How to overcome decision fatigue

“Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach.”

Tony Robbins

Are you actually making choices or decisions that matter the most to you? One of the paradoxes of life is that our big decisions are often less calculated than some of our small ones. Sometimes, we make decisions in imperfect conditions that prevent us from thinking things through and we end up making unhealthy and unproductive choices. Our life be it our personal or professional depends on the quality of the decisions we make. Every waking minute of our day, we make countless decisions, big or small starting from what to eat in lunch, what to wear, which projects or tasks to work on, whom to hire, how much to spend, what to do with our spare time so on and so forth. Every decision requires time and energy and our small daily decisions impact the will power we have. This is the reason the days you take many decisions, you feel drained and experience low mental energy.

Even though there are no telltale symptoms of when that mental energy is low, but you experience everything more intensely, react impulsively, or become more irritable than usual because of decision fatigue and happens when you are making too many decisions in a day, important or unimportant.

We all like to decide and take decisions. We like long menu of options to choose from be it at a restaurant or from an online store, which channel or website for latest information and so on. Also, we have this habit of switching between the tasks quite frequently in a day from checking our messages, mails, social media websites to professional or personal work. Not only does this affect our focus and concentration to do deep work, but each of those decisions to switch between the tasks also eats into your will power. No matter how rational or intelligent you are, you cannot make decision after decision without getting mentally fatigued. And unlike physical fatigue which we are consciously aware of, decision fatigue often happens without us knowing and depletes our cognitive resources which are essential to learn, think and grow. By understanding decision fatigue, you can patch these cognitive leaks and use the resources in most optimal and productive ways.

Understanding decision fatigue..

It refers to the idea that your will power or ability to make good choices deteriorates in quality after an extended period of decision-making. In other words, the more decisions you need to make, the worse will be your ability to weigh all the options in making a well-informed and research-backed choice. Decision fatigue doesn’t just come from too many choices. It involves a phenomenon called ‘ego depletion’ – a term coined by Social Psychologist – Roy F. Baumeister. It is based on the idea that you have finite store of will power for exerting self-control and when you use it up you will end up making poor choices.

Ego depletion is more prominent in acts involving your will power and self-control in comparison to much less strenuous tasks. Working for an extended period of time making multiple complex decisions or avoiding a temptation or resisting your desires for an extended period of time in a day saps your will power and other limited cognitive resources like focus, self-control, concentration and other problem-solving skills.

How decision fatigue impacts your productivity

When decision fatigue sets in, you take shortcuts and tend to favour short-term gains and become inclined to take easier options. As the fear of giving up options increases, it gets difficult to come to any resolution or agreements. The busyness of our daily habits can make us restless, to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. In order to avoid agonising over decisions and to ease the mental strain, we resist any change or risky moves.

Researchers provided the results from a number of their studies and experiments that suggest that our ability to make good choices degrades after long periods of thoughtful decision-making. In a research study, psychologists examined the factors that impact whether or not a judge approves a criminal for parole. The researchers examined more than thousand judicial rulings over a ten-month period. What they discovered was that the most influential factor that drove their decision-making wasn’t their crime, background, or sentences. But what time their case was heard. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole 70% of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10% of the times, as the morning wore on and the judge became drained from making more and more decisions, the likelihood of a criminal getting a favorable ruling steadily dropped to zero.

When decision fatigue happens, either we stop making decisions completely because we are mentally depleted or we make poor decisions. Also, we are more likely to yield to any kind of temptation, indulge in unhealthy habits, anxious behaviour, frustration or confusion and act impulsively instead of thinking things through. Whenever you get involved in a day long set of meetings that had goals of taking number of critical decisions, you feel overwhelmed and try to look for shortcuts or may decide to give up on many of the other important tasks.

How to overcome decision fatigue

And while decision fatigue is something that we all deal with in our personal and professional endeavours, there are few ways that you can organize your life and design your day to master your willpower. Here are some such ways to counteract all the factors that lead you to decision fatigue.

Give yourself fewer choices

We feel overwhelmed when we have too many choices. The fewer the choices, the faster will be our decisions as our brains don’t need to mentally step into each new option and stretch out inside them, picture or evaluate them while you step into the next option. For most of us, when we have to make decisions from more options, we start second-guessing as having too many choices puts lot of pressure to make right choice. We worry of making a wrong choice and keep going back and pondering our choices to see if something else is a better choice. We wonder what the repercussions of the decision might be down the line, how it might hurt our lives and work.

