Have you heard of decision fatigue? Whether you have or not, you have experienced it. Do you ever find at the end of a full day being focused and fearless at work, that suddenly you can’t even decide what to have for dinner or do to relax? That’s decision fatigue. A decision that would have been easy earlier in the day, suddenly becomes impossible to make.
Our brains regulate our body energy budget, and the more decisions we pour conscious effort into, the more energy we withdraw from our body’s daily “energy bank”. As our brain uses this finite energy throughout the day it gets depleted most by things as stress, high numbers of decisions and too many weighty decisions. This is especially true for managers and leaders, who often shoulder decisions that affect many others’ success.
Every time you make a decision choice, energy is taken out of the body budget bank. Get up or hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off? That’s a decision. And if you do hit snooze, you’ll have to make another one when that alarm goes off. Getting dressed? There are all sorts of decisions to make there. It’s one of the big reasons why people like Steve Jobs choose to wear the same thing every day. No decision required.
But besides the inability to decide even on small things towards the end of the day, you may also experience other decision fatigue symptoms such as:
Low impulse control – shopping, eating, drinking, zoning out, scrolling social media
Conservatism/Low risk tolerance
In fact, judges in one Columbia University study were shown to give harsher and more conservative sentences at the end of the day. The time of day alone, not the crime, length of sentence, ethnicity of the offender had any measurable impact.
There are two ways to limit your decisions. Making them once, and then turning what you decided into a habit (like wearing the same outfit or having the same breakfast and lunch every day), or delegating them to someone else. Besides reducing decisions altogether, there are other ways to conserve your body budget and mental focus, so fatigue is far less likely. These include:
Make the most important (weighty and far-reaching) decisions in the morning
Limit/simplify options for less important options
Plan daily decisions in advance
Remove barriers to decision making (uncertainty, biases, time constraints, conflict, etc.)
Don’t make big decisions on an empty stomach (ghrelin limits impulse control across the board)
Embrace minimalism – simplify processes and tasks, as well as roles and responsibilities
Release the inner perfectionist
Use exercise as a reset (yes, during the day!)
Leverage patterns and previous decisions
Know what matters most – set your intentions on where you will focus for the greatest impact and personal growth – relationships, health, finances, leadership – give your priorities your attention
Remove what guesswork you can
Also, keep in mind, not everyone makes the same decisions even when presented with the same situation. Primary needs are different, and we waste our own precious decision energy evaluating other people’s choices.
This is one of the topics I cover in my new book, Inside Out Smart, coming out in April. It is designed to help leaders make the fastest, most effective decisions – especially in the middle of change and crisis.