We rely on our decision-making ability, but some decisions are worthier than others.
My personal indecision of choice is whether or not to drink coffee in the morning. After several minutes of internal dialogue about the benefits of caffeine versus the cons, I find myself just downing a cup anyway. But it turns out that hemming and hawing is wasting more than time; it’s eating away at our ability to make the important decisions later on.
Decision fatigue, sometimes called ‘ego depletion,’ is a recent term that describes how making decisions impairs our ability to make other decisions in the future. So, for example, if I spend all my mental energy on whether or not to drink coffee in the morning, I may be more susceptible to putting the wrong person on a project.
You can read about the various scientific studies in this New York Times article, but here’s the synopsis:
Decision fatigue is the reason you make stupid choices when you know you’re usually a reasonable, rational human being.
Maybe it’s not the only reason, but decision fatigue plays a role that’s much bigger than many of us recognize. For example, one study found that judges who were in charge of granting parole to criminals were far more likely to grant it to their morning appointments versus their afternoon ones. It was the difference between granting parole 70% of the time in the morning, and granting it less than 10% at the end of the day.
Were the judges acting out of bias? Of course not. At least, not consciously. In this situation, the safer position is to return the criminal in question to jail and save the decision for another day. After making decisions about other parolees all day, they didn’t have the mental energy to risk such an important decision. So they just didn’t make it.
When you have decision fatigue and you’re presented with a choice, you will do one of two things.
Either you will become reckless and do something impulsive just to have the decision over with, or, you’ll hide under the metaphorical rock and resist making any decision at all.
Obviously, neither of those options is what you’re really going for.
What’s horribly ironic about the whole situation is that we are in a period of intense personalization. We want options in our products, our romantic partners, and our hobbies. But those very options are numbing our abilities in the workplace.
It’s more than just mental decisions – it’s physiological ones too.
That donut in the break room you’ve been avoiding all day? If you’ve been making any rapid-fire decisions, don’t be surprised if you find yourself scarfing it down at 4 o’clock. Expending the mental energy decreases your ability to withstand stress and increases your desire for calories.
“The best decision makers are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”
- Dr. Roy Baumeister, social psychologist
Surviving decision fatigue
Here’s how to reclaim that mental fortitude.
You have significantly higher ability to make good decisions in the morning than you have at the end of the day.
So, naturally, make your big decisions first thing. If you put them off until the last minute, you’re going to be impulsive.
Taking breaks helps. So do calories.
Before sitting down to write this article, I ate some chips in the name of making good grammar decisions.
But in all seriousness, your brain needs calories to function. Preferably slow-burning fuel, like protein and complex carbohydrates. If you have a big meeting that’s scheduled in the afternoon, a balanced sandwich at lunch is going to be way better than a fresh cup of coffee right before walking in.
Outsource your decision-making
Don’t fret the small stuff. Let others do it.
- If This, Then That (IFTTT) creates automatic responses to digital actions. For example, you can program IFTTT to send you a text every time you’re tagged in a photo on Facebook. Or every time you check in on Foursquare, you can have IFTTT add a Facebook status.
- EasilyDo is an app that pulls out only what it thinks are the most important pieces of your social life to show you. It also keeps track of calendars, packages, and boarding passes.
- SaneBox organizes your inbox by giving you the most important emails and summarizing the rest.
- Fancy Hands is a personal assistant subscription service. For $49.99 a month, you can send in up to 15 research tasks, scheduling tasks, activity recommendations, and other administrative requests that one of their representatives will fill. They have different pricing plans available, too.
Let your decisions be ones that matter. President Obama wears the same thing every day so his decision-making energy isn’t sapped by meaningless options. What empty decisions can you do without?