Try paring down your options so you have limited choices. Setting daily routines simplifies your choices and frees you from feeling anxious and overwhelmed. Stick to the essentials when small and not so important decisions have to be made.

Cutdown decisions

The best way to reduce decision fatigue is to reduce the number of decisions you have to make in a given day. Avoid random decision-making by using lists through out the day. To-do lists keep you on track of getting things done. Having said that there will always be decisions that pop up each day that you cannot plan for. That’s okay. But most often, the decisions that drain us are the ones that we make over and over again. You can cut down on decisions you make on a daily basis by deciding on which ones can you automate, regulate, effectuate and debate.

Automate your bill payments, frequently purchased grocery items or refills, or your monthly requirements to free up your time for other more important decisions. Effectuate getting things done that are high in importance. There is no decision to make, just do those things that are high in importance. Regulate your tasks like checking mail, managing your schedule or doing chores. If it’s high in time and low in importance, you regulate them by set times and windows and follow them instead of painfully doing one or two a day. Debate the decisions that are high in importance or high-time decisions. These can be regarding your long-term professional goals or personal goals like moving or changing your career so on and so forth. Debate the pros and cons, weigh your options in order to avoid making bad choices.

Avoid shiny object syndrome

Constant need to make decisions can leave you feeling depleted. Being creative makes you a person of many ideas. But if you decide to start your tasks based on ideas without properly assessing them can make your decision-making more complex. This is like the tendency where a child chases after shiny objects and after reaching the object and seeing what it is, quickly loses interest and goes after something else. Be wary of your shiny object syndrome of starting projects or tasks that seem interesting without assessing their feasibility and sustainability. If you are tempted to start a new project because it seems fun and interesting, set long-term and short-term goals for you and your work. Pick what decisions you want to focus your energy towards and simplify the rest to save yourself from decision fatigue.

Focus on what is important

If you put too much on your plate for the fear of missing out, it gets very difficult to prioritise your most important decisions. Eisenhower decision-Matrix can help clear up confusion when you have to consider several options. It helps you analyse your tasks or choices by listing the factors you need to consider and then weighing each option based on importance and urgency.

You can prioritise your decisions based on the four quadrants of the matrix. First quadrant is for decisions that are both urgent and important. Decisions you couldn’t have anticipated, and those that you have left until the last minute. Decide to just do such tasks by planning ahead and avoiding unnecessary procrastination.

Second quadrant is for important but not urgent decisions that help you to achieve your long-term personal and professional goals and complete tasks you perceive most important in life.

Third quadrant is for urgent but not important decisions. Consider whether you can reschedule the urgent tasks or delegate them to someone else.

Fourth quadrant is for decisions that are not so important and not urgent. This is about tasks that are just a distraction and must be avoided whenever possible. Identify and eliminate your fourth quadrant tasks so you free up your time to decide on your second quadrant tasks.

Be smarter with your choices & to-do lists

Avoiding decision fatigue starts with being smart about how you choose to plan your day. Because if you sit and hope that you will be able to make the right decisions each day, then you will certainly fall victim to decision fatigue and lack of will power. You need to decide to do things but more than that you need to schedule them into your routines.

Create a morning routine that includes planning your important tasks for the day a priority habit whether that’s working on a personal project, getting a hard task done, or dealing with something you’ve been putting off. Build different types of work into your schedule so you can avoid making decisions for hours in a row. Limit your to-do lists to five or six with few complex tasks in top three and less important ones filling out the rest of the day. Process your big decisions early in the day when you are mentally active and productive. Be intentional about tasks that are most important to you and developing routines that energise you instead of drain to help fight the decision fatigue.

To Conclude,

So, How often do you suffer from decision fatigue?

Are you using your cognitive resources optimally?

How much time are you spending making decisions every day? And which ones are important?

Are there decisions you can delegate to someone else?

Which decisions can you automate so you never think about them?

What can you regulate so you do it in set rules?

What can you effectuate as something you simply just do? And which decisions can you debate?

Asking yourself the above questions can make you aware of what drains your mental energy and what conserves. While it is not possible to maximise your will power for every moment of every day, it is possible to make few changes to your day and your routine so that you simplify the process of your decision-making and can save yourself from decision fatigue.

By using the above strategies, you will have the resources to make better choices and can improve your effectiveness and productivity in chunking out your decisions. Now this may not be perfect all the time. Sometimes small decisions will leak out and become big deals in your head. But that’s okay, the goal is to understand the concept of decision fatigue so you can save your cognitive resources like will power and focus for making the most important decisions.

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