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Last Updated on May 16, 2022

What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It

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What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It

How often have you had the experience of needing to make tough decisions that pull you in different directions? You go round and round in circles and, in the end, you either make a snap decision or put off reaching a decision indefinitely because you’re just too tired to think anymore. This is decision fatigue.

Poor decisions are made not because of incapability but because arriving at one or more choices takes its toll—to the extent that it severely weakens our mental energy.

What Is Decision Fatigue?

What is decision fatigue? Let me explain this with an example:

When determining a court ruling, there are many factors that contribute to the final verdict. You probably assume that the judge’s decision is influenced solely by the nature of the crime committed or the particular laws that were broken. While this is completely valid, there is an even greater influential factor that dictates the judge’s decision: the time of day.

In 2012, a research team from Columbia University[1] examined 1,112 court rulings set in place by a Parole Board Judge over a 10 month period. The judge would have to determine whether the individuals in question would be released from prison and granted parole, or a change in the parole terms.

While the facts of the case often take precedence in decision making, the judges’ mental state had an alarming influence on their verdict.

As the day goes on, the chance of a favorable ruling drops:

Proportion of rulings in favor of the prisoners by ordinal position.... | Download Scientific Diagram

     

    Does the time of day, or the judges’ level of hunger really contribute that greatly to their decision making? Yes, it does.

    The research went on to show that earlier in the day the likelihood of the judging giving out a favorable ruling was somewhere around 65%.

    However, as the morning dragged on, the judge became fatigued and drained from making decision after decision. As more time went on, the odds of receiving a favorable ruling decreased steadily until it was whittled down to zero.

    However, right after their lunch break, the judge would return to the courtroom feeling refreshed and recharged. Energized by their second wind, their leniency skyrockets back up to a whopping 65%. And again, as the day drags on to its finish, the favorable rulings slowly diminish along with the judge’s spirits.

    This is no coincidence, as according to the carefully recorded research, this was true for all 1,112 cases. The severity of the crime didn’t matter. Whether it was rape, murder, theft, or embezzlement, the criminal was more likely to get a favorable ruling either early in the morning, or after the judges’ lunch break.

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    This is just one of the negative effects of decision fatigue.

    The Detrimental Consequences of Decision Fatigue

    When you are in a position such as a judge, you can’t afford to let your mental state dictate your decision making; but it still does.

    According to George Lowenstein, an American educator and economy expert, decision fatigue is to blame for poor decision making among members of high office. The disastrous level of failure among these individuals to control their impulses could be directly related to their day-to-day stresses at work and in their private life.

    When you’re just too tired to think, you stop caring. Once you get careless, that’s when you need to worry. Decision fatigue can contribute to a number of issues, such as impulse shopping, poor decision making at work, and poor decision making with after-work relationships.

    You know what I’m talking about. Don’t dip your pen in the company ink.

    Are You Suffering From Decision Fatigue?

    We all suffer from decision fatigue without even realizing it.

    Perhaps you aren’t a judge with the fate of an individual’s life at your disposal, but the daily small decisions and weekly or monthly big decisions you make for yourself could hinder you if you’re not in the right headspace.

    Regardless of how energetic you feel (as I imagine it is somehow caffeine-induced anyway), you will still experience decision fatigue, which can lead to poor choices. Just like every other muscle, your brain starts feeling drained after periods of overuse, pumping out one decision after the next. It needs a chance to rest in order to function at a productive rate.

    Looking at the chart below, it may look quite similar to one of your average days[2]. Considering that this is just a handful of the decisions one has to make throughout the day, it’s easy to see how decision fatigue begins to manifest.

    Decision Fatigue

       

      Now that we know what decision fatigue is, let’s explore the primary ways to combat it to enable a stronger mental state coupled with better decision-making.

      How to Combat Decision Fatigue

      Either alter the time of decision making to when your mind is the most fresh, or limit the number of decisions to be made. Try utilizing the following hacks to avoid decision fatigue and make better decisions.

      1. Identify and Make the Most Important Decisions First

      If you have a busy personal or work life where many tricky decisions are on the table every day, this can easily and quickly become overwhelming. In this instance, create mental space by initially laying out all situations and challenges requiring a decision. Use a basic software tool or write them down on paper—a notepad file or word document is sufficient.

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      Once you have your complete list, carefully pick out the most important items needing a conclusion sooner rather than later. Be mindful of the fact that you can’t treat everything as urgent or requiring immediate attention. There have to be some things that are more important than others!

      Prioritize and Declare the Appropriate Options

      Equipped with your most pressing items awaiting decisions, add another layer of scrutiny by prioritizing them even further. The result should allow you to identify, in order, your most urgent and important tasks without any conflicting priorities.

      The last part of this exercise is to highlight all of the options to consider for your most important decision and work through them one by one. With the visual representation of options and most critical decisions out the way first, you’ll be able to think more clearly and prevent decision fatigue from subtly kicking in.

      2. Implement Daily Routines to Automate Less Important Decisions

      “Shall I have a healthy lunch today?” “Should I wake up earlier tomorrow?” “What time should I prepare dinner tonight?”

      As trivial as these questions appear to be, each one still requires a decision. Stack them on top of other straightforward everyday questions in addition to more significant ones, and things can start to add up unpleasantly.

      You don’t have to choose all the time.

      Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but it doesn’t have to be an extravagant spread every morning. Make a habit out of eating a similar or quick breakfast, and cut out that step of your morning.

      If you can’t decide what to wear, pick the first thing that catches your eye. We both know that after 20 minutes of changing outfits you’ll just go with the first thing anyway.

      Powerful individuals such as Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and Mark Zuckerberg don’t waste their precious time deciding what to wear. In fact, they have been known to limit their outfits down to two options in order to reduce their daily decision fatigue.

      By choosing to make less decisions throughout the day, you’re choosing to free your mind for the most important decisions.

      Small or less important decisions can eat away at your time and productivity. When many other decisions need to be made in parallel, it can lead to decision fatigue. However, there’s a method to avoid this. It involves streamlining aspects of your life by automating repetitive decisions, and this drives the ability to make better decisions overall.[3]

      It’s Your Routine—Control It to Create Time for Other Activities

      Instead of having to decide multiple times per week if you should have a healthy lunch, create a daily routine sufficiently ahead of time by dictating what healthy food you’ll eat for lunch every day. In doing so, you’re putting that particular decision on autopilot. Your predefined routine commits you to a decision immediately and without hesitation.

      Invest time into highlighting all of the trivial and recurring situations requiring decisions daily, then implement a collective routine that relieves the need for you to give them much thought (if any thought at all).

      3. Put a Time Limit on Every Decision

      Making complex or big decisions increases the risk of draining your energy. This is especially true if you struggle with the fear of making the wrong decision. The doubt and worry bouncing around inside continuously are enough for the majority of people to become fed up and exhausted.

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      Research has actually shown that you are the most productive for the first 3 hours[4] of your day. Utilize this time! Don’t waste it on trivial decisions such as what to wear, or mindlessly scrolling through social media.

      Instead, use this time to tweak your game plan. What do you want to accomplish? What can you improve? What steps do you need to take to reach these goals and make good decisions?

      To make good decisions, you need to be in the right position to act. A tactic to deploy is to essentially force yourself to act by setting a time limit on your decision-making process. What might seem a little daunting—given that it can create a sense of added pressure—actually provides clarity on when you need to conclude since you can see the end in sight.

      Grow in Confidence by Reducing Hesitation

      After making the decision, it’s time to move on. You’ll feel good and build self-confidence knowing that you didn’t linger on the choices available.

      Only consider revisiting a previous decision if something unexpected occurs that impacts it. If that’s the case, then follow the same process by ensuring you make the revised decision before a new deadline.

      4. Seek Input From Other People—Don’t Decide Alone

      There’s a time and place to make decisions alone, but sometimes, it’s appropriate to involve others. If there’s any degree of struggle in reaching a verdict, then seeking opinions from people in your network can lessen the mental burden of indecisiveness.

      Do you feel comfortable seeking input from other people to help make decisions? Trust and feeling secure in your relationships are crucial to answer “yes” to this question.

