The higher you rise in your career, it’s likely the more momentous choices you make each day.
(Originally published in Fast Company.)
Staring at a lengthy dinner menu while eating out last night, I couldn’t bring myself to contemplate its many choices, however delightful. “I’ll just take whatever is most popular,” I said when the waiter arrived. For a foodie like me, what? Decision fatigue is what.
Every day, we face thousands of decisions, both big and small—from what to wear, to what to eat, to what to say and how to say it, to whether to change jobs or careers. In total, this amounts to approximately 35,000 remotely conscious decisions a day. And while this number sounds absurd, researchers at Cornell showed that we make 226 decisions each day on food alone.
When we face so many choices and make decision after decision, it depletes our mental energy and willpower. This biological price tag is called decision fatigue—or a state of cognitive overload and strain that can hamper your ability to make additional decisions.
In this state, our brains look for energy-saving shortcuts, and we often resort to one of three suboptimal strategies. We might procrastinate or avoid making decisions altogether. Or make an impulsive decision rather than thinking through the consequences. Or over-rotate on one dimension of the decision rather than considering the trade-offs involved in a decision. If you’re shopping, you might only focus on price (I’ll take whichever one is cheapest) or quality (just give me the best one).
As your responsibility increases, so does the array and complexity of choices you face, which increases the mental tax you incur in deciding. The consequences of your decisions also heighten. Leaders, for instance, often make decisions that impact many others and create a ripple effect for their teams and organizations.
You might not be able to avoid decision fatigue altogether. Still, there are steps you can take to minimize and manage it.
MAKE IMPORTANT DECISIONS IN THE MORNING
Decision fatigue accumulates over the course of the day. Whether you’re a morning person or not, research shows that we make our most accurate and thoughtful decisions earlier in the day. So whether you’re deciding how to approach a complex project, which candidates to bring in for interviews, or another complicated matter, tackle these decisions in the morning to avoid suboptimal conclusions on the things that matter. Make a list daily of which decisions have priority, and give those your attention first.
KNOW WHEN NOT TO TRUST YOURSELF
Your ability to make good decisions isn’t a steady trait. but a state that fluctuates. So, before you make any decision of consequence, tune into how you’re feeling.
Unlike physical fatigue, decision fatigue can be harder to spot. But be on the lookout for feeling weary or irritable, choosing to procrastinate, or being impulsive. These are telltale signs that your mental energy is running low.
If you can’t sleep on the decision, try taking a short break or eating a snack. Numerous studies have demonstrated that a dose of glucose can improve self-control and decision quality if you’re running low.
RIGHT SIZE YOUR ENERGETIC OUTLAY
For any given decision, ask yourself: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how much impact will this decision have on my life or that of others?” If a decision has a low impact, quickly choose whatever option fits the minimum criteria. According to Paradox of Choice author Barry Schwartz, this “satisfying” approach to decision-making doesn’t lead to making more bad decisions than painstakingly considering all the options to get the very best outcome. But it does result in greater happiness. Truth: Good enough is often good enough.
After you have made a decision, don’t rehash it. Ruminating about whether you made the right choice or not only wastes additional mental energy. Instead, acknowledge that you made the best decision possible with what you knew then and move on.
Consider how you might allow others to help and share in the decision-making load. For example, if you’re working on a presentation, could you ask a coworker to select which images to use? Or, if you’re contemplating a particularly challenging decision, ask someone you trust to share their perspective and check your thinking.
To be increasingly effective as a leader, constantly develop a group of decision-makers you can delegate to and count on to follow through. Without the leverage of a group of trusted decision-makers, your capacity as a leader will be capped, and you’ll be unduly taxed with making decisions that you should push down.
Decision fatigue results from the luxury of choices we face in today’s world. To mitigate its effects, you need to make fewer decisions.
Automate what you can. For example, instead of debating whether and when to work out, do it at the same time every day. You might also eat the same breakfast every weekday or use a master list with essential staples for grocery shopping. Or, like Steve Jobs with his black turtlenecks and jeans, have a go-to outfit (or two). Whatever your preferences, make them routine.
Also, consider where you can cast a smaller net. For example, if someone is presenting you with options, ask them to give you their top two or three choices only.
Finally, set personal rules that have a wide application across situations. For example, you might establish a rule like, “I don’t look at social media until 5 pm,” or “I invest 20% of every paycheck.” Setting these behavioral boundaries clarifies and reduces countless painful decision points. By deciding what you will and won’t do ahead of time, you reserve your brainpower for more important things.
In today’s world, we can suffer from a burden of choice if we don’t have proactive steps to reduce the overwhelm. But taking the five steps above can mitigate decision fatigue and its unfortunate consequences. And come evening, some 35,000 decisions later, celebrate your many good choices—some big and some so small you didn’t even know you made them.
With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina