We’ve all been there. The music in the mall is blaring, someone’s child is whining (perhaps yours), everything you look at is either too small, the wrong color, or too expensive—and you’re running out of time. You’ve got discount coupons on your phone that can be used during a month with only 30 days, or in combination with another offer, and the sales clerk in front of you is offering a 2 for 1 deal if you make a purchase within the next 20 minutes.
By the time you’ve escaped, you’ve the proud owner of 4 pairs of overpriced shoes, an extra credit card, a free T-shirt and a trial membership at fitness club in another city. What happened?
You succumbed to decision fatigue. Normally an individual with a responsible attitude and sensible priorities, your “will power muscle” totally collapsed. The clutter in your brain, including decisions being forced upon you, either weakened your resolve, or left you in a state of decision paralysis. Even the retail sector plotted against you with too many choices and music designed to make you move through the stores faster.
Understanding the draining power of decision-making
One of the biggest drains on our energy is the act of making decisions. Psychologists attribute it to the “finality” of the act. Once a decision is made, there’s no turning back. (In fact, even the word decision shares a root with the word homicide —caedere—meaning to kill or cut down.) Decisions drain our energy because it means we close off options. Eventually we simply can’t make another choice, or worse, we start making bad choices.
Buying too many shoes is fairly harmless. But decision fatigue undermines the quality of decisions for the busy professional as well. When studying decisions made by trial judges, researchers found that at the beginning of the day, a judge was likely to give a favorable ruling about 65% of the time, but as the morning wore on, the judge became drained from making decisions, and the likelihood of a criminal getting a favorable ruling steadily dropped to zero.
In your world, managing the decisions about how to handle each and every email message volleyed your way or request for your time and attention via text message, phone, IM or office co-workers demands snippets of your energy, attention and brain power. Often the result of decision fatigue is either to make a shoot-from-the-hip decision– or to make no decision at all.
So how do you fight decision fatigue?
- Let your brain relax by moving stressful decisions and things that need remembering to your second brain. Productivity Ninja management training suggests establishing habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices, for example, lists prioritizing what is urgent, and what can wait for another day.
- Limit your choices by deciding which ones are relevant to you (Unless you’re James Bond– does it really matter if your drink is shaken, or stirred?)
- Find ways to make certain decisions routine. This Productivity Ninja opts for online shopping for standard household items via a “saved list”. (Thanks Amazon “Pantry”)
- Don’t make decisions when you’re hungry. There’s a scientific link between drop in blood sugar and the ability to decide. When your glucose is low, your brain responds more strongly to immediate rewards and is less likely to prioritize.
- Take breaks to recharge. Exit the mall, leave the office, walk the dog, sit quietly and listen to music. After 10 minutes, you’ll gain back enough energy to at least set some priorities.
- Eliminate activities certain to drain you, like back-to-back meetings and decisions late in the day.
- In the spirit of embracing Ninja unorthodoxy, let some decisions alone. It’s surprising how some things just solve themselves.
- Structure your “To Do” list and calendar in accordance with your energy and attention levels.
Know when you can’t trust yourself
Roy Baumeister, the first to coin the phrase decision fatigue, states it best in a New York Times article, “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”
“… truly wise [people] don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “
Well said, Roy!