Decision Fatigue, or I Don’t Care What’s For Supper

I’ve been doing some research lately about the concept of decision fatigue.  What can I say, I’m a nerd.  But I have found it fascinating.  Decision fatigue is the idea that people get tired of making decisions, and as such either stop making them or are more likely to make poor decisions.  There is actually two “breeds” of it: 1) loss of will power or self-control (ego depletion); and 2) decision overload.  For the first, studies have shown that if you exert self-control over things (No, I will not eat that cake for breakfast!), it makes you less able to resist other items later (Well, maybe for a snack).  That lead to the conclusion that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. 

The second is a bit harder to pin down because it takes that will power question and adds to it.  It says that every decision takes some mental energy, and that energy isn’t from a perpetual motion machine.  So the more decisions you make a day, and the harder those decisions are, the less likely you will be able to make good ones by the end.  That’s a scary thought for business owners because mostly our job description is “Make difficult decisions every day.” Not “make some decisions in the morning” or “let it all ride until after my afternoon walk.”  So what do we do?  Good question. If I had all the answers, I would have a much bigger balance in my checking account, but I have some things that I have been trying to implement.

  1. Limit the decisions that I have to make to be sure that I am ready for the big ones.

Not every decision is one that I have make.  Others can make some.  First, delegation gets things off of my desk and clears out physical, digital, and mental space for me to do what only I can.  Second, it can empower others. If I say someone is in charge of a project, I should probably, oh I don’t know, let them be in charge of it.  If I am second guessing or micromanaging them, it hurts everyone.  Third, others might be better at it.  Once I let go of our bookkeeping, it got better.  I am a crap bookkeeper, and all of those decisions that I was already making poorly made it harder to make good decisions on other things.  This seemed like a bad approach so we changed it.  Some business executives take it a step further and cut out as much extraneous decision opportunities as possible.  What, you thought Mark Zuckerberg just really likes gray hoodies?

  1. Eat the frog. Make the important decisions first.

Otherwise known as be in charge of your calendar.  Make the important decisions first may mean first thing in the morning, or it may just mean when you know you can take the time and effort to make a good decision.  One thing they found was that breaks can help mitigate decision fatigue.  This can help set and meet priorities and ensure you have the resources to make good decisions.  And it gets rid of the dread of that ugly frog sitting there so you can move on to better things.

  1. Build momentum.

This one is a new framing of different concepts for me.  There are a couple of ways to look at it, but it mostly boils down to “Just start already.”  It posits that the big decision is the one to start an action.  Once you start, you want to keep the momentum going until it is done.  Each decision after that one to start is not as big, and thus, not as depleting.  Some relate this to the Zeigarnik effect, which states that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks and once we start a task, our brain really, really wants to finish it.  My team teases me for always asking “How do you eat an elephant?” (Answer is: One bite at a time.)  I realized that is a version of this “build momentum” advice. Don’t try and figure out all of the big decisions before you start or you may never start.  Figure out the framework, and then go on to the first set of action steps.  Start eating small bites somewhere.  This isn’t a one gulp deal.  Then embrace the interruptions.  Those interruptions may actually help per Zeigarnik.  You probably don’t want to court interruptions, but rather plan for them.  Or better yet, plan for a break so that way you can come back to the bigger task ready for it.

Now that we know what to do, we have to implement it. That definitely falls under the easier said then done category.  Like I said, if I knew all of the answers (and could implement them), I’d have a different level of bank accounts.  But that doesn’t stop me from working on it.  I do, however, think that I’ll at least go with blue hoodies instead.

1 thought on “Decision Fatigue, or I Don’t Care What’s For Supper”

  1. Great topic. In the second-half of 2019 we updated out kitchen, main bath, furniture, wall paint, etc. I learned to tell sales people “give me 5 items to choose from” after I told them the parameters I needed. Several people were shocked, but running a legal practice combined with marriage and parenting meant I had to save my energy for the really important decisions. I enjoyed this post, and it served as a nice reminder to limit my choices from a million to 5.

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