Living alone and decision fatigue

This? Or that?

Making decisions is hard work. We make hundreds of decisions every day, and most of them are trivial, so clearly we’re good at it, but sometimes it all gets to be Too Much.

Have you ever traveled to a different country and gone supermarket shopping? It takes forever, because you have to really look at and read every label, since you don’t recognise brands and have no idea if what’s in the jar is chocolate spread or Vegemite (they they are not the same thing. At all). This process makes grocery shopping enormously tiring.

I get tired of deciding what I’ll have for dinner each night, and it would be great if someone else would just say “it’s chicken risotto tonight” so I didn’t have to think about it.

The way I combat this is to make as many decisions a matter of routine as possible. In other words, I don’t decide in the moment, I make up a sequence of rules, then just follow it.

I have a uniform of sorts that I wear to work, and it makes getting dressed a very minor choice that only requires a cursory glance at the weather for minor adjustments. I don’t decide what to do when I get up in the morning, I just do what I do every morning: have a shower, get dressed and do my makeup and hair, have breakfast (I eat the same thing every morning) and brush my teeth, then go to work. None of which is a decision, it’s just a sequence of events that Have To Happen or the world will fall apart. The other morning, when the men in the street decided to turn off my water so they could dig a whacking great hole in front of my house, the world was briefly imperiled. I could not have a shower. It was traumatic, but I got through the rest of my morning routine, and the world remains on its axis.

This works fine for anything that happens regularly. The really hard part of decision making is when you do big and rare things. Take renovating your house: you are faced with a never-ending stream of decisions, all of which feel like they have the weight of your entire mortgage and life earnings riding on them.

This kind of decision making is truly scary. It’s scary for people in relationships, but it’s even more so when you’re on your own, because you have no-one to bounce ideas off, no-one who will say ‘are you mad?’ or ‘YESSS!! Do it!” when you propose high gloss black ceilings. The full burden of decisions falls to you. As do the consequences. You have no-one to blame but yourself.

On the plus side of course, you can do exactly what you want and you don’t have to compromise. No accommodating someone else’s hideous taste in furniture or penchant for pink and silver metallic diagonally-striped wallpaper. The trick is just to be really clear on what it is that you want before you start. Then the only person you’re trying to keep happy is yourself.

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Eating alone

There’s a scene in the film Amelie where Audrey Tatou makes dinner. It’s pretty much an all white dinner (the film uses colour in a very thematic way), pasta with parmesan grated over the top.

But what made the scene memorable for me is the way she treats eating alone. She lays the table, makes a meal from real ingredients, and sits down at the table to eat it. There’s no sitting on the couch in front of the TV or eating over the sink straight out of the fridge. Of course, it’s French, so there’s that whole respect for food thing to begin with, but it’s the respect for herself that I like so much.

Oddly, I always sit at the table to eat breakfast, and I even have a placemat and lay it all out nicely with my bowl of porridge and my cup of tea. I sit down to eat. By the time lunch comes around I’ve fallen into bad habits and usually eat a sandwich at my desk, which is about the worst habit I could be in. Dinner is usually on the couch in front of the TV.

Growing up we always ate as a family at the table. Breakfast was laid out the night before, and the table was properly set. Dinner was always eaten while sitting at the table — we didn’t have a TV.

I like the ritual of eating at the table. It feels much more adult. But primarily, it feels like I’m properly taking care of myself. Apparently, eating while doing something else like watching TV results in eating more: not paying attention makes it so much easier to eat mindlessly. Sitting at the table creates a ritual and makes an event out of eating. It’s not just shoving fuel in.

I suspect it’s a bit of art, learning to eat alone well. I’m not an artist yet.

Solo sports

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to learn I’m not a big fan of team sports. I don’t watch or play them. 

When I was younger I played netball and hockey; and as an adult I played soccer. I also played tennis for years – not exactly a team sport but it does require at least one other person. 

I don’t play any of these any more. I don’t know if my declining interest was a driver of or driven by my increasing desire for solitude but the outcome has been the same: no more team sports for me. 

The sports I do enjoy are running, golf, hiking, skiing and fly fishing. All are well suited to the single life, with the possible exception of hiking, which, for safety’s sake, really should be done with others. 

The great thing about these activities is that they don’t require other people. Most people think of golf as a social game and it can be, but since you hit your own ball it is really more a solo game that is played in the company of others. 

Running too can be the ultimate solo activity, or can be one heck of a group activity (how many other sports see a field as large as a major marathon event?) 

The beauty of these activities is the choice. If you’re on your own and don’t feel like being with others you can still enjoy your favourite sport. And if you do want company, they’re amenable to inclusion. 

So no excuse to stay home on the couch because you’ve got no one to play with. 

Why aren’t you married?

If you’re single and over the age of about 21, you’ve probably been asked this question. 

The older I get, the more obnoxious it becomes. 

In my 20s, people rarely asked unless there was a clear and present boyfriend. Presumably this was designed to nudge him into action. 

In my 30s and 40s the question seemed to be less to do with marriage and more to do with breeding. If I hadn’t married (and the term was used loosely to mean any kind of permanent relationship) then I was going to run out of time to have children. 

That I didn’t want children was apparently incomprehensible. Obviously I would change my mind with the right man/once a baby came along. Bit of a gamble, that: what if I had a baby then realised, actually I was right, I don’t want one?

That I might know my own mind, that it was no one else’s business, that the choice was mine to make, seemed to be lost on these interfering and impertinent questioners. 

What troubles me as much is the sheer lack of imagination on their part. Everyone knows not to ask the fat lady when she is due. It’s a staple of cringe comedy. Why do these smug questioners not stop to think about the possibly ghastly reasons they might receive to their nosy questions?

For example, imagine asking someone why they don’t have kids, in a tone of voice implying they should, and hearing one of these in response:

  • I have miscarried several times and it’s a source of great pain that I can’t carry a child
  • My husband is infertile
  • I am infertile
  • I have cancer/some other disease preventing conception
  • I had a child; it was stillborn

Feeling morally superior still?

Questions about marital status are no less fraught but are more prone to  judgement. The implicit question behind the question is almost always “what’s wrong with you?” Real reasons might include:

  • I have never been in love
  • No one has ever asked me to marry them; I fear I am unlovable
  • The love of my life broke my heart when he married someone else
  • He died
  • I was ready to marry then he cheated on me
  • I’ve never met anyone who wanted to marry me
  • I don’t want to be married

So before you judge me and ask that obnoxious question, stop and think about how you’ll sound if you get an answer you’re not expecting. 

Besides: it’s none of your business. 

Coming home to an empty house

I love coming home to my empty house. 

One reason is that my house is warm. When I bought it I had central heating installed, and it’s on a timer so it warms up before I come home. It’s lovely coming through the door into warmth — it makes all the difference. 

My house also smells lovely to walk into. I have polished floorboards and they still exude a lovely scent. I love baking too, so if I’ve been busy in the kitchen the scent lingers to greet me. 

I also like the silence when I come in. After a noisy day at work, it’s such a relief to walk in to the sound of nothing. 

The one thing I do miss coming home to is my little cat. She was mentally disturbed and in the end I had to put her down, but hearing her little welcoming meow when I came in is something I still half expect to hear. And I’m disappointed when I don’t. 

Far from dreading it, I love coming into my empty house. Not because it’s empty but because it’s mine.