Never in the history of the world have we been plagued with information overload like we are today. Some research suggests that the typical person makes about 2,000 decisions every waking hour! Think about something as simple as your morning coffee. When I was growing up, you ordered a coffee. The decision was whether to add cream, sugar or have it black. Now, we literally have hundreds of choices of coffee drinks.
It’s the same with fashion. Thirty years ago, everyone bought Levi’s 501 jeans. You went to the store and found your size. That was it. Today, there are an unlimited number of cuts, colors and finishes from hundreds of brands. Do you prefer boot cut, skinny jeans, stone wash or dark? It’s overwhelming.
We don’t realize that each of these minuscule decisions takes away from our cognitive capacity. Our brain has finite energy, and when we ask it to make that many decisions, it can lead to decision fatigue.
Draining Your Brain Battery
Decision fatigue is the mental toll that decisions (even small ones) can take on us throughout the day. When we spend mental energy making new decisions on top of our everyday obligations, we deplete that energy faster. You won’t necessarily feel physically tired, but your brain will look for ways to take shortcuts. This can be disastrous for leaders because it can lead to poor decision making, reactivity or—the ultimate energy saver—doing nothing.
Let’s say you get a good night’s sleep, and you wake up with a battery charged to 100%. You immediately begin draining it when you open your eyes. Here’s how the rest of your day may go:
- You check a work email before getting out of bed: -5%
- You become stressed in traffic on your work commute: -15%
- You decide between a salad or a burger for lunch: -5%
- You must decide whether or not to go to your in-laws for Thanksgiving: -20%
- You stop at the grocery store to pick up dinner for the family: -10%
- And so on, all day long.
You can replenish your battery by going outside for walks at lunch and practicing deep-breathing exercises, but there’s only so much time during a workday that you can take for R&R. That’s why it’s important to reduce the number of decisions and stressful factors throughout the day and prioritize the important ones when your energy levels are highest.
Dealing With Decision Fatigue
Here are five ways to help deal with decision fatigue:
1. Build efficiency around processes.
Develop frameworks that will remove decisions from your daily life. Initially, these frameworks may take time to develop but in the long run, they will make your life easier and repeatable. For example, do you struggle with working out in the morning? Lay out your workout clothes the night before so you don’t have to think about it. Get up, put on the clothes and work out. I’ve even suggested some coaching clients sleep in their workout clothes.
Personally, I eliminate decision fatigue by only wearing solid white or black shirts and either black pants or jeans. I learned this from late Apple founder Steve Jobs who wore a black turtleneck and jeans every day. You don’t need to waste energy or time deciding what to wear every day. Instead, have an automated routine.
2. Know your values.
If you have a clear vision of your prioritized goals, it helps to be able to identify what decisions are worth your time. I use the time management matrix presented in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey in which tasks are divided into four quadrants:
- Important – Urgent (a.k.a. necessity)
- Important – Not Urgent (a.k.a. effectiveness)
- Not Important – Urgent (a.k.a. distraction)
- Not Important – Not Urgent (a.k.a. waste)
Covey believed quadrant two was the key to being most effective. When you focus your attention on these important yet not urgent matters, you reduce distractions in quadrant three and are able to ignore quadrant four. We tend to spend time in quadrant three because we confuse urgent matters for important issues. Be sure to review your values often, because your priorities will change.
3. Reduce the menace of multitasking.
When you move from one subject to another and back again, you are fatiguing the brain. Instead, I recommend employing the techniques Cal Newport explores in his book Deep Work. The goal is to set aside large chunks of time in which you are undisturbed in order to get work done that requires complete focus.
4. Make the most of your brain depending on the time of day.
I consider myself an efficiency freak, but I have one weak spot: Quora. Every morning, I get sucked into the question platform. I spend 15 minutes of my day going down rabbit holes like “What’s Paul McCartney’s favorite song?” No one should care, but it is mental candy for me. However, it’s a terrible way to start my day because my brain is fresh, and it’s wasting energy on frivolous matters. Now that I’m writing this article, I will pledge not to read Quora in the mornings. If I feel like some play, I will save it for later. Reserve the frivolous stuff for evenings when your brain is already tired rather than wasting its freshness in the morning.
5. Develop a mindfulness practice.
If you’ve never tried meditation, I recommend starting with two minutes each morning. Put it on your calendar. Once you are comfortable with two minutes, grow to five and so on. Small steps can lead to big results. Meditation can help bring a sharpness to your brain because you are essentially resting it. In fact, I once read that 20 minutes of meditation is equal to four to five hours of sleep.
With as many decisions as we face every day, it’s inevitable we’ll make some poor ones, but if we understand how decisions contribute to our energy level, we can learn to become more efficient so we have more time for play.