Too Tired to Decide: Seven Simple Ways to Avoid Decision Fatigue

“I prefer physical exhaustion over mental fatigue any day.” – Clotilde Hesme, French actress.

By some estimates, the average worker makes 35,000 decisions during their work day. They include what to wear and eat, the type of latte to buy at Starbucks, and whether to open a new tab on your browser or check email. Every click is a decision.

According to some experts, you start the day with only so much ability to decide. Once you get below a certain level of “ego depletion,” you reach “decision fatigue.” At first, researchers thought this was purely a mental effect. But as with the candy commercials, where someone turns from a mean grouch into a cool character after eating a Snickers bar, other research has convincingly linked decision fatigue to your level of the brain’s favorite energy source: glucose.

Here’s how to avoid sabotage by decision fatigue:

  1. Make important decisions early in your day, while you still have plenty of decision fuel. Note that this is different from “eating the frog”; it’s more like deciding whether you’re going to eat the frog.

  2. Minimize trivial choices. Don’t make the mistake of treating minor decisions as important. Refuse to agonize over what type of tea or salad dressing to have. Otherwise you’re wasting glucose and depleting your ego supply. If it’s no big deal or you always do the same thing, make a snap decision. Take longer for decisions that matter. Get used to making small decisions quickly.

  3. Avoid any wealth of choices. I think of this as “the tyranny of choice”—you have so many options it’s hard to choose just one. Like a bookworm in a bookstore, where do you start? When feeling overwhelmed by choices, you might as well catch a tiger by the toe and pick whatever comes up on “moe,” especially if the choice is trivial. If it’s important, take longer; however, remember you can usually still fix it later, so don’t take too long. Act with urgency.

  4. Rely on routines. Over time, most of us develop routines for common tasks that let us go on automatic, whether it’s the route we take to work each morning, the order in which we do our tasks, how we check and write our emails, or where we park at the mall or airport. After a while, we become so familiar with our routines we don’t have to think about them or make any decisions, so we conserve our decision fuel without even trying. If I can’t find a parking spot in my “normal” spot, I have to take a photo; if I’m in my regular area, I just know I’ll be there and don’t need to do anything.

  5. Decrease the number of decisions you make. Former President Obama once told Vanity Fair he exclusively wore blue and gray suits just to cut one less decision from his daily schedule. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg also wears the same type of clothing every day, as did Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. Other people eat the exact same meals each day, so they never have to worry about that cluster of decisions. You can apply this to just about any decision, major or minor; it works especially well when combined with routines.

  6. Get plenty of rest. As always, sleep is vastly important. The better you feel in general, the better you are at resisting any sort of fatigue, including decision fatigue. Although sleep is generally what suffers when we need extra time for other things, it’s best to get 7-8 hours nightly.

  7. Eat or drink something containing glucose, the brain’s primary fuel. This can top up your decision-making level, putting you back at the top of your game. A simple glass of sugary lemonade works well. Don’t use an artificial sweetener, or even something sweetened with corn syrup, like your average soda; it won’t work as well. Eating a snack can also help because it offsets hunger or some protein to boost energy, which stimulates the production of the hormone ghrelin, which decreases impulse control, giving you better decision-making abilities.

Decision Fatigue Hurts

Decision fatigue may not sound like such a big deal at first, but its effects can be profound. Consider this: studies of parole board decisions demonstrate that decision fatigue is more likely than prisoner behavior, prisoner psychology, or length of time in jail to determine whether or not a prisoner gets parole. About 65% of those who face parole boards in the morning receive parole, while only 10% of those who face them later in the day get it. By then, it’s easier for the board members to just say no than to give each case individual consideration. Don’t let decision fatigue damage your life—or anyone else’s.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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