You’ve just come home from a relatively calm day at the office. Your partner comes in the door. You both slouch on the sofa, when someone utters the dreaded question. “What do you want for dinner?”
“I don’t know. What do you want?”
“I don’t care. What do we have?”
“I don’t know. We could order delivery. What would you want?”
“I don’t know. What are you in the mood for?”
“Nothing. What about you”
Argh. OK, accept the fact that you failed to plan ahead for dinner. You’re not necessarily tired, but your brain can’t seem to make any decisions. At the end of the day, you’re just not firing on all cylinders. Why does this seem to happen at the end of the day? While this example seems silly, I’ve actually had this conversation too many times to count. It doesn’t matter how simple a decision it is, or how little consequence the choice will have, it’s so hard to make decisions.
It’s not your imagination. Researchers have identified the concept of decision fatigue, where the capacity for making decisions and the quality of the decision making are reduced as the number of decisions made increase. Think about how many decisions we make each day. Everything from what clothes to wear, which lane to drive in, what size coffee to order, etc. And that is before we even start work! Start adding up the decisions you make in your professional life, and it’s no wonder our brains cry “uncle” at the end of the day.
So how do you combat decision fatigue? Well, being in good mental and physical health, eating well and getting enough sleep will certainly allow you to maximize your decision making capacity. That will help. But even more important, look to maximize the value you get from your decision-making capacity.
What does that mean? It means reducing or eliminating low consequence decisions from your day, or moving them to late in the day, and focusing your energy on the critical, high-impact decisions that you are responsible for. Sometimes our brains do this for us. For example, have you ever started to drive to work on Saturday, only to realize five minutes later what you were doing and make that U-turn to head to the grocery store instead? That’s your autopilot taking over. If you drive the same route to work every day, your brain has already made most of the decisions. Do you get the same coffee order every morning? One less decision.
Create habits out of decisions. This is about using our brains desire for patterns and repetition to help us eliminate decisions. I know some people who put their clothes out in the evening, making the morning a little easier. They feed their kids the same breakfast every morning. They use morning rituals when they get into the office to start their day. These are all habits that have the effect of reducing low value decisions. At the office, you pre-plan each morning on your calendar the previous afternoon. For example, spend a few minutes in the afternoon to make decisions about which clients you will call in the morning, allowing you to jump right into the work.
Use checklists, templates, and standard text. We all have to do some repetitive work in our jobs. Whether it’s writing reports, status meetings, management briefings, or staff reviews, the more you can standardize the work, the fewer decisions you have to make. This is akin to not “reinventing the wheel” each time you have to do a briefing. For example, when I do sponsor briefings, I use the same short slide deck each month, just updating the information. This continuity allows for better understanding by the sponsor, and makes it much faster to prepare for the briefings.
TIP: If you’ve never read The Checklist Manifesto, by Dr. Atul Gawande, I highly recommend it. It discusses how the use of checklists improved emergency room outcomes by reducing missed safety steps by 74%. Besides being a great story, and an amazing demonstration of resistance and change management, it shows how in a high pressure, high impact decision environment like a hospital emergency room, using checklists to reduce small decisions had a huge effect.
Understand willpower as based in decision making. When you fail to accomplish what you want to accomplish, make bad decisions, or avoid difficult activities, don’t just chalk it up to having no willpower. Having willpower is really just having the capacity to make good decisions. If your decision making is depleted, of course it’s easier to choose the donut rather than the banana. (If you prefer donuts to bananas, that is.) Knowing this, try to identify those decisions that require “willpower”, and find a way to make them as early in the day as possible. Buy the banana at breakfast and put it on your desk for later. Schedule that difficult “counseling” conversation for 10am.
Some people I have met are natural “habit creators”. It’s a bit of a generalization, but I find that these people tend to be more risk averse but very reliable, and tend to produce high volumes of work. They are very good at developing processes for us all to work by. By contrast, other people I know, particularly creatives and problem-solvers, are more comfortable with the unknown, and enjoy making decisions. These are often people who are less likely to rely on habits. Then again, maybe these are also people (like myself) who are less likely to remember to plan for dinner ahead of time. Whether you are a natural habit creator or not, using repetition and tools to reduce low impact decision making can strengthen your decision making ability, and allow you to make better decisions, regardless of your decision making style.