script together was easy. It is only 9 lines of actionable code, after all. And rather than re-invent the wheel, I made use of todo.txt to manage the entries in the list. Doing this not only eliminated several decisions from my day, but it added some spontaneity and surprise. I never know what article will come up. Moreover, the script is not as discriminating as I might be. Its selection is completely random and I’ve promised myself to read whatever it chooses, so I get more variety than I might otherwise get if I was choosing on my own.

This has turned out to be a fun experience. I wake up in the morning eager to know what article it is I will be tackling out on the deck as I eat my breakfast. Right now, I run the script manually, but I am planning on having it run automatically overnight, and emailing me the result, so that no matter where I am, I can check my email in the morning to see what it is I’ll be reading about. It eliminates just a couple of small decisions each day, but those add up. Over the course of a year, this little script of mine saves me from making 730 decisions.

If you happen to be curious about what article I end up reading each morning, I generally post it on Twitter along with a picture.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an article to read about carbon stored up the rock beneath the gulf coast.

Written on August 28, 2022.

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