It’s 3pm and you realise you simply don’t have the ability to make another decision. Your team have been hammering away at you all day with question after question. You’re managing multiple deadlines. There’s grocery shopping to do and birthday gifts to find. Sound familiar?
This experience isn’t a reflection of how you are as a manager. It’s the result of decision fatigue.
What exactly is decision fatigue?
Decision fatigue is based on the understanding that every decision we make requires brain processing power in order to assess and then reach a point of decision. Processing power requires energy. Just like that shopping spree, take too much out of that bank account, and you’ll find yourself in overdraft unable to continue on that cause of action.
What are the signs and symptoms of decision fatigue?
The most obvious symptom is tiredness, mostly physical and mental; but it can also be accompanied by emotions such as feeling overwhelmed, anxious or strung out. Generally, it’s accompanied by that knowing that you just can’t make another decision today. Clients have also described it as feeling like you’ve hit a brick wall.
Decision fatigue will affect your effectiveness at work
Decision fatigue can lead to making less helpful decisions. One study of nurses reported a strong correlation between their shift length and the quality of clinical decisions and actions. The longer the shift, the greater the deterioration in the quality of those decisions.
We may procrastinate as a result of decision fatigue. And this is really fascinating because many productivity gurus will tell you that procrastination is unhelpful. And sometimes it is. They’ll give you tools like time blocking, 321 Go, the supercharged to-do list. But these won’t help if the underlying cause of your procrastination is actually decision fatigue. Your body knows exactly what it needs to heal itself. There’s always a hidden benefit or secondary gain to be had in anything that we do. And in this case, your body is temporarily shutting up shop, attempting to heal decision fatigue by stopping you making any more decisions.
We may go in the opposite direction, and become impulsive or make rash decisions that are often regretted later. All simply to get the pressing decisions out of the way. We may find ourselves simply avoiding the question or the need to make that decision. This is the classic ‘ask me later’ response to a team member. Alternatively, we may find ourselves with the fridge door open, unable to decide what to have; or staring at the paper you’ve reviewed, unable to make a decision or recall what it is that you’ve just read.
In an effort to fuel up you may find yourself reaching for a snack like a high sugar, high salt and high fat one.
The more sugar, salt and fat, the better.
Decision fatigue is a type of stress response. So you may experience all those classic stress and overwhelm symptoms as well.
How to minimise decision fatigue
Notable thinkers knew about the dangers of decision fatigue and they chose to minimise decisions that they considered to be of no consequence.
For example, Albert Einstein wore the same grey suit each day and Steve Jobs was known for his black turtleneck and jeans.
For a creative such as a stylist or a designer, their wardrobe choices may be used to fire up the creative process, and so they are key rather than inconsequential decisions. Our bodies already do this. For example, our autonomic nervous system takes care of things like remembering to breathe. It’s one less decision that we need to make.
Here are some easy steps that can reduce decision fatigue
Take a moment to consider the types of decisions you make each day. Are there any that can be put on autopilot? For example, standard items that repeat each time in your online grocery order, or choosing what you’re wear the night before. Choosing tomorrow’s outfit puts eight hours of recovery time between your decision and the decisions of the following day.
Take a look at the behaviours of your team. Do they seek solutions or come to you with the expectation that you’ll solve their problems? If that’s the latter, how can you educate them so that they’ll do their own research and come to you for feedback on their suggested solution to a problem? Have you clearly communicated which decisions your team can make without your input?
Using a decison tree to reduce demands on your mental stamina
In management land this is known as a decision tree. So you have a leaf level decision, branch level decisions, trunk level decisions and root level decisions. Think of your organisation as the tree.
Now, as every budding gardener knows, cutting leaves from a tree won’t affect the tree, even if it’s the wrong leaf. Just don’t remove too many leaves. Bald trees tend to struggle. Cut down a trunk and it’s a different story.
Best to take those decisions in consultation with those who have the insight and authority to affect that level of change or consequence in your organisation.
As we talk about in the corporate sage effect, good quality sleep, high nutrient foods and active recovery, play a key role not just in the quality of your critical thinking, but also in your resilience in the face of competing demands, and the amount of energy available to you. Remember that bank account? The more available energy you have in the bank, the more information processing and therefore decision taking you can do.
Decision fatigue is something that can hit you out of the blue when you’re dealing with a particularly taxing day. But if brain fog is your constant friend, it may be that you’re dealing with decision fatigue on the daily. However it comes, recognise it and respond to it, knowing that it’s a natural response to where you are in this moment.
Work with your body through focused fuel and active recovery. Then when the foundations are in place, pay attention to your lifestyle. Do you need to educate your team? Take a holiday or timeout with a three day weekend. Are their decisions you can automate? Most importantly, where are your sources of support?
With a minimum of 35,000 decisions taken each day, you’ll know somebody who has experienced decision fatigue at least once. You might be the exact person they need to talk to, or lean on right now.