4 Steps to Beat Decision Fatigue and Increase Your Effectiveness

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In our last post, we introduced the concept of “busyness,” and how many of us cram every minute of the working day full of tasks—some of us even feel slightly lazy unless we have spent the day in a frantic state of email-sending, text-flying, brainstorm-busting activity. What today’s post will elaborate on is how such a work environment has the potential to affect our ability to function—and the reason why you might struggle to string a sentence together at the end of a long day.

There is no denying the barrage of information and work-related tasks that are readily available through today’s advanced technological devices. As you read this post you can probably see your emails coming in, and you might have even felt your phone bleep in your pocket. We are easily able to fill our days to the extent that we have little to no time to take care of ourselves: eat, use the restroom, laugh, and—perhaps most importantly—do nothing at all.

The ability to constantly assess our work lives seemed, for a time, to boost productivity and efficiency. Or did it?

Is it possible that when you are frantically trying to do a number of different things at once that you are not actually doing any of them particularly well? Is it possible that busyness is more of a habit than a necessity?

Lets see: Can you remember the last time you shut off your phone? What has been the longest period today that you have gone without checking your emails? Do you know what color top the person sitting next to you has on (without looking)? When did you last talk to someone and give them your undivided attention?

Are-We-Too-BusyWhen did you last give yourself undivided attention?

The Myth of Mulitasking

Most people who work in business, at least those who have classic “Type A” personalities, know what it feels like to be insanely busy. Some of us might even believe that we thrive on that feeling and pride ourselves in our ability to multitask: answering emails while talking on the phone; driving while participating in audio meetings; reading a text while sitting talking to someone else. But—as shown by an Oxford Journals study—we are kidding ourselves when we reason that attempting to multitask does anything other than dilute our attention and reduce our impact.

As productive as frantic work habits might seem, consider this: Is being busy really the best way to be your most effective self?

Is it possible, in fact, that being too busy might negatively impact important skills such as the ability to make good decisions or to communicate well with colleagues? Is it possible, too, that constant busyness can have a negative impact on your physical health?

Decision Fatigue and Data Overload

As an example of the very real cost of being too busy, let’s look at the concept of “decision fatigue.” You may have heard of this term used in reference to politicians and people who have to make mind-blowingly huge decisions that affect the lives of millions on a daily basis.

Decision Fatigue:

… the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual, after a long session of decision making.

“I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing,” President Obama told Vanity Fair‘s Michael Lewis. “Because I have too many other decisions to make.”


That is sound advice from a man who knows that he has a limited supply of decision energy—best save it for the ones that matter and leave worrying about what color tie to wear to someone else.

If Obama isn’t immune to decision fatigue, then what about the rest of us?

Writing for The New York Times, John Tierney, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, described a study demonstrating that prisoners at parole hearings were paroled 70 percent of the time in the early mornings but less than 10 percent of the time if their hearings occurred later in the day. Why?

Researchers theorize that human beings have limited mental energy to apply to decision-making, and as each day wore on, the judges were affected by decision fatigue. “The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts,” Tierney explains.

If your day is packed with tasks that require decision-making energy, you might find your judgment lagging later in the day. But without White House resources and staff to tell you how to dress, lessening the burden of decisions can be a task in itself. Overcoming decision fatigue calls for strategy, planning, and—somewhat unfortunately perhaps—you will have to make some decisions about which decisions to stop making!

All is not lost. The good news is that we have compiled a four-step strategy to help you bust decision fatigue.

1.Take Control of Your Daily Decisions—and Eat!

Nicole M. Coomber, PhD, associate director for the QUEST Honors Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, writes, “research shows that human brains have limits, and making too many decisions over the course of a day can wear down a person’s self-control.”

When this happens, Coomber points out, different people’s brains react in different ways. Some of us end up making more reckless choices; this is the moment when you throw in the towel at 3pm and go on a shopping spree. Others tend to do nothing at all: literally. Your brain freezes up and you find it almost impossible to make a choice—maybe that explains why you got home from work the other night and felt totally unable to decide what to eat for dinner.

Coomber’s short-term suggestion: eat something. Believe it or not, a simple high-glucose snack helped judges in a seminal study make better decisions. So, eating is one way to relieve decision fatigue when you are already in it—but as with most things, prevention is usually better than cure. The key is to avoid decision fatigue altogether, and steps 2-4 focus more on this.

2. Identify Your Values

Your personal values differ from those of the person next to you, and because of this, you wouldn’t make the same decisions either. If you can determine your long-term values—the ones that don’t change from day to day, you might be able to create a blueprint of sorts that you can use to govern the decisions that you make.

For example, if you are trying to decide whether or not to enroll in an e-learning course; doing so might benefit your career, but it also means that you won’t have as much time to socialize. If you already know that you value financial security highly, you can use this information to fast-track that decision.

3. Automate to Create Spacecloset-pro-closet-680

Coomber also recommends automating some life choices in order to reduce the number of decisions that you consider each day—for example, automatically allocating money for deposit into a retirement account; getting the milk or newspaper delivered; even really simple things such as setting your phone up to automatically download the podcast that you like to listen to. It is often the small decisions that are perfect candidates for automation as the error cost is minimal—the world is not going to end if you end up with an extra pint of milk.

The theory behind automation is that by creating repetitive habits that remove the necessity to make daily scheduling decisions, you are removing some of the decisions that hog your energy. More daily examples of this would be exercising at the same time every day, or going to the same place to buy groceries—which might sound as if you are making your life mundane, but lets face it, most of of could do with a little less to think about. Especially when you realize that having to make even trivial decisions early in the day might impair your ability to make more important ones later on.

This runs alongside the concept of doing less to achieve more, and using the tools available to you in order to help you achieve simplicity. Apps such as MobileDay—which takes out the dial in process associated with phone calls—can help you stay on your A-game for longer.

4. Allow for Intuition

Coomber stresses that while values and automation can be useful tools that help you rationalize your decisions, not all things can be solved with information. She recommends listening to your gut, but not immediately throwing rationality to the wind should your intuition spark up. Instead, see if you can allow feelings to mingle with facts on such occasions to avoid any head-over-heart dissonance.

Recognizing decision fatigue if it affects you is an important start in overcoming it. Once you are aware of the problem, you can apply tactics and plan to lessen the decision burden upon you. Don’t expect too much all at once; instead begin with some small—yet important—changes that will help you automate some of the processes in your life and simplify others.

Putting Theory into Practice

At MobileDay, we are far from perfect, and some of us admit to being serial multitaskers. As a company, however, we put measures in place to encourage a culture in which our employees are encouraged to just do one thing at a time—and therefore, to do it well.

Our device-less meeting policy, for example, allows us to concentrate fully on the people in the room and the task in hand. Nobody is checking their emails as another colleague is talking. Ultimately this concept removes the temptation to multitask while in meetings; something that we have noticed leads to more efficient and effective meeting-space results.

In the next post, we will take this concept a little further, and explore what being too busy can mean for your relationships with co-workers, and your health.
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