Decision Fatigue

Recently, I heard an interview on Jian Ghomeshi’s Q about decision fatigue. It struck a chord. Apparently, acts of self-control or decision-making actually deplete our ability or will-power to make further decisions. Hmm.

Do you ever find yourself at the end of a very busy day, one full of making great, perhaps even brilliant (I’m referring to you, not me, with this lovely word) decisions, only to get home and you can’t decide what to eat for dinner? Your brain’s exhausted, you long for someone to make the choice for you. Perhaps you stand at the counter and mindlessly (here I refer to myself) graze on cookies or some other food item that you would not normally choose. Wouldn’t it be nice if dinner just magically appeared?

At work I make decisions all day. Many of them are routine, mundane and require very little thought, but nonetheless – they are decisions. Add a few critical decisions and my decision-making abilities are done for the day. By the time I walk through the door in the evening, my brain is exhausted. Granted, I can still make decisions, but are they good ones? Ones that will result in a healthy meal, well-planned holiday or happiness amongst my loved ones? Probably not. However, I need our meals to be quick, tasty and healthy. This is no easy task when I’m tired, Daryle’s tired and we’re all wishing that the meal would just magically appear. What can I possibly do to make this better?

The goal, according to the logic behind decision fatigue, is to reduce the number of small, routine daily decisions, so that you’re able to make the important decisions. Let’s say you can make twenty good decisions a day – you’d probably like to make some of these decisions count towards some aspect of your personal life, not just your professional or work life. So, take the decisions regarding lunch-making, breakfast, what clothes to wear, what to eat for dinner out of the equation. It’s okay to run on auto pilot for these daily tasks, the world will not come to a screeching halt with these tasks running on autopilot. Personally, I’d love to be able to leave at least a couple of the twenty good decisions for a fun activity to do after dinnertime, holiday planning, Cub Scout activities and so on. You get the idea.

My next step naturally seems to be to put a lot of daily routines on autopilot. Do I hear the word checklist? Good, I love a good list. Looks like I’ll be busy making a few.

If you’re interested, here’s Sources of Insight’s article on reducing decision fatigue.

10 Ways to Defeat Decision Fatigue

  1. Use checklists for common routines. This is a lesson we learn from pilots. Having checklists as reminders can help you spend less mental energy on little things throughout your day. Even if it’s something you know how to do, the checklist can help take some of the burden off. I use checklists to help me remember key things during my projects. I also write down procedures in the form of little steps. This way, I can just follow the steps, and not have to think too hard.
  2. Set time limits. Timebox or put a time budget on how long you have to make a decision. If you find yourself getting stuck or mired in decisions, start setting time limits. Give yourself five minutes to think it through and then decide.  If five minutes gives you too much time to wallow, then shorten it further.
  3. Limit your choices. Throw out bad choices quickly and narrow down to the ones you think are best bets.  The fast you narrow down your choices, the less time you need to spend shuffling over unnecessary information.
  4. Satisfice to find a good enough fit for now. This is a lesson we learn from fire fighters, police offices, and doctors who have to make many split-second decisions under the gun. Rather than explore all possible options and get bogged down, they look for the first solution that fits the situation.
  5. Just decide. Don’t dwell on it. It’s easy to fall into the habit of over-thinking ti or over-engineering your decisions. This is especially true if you have a need for accuracy or feel a need to do all your homework. You can start to build momentum by making faster decisions, and acting on them. You’ll find that many of your decisions may not be as important as you thought they were, or that you learn more from actually taking action and testing your decisions. If you build a habit of responding to new information, then you can make decisions faster and more freely, while learning and adapting as you go.
  6. Right-size your decision making effort. Don’t spend $20 on a $5 problem. If you keep this strategy in mind, then it will be a lot easier to speed up your decision making, or help you spend less energy on decisions that don’t matter as much. Instead of making mountains out of molehills, learn to make molehills out of mountains.
  7. Take a time out to recharge. Your working memory burns out as you process information. Take more breaks or take a time out. You can quickly recharge, if you really give yourself a break. It doesn’t need to be long. Ten minute breaks can work wonders. Sometimes, you just need to think about something else to do the trick.
  8. Delegate more often and more frequently. Push decisions out to the leaves. If this were a tree, stop worrying about all the branches and leaves. Start pushing decisions out to the leaves and branches where you can empower the people closest to the problems to do something about them.
  9. Make it a group thing. Pair up on decisions or share the decision-making process with a group. This can help share the load, as well as add new perspective.
  10. Let things solve themselves. This is a lesson we learn from executives. You don’t need to take on every decision. Sometimes things really are better off left alone. Be sure to ask, what’s the downside if you do nothing.  If you let it go, then really let it go. If you can’t let it go, then admit it, then decide and move on.

About Christine N

I'm married to Daryle, Mom to two wonderful boys - Daniel and Andy.
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