Making important decisions, especially money decisions, requires a lot of mental space.
According to some new research, more than four million of us lack the mental space needed to make the right decisions when faced with difficult choices.
That’s according to insurer Scottish Widows, who also found that a further 6.million people don’t have enough time to carry out important ‘life administration’ tasks.
The research found that more than half of Brits always ensure they make the best possible choice when choosing a suitable holiday destination. In contrast, less than a third of us take the same degree of care when making changes to pension arrangements.
One in five of those questioned for the survey admitted to focusing on making the best possible choice for dinner on a typical weeknight.
Could it be that we’re spending too much time ‘sweating the small stuff’ and not devoting enough mental energy to more important decisions?
By wasting mental capacity on relatively unimportant decisions, like holidays and meal choices, we could be leaving insufficient for more important money choices.
The research found that more than half of people haven’t yet decided on buying critical illness insurance. Nearly half have never thought about making changes to their pensions.
Also, almost two in five say they put off financial administration because it’s too time-consuming, with 17% saying it’s too stressful to address.
When people do eventually get round to tackling the big, important life decisions, including financial decisions, they don’t always give it their full attention.
The survey found that 11% of us manage our money while at work, and 44% carrying out financial administration from the comfort of the sofa.
52% admit to dual screening, with the TV or a movie on in the background. Robert Cochran, a retirement expert at Scottish Widows, said:
“It’s easy to get caught up when dealing with day-to-day decisions in our hectic lives, but this is stopping many of us from spending the right amount of time making important decisions, which can impact our financial wellness.
“Getting to grips with your financial situation, like figuring out if you’re putting away enough for retirement, is a big decision to make about our future, but technology is making it much easier for people to picture their retirement – seeing your future self makes it much easier to make choices now than a bunch of complicated numbers.”
Professor Mark Fenton-O'Creevy, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at The Open University Business School, an expert on financial decision making, said “Important decisions about our lives can be easier to tackle if we create the mental space to deal with them.
Putting lots of time and effort into everyday choices not only reduces our time and mental resources for more important decisions, it can be a way of avoiding difficult choices we should be making.
“The good news is that it is possible to make small changes to create more mental space for better choices. From planning when and where we tackle life admin to recognising when we’re not in the right frame of mind to make important decisions could make a big impact on our mental wellbeing.”
To help make difficult decisions easier, Professor Fenton-O’Creevy has shared five top tips.
Plan when and where you do your life admin. Pick a quiet location free of distractions such as the television or children and pick a time when you know you will be feeling refreshed and able to give it your full attention.
Recognise when you’ve had a stressful day or are feeling emotionally vulnerable. You will be more likely to give in to impulses rather than thinking things through carefully. Allow yourself to recover before making important decisions.
Avoid important decisions when you’ve skipped a meal. Low blood sugar can increase decision fatigue and reduce self-control (that is one reason diets can be hard to stick to).
Help restore your capacity for difficult decisions. There is good research evidence for the benefits of moderate exercise, getting outside in a natural environment and even short periods of mindfulness meditation to improve mental energy.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Consider whether you are putting too much time and mental energy into small, unimportant decisions and activities as a way of avoiding the tougher choices. It is all too easy to let urgent but unimportant choices crowd out space for important but less urgent decisions.
Professor Fenton-O'Creevy added:
“Our ability to make choices is like a muscle, it gets exhausted and we need time to recover. This is especially true of choices that require hard thinking or involve difficult emotions. Life is becoming more complex and for many, more stressful.
“This ‘decision fatigue’ can reduce our mental energy for making important life choices and could lead to some people missing out because they’ve avoided making decisions or made poor choices.”