Almost eight years ago my now husband and I were completing the domestic ritual of registering for wedding gifts. We were coming up on four hours when the very helpful sales woman asked if we wanted to add an extraordinarily expensive blown glass frog to our registry for a “touch of personality”. Now, I should tell you that neither my fiancé nor I had a particular affinity for glass amphibians. So, why then did I say yes? What I remember most distinctly is the feeling of mental exhaustion I was experiencing. It had been a jam-packed afternoon of endless decisions. 8-or 12-piece dining set? Basic or deluxe stand mixer? 400- or 600-thread count sheets? Napkins in eggshell or ecru?
I have joked about this instance of poor decision making in the years since but it was not until recently that I began to wonder if I might be guilty of similar actions in my professional life. I attempted to actively recognize thoughts such as these as they came up:
• I’m too tired to think. Can we talk about the next steps of this project in the morning?
• I don’t know what I was thinking yesterday afternoon. Why would I have given that direction?
• I know it is just about where we go to lunch but I have no energy to decide.
If you can relate then you may also be experiencing a condition called decision fatigue. Decision fatigue explains how a person’s quality of decision making can deteriorate over time. It is based on the idea that all decisions, no matter how small, diminish your capacity and the quality of subsequent decisions. Rather than regarding decision making ability as an absolute quality, instead consider that it may more closely resemble a continuum – and one that you can influence.
Each decision you make throughout the day requires an expenditure of your finite mental energy and makes each subsequent decision more difficult for your brain to process. This strain may lead you down either of two sub-optimal paths. The first is to make a quick decision and move on. You do not implement the necessary critical thinking skills to evaluate the risk of potential outcomes. The second decision making option is to simply not make a decision. You decide that avoidance is the best policy for protecting yourself from further fatigue and implement a strategy of evasion. Maybe you don’t return the phone call asking for you to weigh in on a topic. Maybe you “don’t see” the time sensitive email. Both of these courses may cause more trouble for you later but they feel good in the moment which is all your mentally taxed brain is asking of you.
Limiting your decision fatigue will help ensure that you are always maximizing your decision making ability. The following are three key strategies to help you accomplish this.
Automate routine decisions. Since all decisions induce some level of fatigue, it is important to determine aspects of your life that can be “decided” once and then placed on auto-pilot. Let’s say that you always park in the same row at work. Then one morning you arrive a little early and see that there is a spot two rows closer. Your brain goes into overdrive. How much time will that save me to walk in the building? Does that car on the right look likely to give me a door ding? Will the potential time I save walking in be counter-acted if I forget about the new parking spot and walk to the old? You have already begun deteriorating your decision making ability and you have not even entered your office building. My advice is to make the decision to always park in the same row and move on with your life.
Standardize. If you think about all of the decisions you face in a day I believe you will find a limited number that are truly unique. This revelation by organizations has given rise to the importance of documenting standard processes. Standardization also has the added benefit of limiting decision fatigue. For example, imagine that you are the manager of your company’s internal creative team and receive many requests for design projects such as brochures and advertisements. You often hold a kick-off meeting to ensure your complete understanding of a request. You can standardize these meetings by creating a generic agenda that includes the topics that will always needs to be covered – overall project objective, timing, budget, end deliverables, etc. Your decision fatigue is then limited because you will not need to decide before each meeting what information you need to gather.
Empower rather than delegate. We have all been hearing about the benefits of delegation for years. However, I am here to tell you that delegating is not enough. Delegating means that a task is executed under your direction. While this may free up some of your time, you are still very much involved in the decision making process and will feel the associated fatigue. You need to go one step further and truly empower. Training employees to lead and manage projects with minimal instruction will free up your decision making time for more critical or bigger picture decisions.
Leaders in an organization who are consistently seen as “good” decision makers may have unintentionally found ways to limit decision fatigue, thus reducing the likelihood of being faced with decisions at a time in which they are not equipped to handle them appropriately. In fact, these leaders may have developed the skills without any knowledge of the term “decision fatigue.” Regardless, they have developed a core competency and now you can as well.