      Explore the Thoughts of Others and Gain a Different Perspective

      An insecure business leader likely won’t trust their team(s) to help them make decisions. On the other hand, an assured and secure business leader realizes they don’t “know it all.” Instead of going solo on all work-related decisions, they install trust among their team and get the support required to arrive at the best possible decisions.

      The ability to make a great decision can depend on the information related to it that’s at your disposal. When faced with a difficult choice, don’t be afraid to lean on the relevant people for help. They can offer valid alternatives that are otherwise easy to overlook or hold the key to you making a well-informed decision.

      5. Simplify and Lower the Number of Available Options

      You’re standing in the store, facing an aisle of more than 20 varieties of peanut butter. You have no idea which one to choose, and although there are subtle differences, they all look fairly similar. No doubt you’ve been in this situation at least once in the past (maybe with a substitute for peanut butter!).

      This is a classic example of having too many choices—an event that makes you prone to decide to do nothing or waste time by continually pondering on which product to buy.

      According to the psychological concept known as choice overload, simply having too many options can be disruptive and overburdening, causing decision fatigue.[5] Using the example above, you might make the easiest choice of avoiding any further thought, which often results in the purchase of the wrong item.

      Extract Meaningful Information and Evaluate Options With a Binary Outcome

      To simplify and lower your range of options, leverage the information available and extract what’s most important for you to make a decision. Is it the price? The protein content? Whether it has sustainable packaging or a combination of multiple details?

      Keep a tight lid on having too many important components. Prioritize if necessary, and implement a binary outcome (of “yes” or “no” / “true” or “false”) to help arrive at decisions earlier, such as defining a limited price range that the product must fall within.

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      6. Eliminate Unnecessary Distractions

      Arguably, attention is the currency of the modern world. The ability to concentrate better than the next person can mean the difference between a successful student, a thriving business, a happy parent, and a great decision-maker.

      So, how can you improve your attention span to make better choices and avoid decision fatigue? There are many strategies, and one of the most optimal ways is to eliminate distractions. Today, the easiest distractions are a result of technology and the devices running it—all of which are at your fingertips 24/7.

      Create Extended Periods of Time to Increase Focus

      These distractions might be small or large, but the broader issue is the frequency of them, and they repeatedly cause a break in your focus. Dealing with this while trying to make the right decision can be mentally debilitating.

      Technology distractions commonly relate to email, instant messages, push notifications from mobile apps, and scrolling through social media feeds. Access to all of these technologies and tools must be limited to scheduled time blocks (ideally, using a calendar if it’s during a working day).

      Switch off notifications entirely to all of the above to prevent distractions (where possible) when it’s not time to look at them. This enables you to think more deeply and focus for prolonged periods of time, ultimately boosting the chances of making good decisions.

      7. Take Frequent Breaks for a Clearer Mind

      You are at your peak of productivity after a break, so to reap the benefits, you need to take lots of breaks to improve your mental energy. If judges make better decisions in the morning and after their lunch break, then so will you.

      The reason for this is because the belly is now full, the hunger is gone, and you likely have a bit more energy. Roy Baumeister, Florida State University social psychologist[6] found that low-glucose levels take a negative toll on decision making. By taking a break to replenish your glucose levels, you will be able to focus better and improve your decision making abilities.

      Even if you aren’t hungry, little breaks are still necessary to let your mind refresh.

      Structure your break times. Decide beforehand when you will take breaks, and eat energy sustaining snacks so that your energy level doesn’t drop too low. The time you “lose” during your breaks will be made up in the end, as your productivity will increase after each break.

      One study found that the ideal work day consists of work periods lasting around 50 minutes, followed by a 15-20 minute break[7]. Try to follow this pattern for a more productive day.

      Final Thoughts

      Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon that can deplete energy levels and increase stress. It can affect anyone who has to make decisions, whether they are minor or major ones.

      Overcoming decision fatigue needs patience and dedication. By applying the best practices discussed in this article, you’ll be on the path to implement valuable changes. These changes will increase your productivity, as well as drastically improve your consistency and ability to make the right choices.

      Featured photo credit: Jake Melara via unsplash.com

      Reference

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      Leon Ho

      Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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