"Mama, I love the bumpy part of your hair."
That makes one of us. The messy bun has been my morning style since the day my son was born. It makes me feel hopelessly lazy and unstylish. Last New Year's I vowed to break out of the bun and get dressed, but, well, you know how New Year's resolutions go.
However, that hairstyle may actually be a sign of success. Cognitive research suggests that my autopilot mom-style might be making me a better parent.
In a 2012 Vanity Fair profile of Barack Obama, Michael Lewis shares how the then-President streamlined his decision-making:
You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.
Barack Obama is not alone. The world's tech pioneers opt for even simpler wardrobes. Steve Jobs wore black mock-necks. His successor Tim Cook favors blue button-downs. Mark Zuckerberg wears gray t-shirts.
These are not lazy people. They are decision-makers who don't waste cognitive energy on what they want to wear. Zuckerberg even claims that his t-shirts help him help more people: "I'm in this really lucky position, where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I'm not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life." He frames his wardrobe not as a style choice but as a moral one.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, all of these global leaders are trying to avoid what scientists are calling "decision fatigue."
John Tierney, science reporter for the New York Times and co-author of "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," describes what happens to our brains after a day full of decision making. We may not actually feel physically tired, but choice after choice begins to wear on us:
Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket, and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.
That price, Tierney notes, is not a physical one, but a mental one: we start to make shortcuts.
The first shortcut is to make impulsive decisions, like eating a Costco-sized bag of chips or buying more plaid toddler shorts even though if you looked in the closet, you'd already see 12 pairs in the next size up.
The other shortcut is to do nothing, to make no decision at all. Think of the home improvement project you've been researching for months but are unable to make any progress on because you can't choose a paint color.
Some of the world's most successful and powerful people, Tierney's work suggests, get this way because they're frugal with their decision making. They narrow the available choices they have to make every day so that they can devote their energies to the choices that matter to them.
Stay-at-home parents are some of the most decision-fatigued people out there. Just think of the decisions that happen before lunch: whether you have time to work out or shower before the kids get up, what to make for breakfast, what to pack in lunches, whether the weather requires coats for the kids. If there are errands to run, it's what kind of pasta shape the kids will accept this week, what brand of toothpaste is on the best sale, and whether or not you have enough toilet paper. There's decisions about what bills have to be paid right now and which can wait until later. There's the same kind of triage for household tasks.
Perhaps this helps explain midday social media mom-fessions like this one: "DD is finally sleeping, but I'm too tired to figure out what to do." By nap-time, stay-at-home parents have been spending as many as eight hours making decision after decision after decision. The science of decision fatigue may mean that we literally can't decide what to do.
Decision fatigue could be part of the reason that so many women claim they never have anything to wear. Think about when you're most likely to do your own clothes shopping. It's probably at the end of the day, after hundreds of decisions big and small. That's at least how I'll excuse the yet-unworn pale beige romper hanging in my closet.
Yoga pants are often snarkily dismissed as a mom uniform, but wearing them may actually reduce decision fatigue (which can make ripples throughout the entire day). Taking the decision work out of getting dressed leaves your mind that much freer to contemplate all of the decisions you'll need to make today.
Art Director Matilda Kahl may be the most recognizable female proponents of the work uniform because she has worn the same work uniform every day for five years. She was initially nervous about her uniform (white silk shirt, black slacks, blazers for cold weather) because she feared what people might think of her style. Then she realized that the work uniform was hardly a novel concept: "There's a group of people that have embraced this way of dressing for years – they call it a suit."
Realtor Renata Briggman has found similar success with her work uniform (white blouse, black slacks, red belt when she feels like accessorizing), which by her estimate has saved her a full work week per year of deciding what to wear.
One problem SAHMs might notice in these examples is the white shirt. That might work out during winter when it's all washable paints and play dough, but there isn't enough Oxiclean to make up for summer puddle stomping. Still, Kahl's and Briggman's uniforms are good models for parents: neutral hues, fitted-but-comfortable tops and pants, and a variety of outer layers.
Once Kahl found the perfect silk blouse, she bought fifteen of them at once. That kind of expenditure probably doesn't work for most of us, but we can all adopt the broader concept of finding something that works and sticking with it. For me, that's a slowly-growing collection of black textured base layers that let me feel well-dressed without ever having to use an iron, dark jeans, and the same loafers in every obnoxiously loud color they come in.
I don't yet have enough copies of the uniform to wear every day. That's okay, because I'm not yet ready to do a Marie Kondo-style closet clearing. Besides, I need clothes for when I'm not at work, too. I have found that uniform days are better days. I have more energy for all of the day-to-day decisions that come with parenting, and some special ones too, like what meal to let my three-year-old make all by himself or how to turn the inside of the house into a giant yarn-based spider web.