I dread going to big supermarkets. They fill me with low-grade anxiety, especially when I hit the yogurt section. Whole milk versus 2 percent versus soy? Greek or Swiss or regular texture? Everyone in the fam has a different preference. Fruit on the bottom, on the side, blended in? I tell myself just to toss some in the cart already. Wait, how many grams of sugar does it have per cup?
I know it’s just yogurt. But multiply minor choices like this by the average parent’s to-do list and they quickly result in serious decision fatigue—the psychological term for that mental burnout you feel when picking out new clothes online or pondering all the choices for after-school lessons. Our brains have limited reserves for decision making each day, which even minor debates can drain before we pile on weightier dilemmas like day care versus sitter or which grandparents to visit on Thanksgiving. In fact, nearly half of women say that burnout keeps them up at night, according to a recent survey by Meredith (the publisher of Parents) and The Harris Poll.
As moms and dads, not only are we making all the decisions on behalf of little humans, we’re doing so in a time of limitless options. I grew up watching whatever cartoon Nick Jr. decided to air, while my kiddos have Netflix, Disney+, and YouTube Kids at their fingertips. My mom flipped through a box of recipe cards and The Joy of Cooking; I scroll through food-spiration on Instagram that just won’t quit.
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And then there’s the shopping. If my brother and I even rode in car seats (questionable), my parents would have bought whatever model their local Toys “R” Us sold. My online search begins with 347 results for “convertible car seat.” As for my dairy-aisle mini meltdowns, grocery stores are ground zero for decision fatigue: Between the 1990s and now, the average number of items for sale soared from 7,000 to up to 50,000, according to Michael Ruhlman, author of Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America. “We’re facing a surplus of choices when it comes to just about everything,” says Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Some are worth your careful consideration, but many could be made on the spot, saving you time and stress.
Jot down what you need.
Big-box stores are decision-making minefields expertly designed to defeat our willpower, yet we still wander in unfocused. Your best defense against getting stuck at Target for an hour when you just ran in for toothpaste: Always make a list, and specify the brand. “A list keeps you on track when there are salespeople, endcaps, promotional signs, and excitable kids to distract you,” says shopping expert Trae Bodge, who blogs at TrueTrae.com. Try using the Reminders app on your phone, which makes it easy to maintain multiple lists and tick off items as you fill the cart. You can have your kids do this part if they’re with you. For pricier purchases, google before you go. For instance, look over IKEA’s options for bunk beds and have one in mind before you head to the store.
Set a time limit.
It’s the most effective way to zoom past distractions. “With any type of decision, it helps to give yourself a deadline,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. That could mean marking on your calendar app when you need to reserve the restaurant for your sister’s baby shower or pick out a new paint color for your family room. Or you could give yourself only two weeks to research your next family vacation, booking by a designated date. Says Bodge: “You’ll all stay focused and have fun trying to get in under the time limit.”
Subscribe or stock up.
Put online purchases for everyday items on autopilot. Schedule a weekly grocery order, saving favorite items for one-click reordering. Sign up for a diaper subscription service from a site like Jet.com or Amazon.com so you won’t be lured by every passing promotion or cute pull-up pattern. Buy household basics like dishwasher pods and toilet paper in bulk on a site like Boxed.com; you won’t need to think about them again for months.
Filter search results.
Whether you’re looking for a vacation rental for spring break or a restaurant for a birthday dinner, the sheer volume of results can be overwhelming. Take advantage of “advanced” filters on many sites so you don’t get sucked into poring over pages of possibilities. For instance, did you know that you could narrow Airbnb rental results to ones with cribs and high chairs? Or that OpenTable has filters like “Good for Groups,” “Has Gluten-Free Options,” and “Kid-Friendly”?
Strategize the reviews.
It’s not just that there are 347 convertible car seats on Amazon, it’s that many have 1,000-plus reviews, and falling down that rabbit hole hardly ensures you’ll choose the best stainless-steel sippy cup (been there, ordered them all). Clearly, you’re not going to not read reviews, but here’s a speedier way to extract helpful bits: Skim a couple of longer reviews where it’s clear the buyer really got to know the product. Then scan for recurring positive and negative observations, suggests David Carnoy, an executive editor at CNet.com who has reported on Amazon reviews.
Crowdsource on social.
The Facebook group for parents in your town is a great energy-saving hack when choosing products and services. Post a question and you’re likely to get unbiased, up-to-date recommendations with a local twist—which birthday-party place offers the best bang for the buck, which new hair salon to try, which swingset holds up after five years of use. Look for the common thread in the responses, and go with it! For weightier decisions, like which preschool to choose or which contractor to hire for a kitchen remodel, let yourself follow the advice of one trusted friend.
Buy gifts in bulk.
If you know you’re going to attend a bunch of parties for 3-year-olds this year, why spend 15 minutes each time pondering Play-Doh set versus LEGO set? “Finding one fun, gender-neutral gift and stocking up on it—or planning to repeat order it—is a great way to simplify,” says Lydia Beiler, founder of the blog Thrifty Frugal Mom.
Streamline meal prep.
Cut back on daily dilemmas by planning and shopping for a week’s worth of meals. You’ll minimize running into distraction-laden stores or debating takeout options. Our collective addiction to food blogs sometimes makes it harder to decide what’s for dinner: One fix is to designate Sunday as fun-new-recipe night and predictably rotate no-guesswork family favorites on most weeknights. Stock a fridge drawer and pantry bin with snacks so your kids can choose independently.
Manage your calendar.
Schedule a power hour during the first weekend of each month when you and your partner bang out a batch of calendar-related choices, such as booking dental and doctor appointments, playdates, and babysitters. Ideally, do it over your morning coffee; studies show we make decisions most efficiently early in the day. Be realistic as you decide ahead. And also schedule in weekend fun so you’re not hashing out ideas each Saturday. “I’m a fan of seasonal-fun lists,” says Vanderkam. “Ask the kids a few months ahead of time what they would like to do over break or the summer and get those things on the calendar.”
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Rethink your kids’ activities.
With classes and sports kicking off as soon as kids learn to walk, choosing can feel high stakes. “Parents see themselves as being in charge of their kid’s academic, athletic, musical, artistic, religious, and social growth,” says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey. “They think they have to make it all happen from a young age.” Her reality check: Your family’s values, schedule, and sanity are most important, and it’s okay—sometimes even beneficial—to opt out. Send your kid to pottery camp in town rather than a gymnastics camp 30 minutes away, or try an activity that coordinates with your work schedule. Just decide, and move on! There will still be time for kids to discover their passions. “A child who starts an instrument in high school brings a level of interest and motivation that no 4-year-old can match,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's January 2020 issue as “Just Pick Something.”