Avoiding Decision Fatigue

An essential element of effective leadership is decision-making. Whether you lead a large organization or a growing start-up, you will be responsible for making daily decisions that impact business operations, strategy, and performance. Your organization’s success will depend on the execution and implementation of those decisions, so it is vital that you not only make the right decision at the right time but also in the right frame of mind thereby avoiding decision fatigue.

Researchers at Cornell University estimate the average person makes about 35,000 decisions a day. The vast majority are on the low end of the complexity scale: what color of shirt to wear, what to have for breakfast, what music to listen to while commuting to work, whether to have that second cup of coffee at the office. But other decisions have a high degree of complexity and consequence: Do we renew our facility lease or invest in our own building? Which client resource management software is best of my company? Do we need a new strategic organizational realignment?

The more ramifications a decision has, the more stressful the decision is to make, which is why leaders often procrastinate or experience analysis paralysis. But today’s fast-moving markets and evolving customer expectations require leaders to make more decisions faster, which can be mentally and emotionally stressful, leading to mental fatigue.

Decision Fatigue Strategies

Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister coined the term decision fatigue to explain the diminishing quality of decisions made by people who are required to make constant decisions. Various research has concluded that the more decisions you need to make in a given day, the worse you’re going to be at making a well-thought-out choice. No matter how rational or sensible you are, making decision after decision comes with a mental price. And unlike physical fatigue, which has well-known symptoms, decision fatigue is more subtle so we don’t always recognize when it’s happening.

The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, so it starts looking for shortcuts. That’s when we start making decisions more impulsively with less time contemplating the potential consequences or, more likely, we don’t make a decision at all and do nothing. Within an organization that can lead to bottlenecks, which tend to have a misalignment domino effect.

Staying mentally fresh, then, is an essential skill for any leader. Here are some proven strategies for keeping decision fatigue at bay so you can make the most effective and efficient decisions for your organization.

Make your most important decisions in the morning. The fresher you are, the more mental acuity and willpower you have. Prioritizing so you focus on the most important projects early in the day when you are most rested will enable you to better sort through complex problems and avoid making hasty decisions.

Get enough sleep. One-third of American workers get fewer than six hours of sleep, leading the Centers for Disease Control to officially declare sleep deprivation a public health problem leading to diminished attention, alertness and mental responses as well as a loss of creativity. The brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions like planning, abstract thinking, and decision-making is particularly affected. A twenty-minute nap in the afternoon can help refresh your alertness and improve the decisions you make.

Embrace routine. The more routine you have for daily choices like what to wear or eat and when to work out, the more energy you’ll have for making sound decisions.

Limit your options. When it comes to decision-making, less can be more. Having too many choices can waste brain energy. There’s a reason people from Steve Jobs to Albert Einstein wore the same outfits everyday—so they could devote their attention on more important matters.

Don’t second-guess yourself. Gather the needed facts, make the decision, then move on. Fretting over a decision already made is exhausting and interferes with the next decision you need to make.

Have a snack. Don’t make important decisions when hungry. Researchers found that when your brain is low on glucose, it responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects. A snack will help you make more thoughtful decisions.

There are many aspects to effective decision-making. But understanding how making changes to your routines, lifestyle, and priorities can help you avoid decision fatigue by saving your mental energy will ensure you have the right mental foundation to make the best decisions possible.