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What is decision fatigue and how can we deal with it?

‘Decision fatigue’ is a phenomenon that affects us all. Although interestingly, we are not all consciously aware of it. As the name suggests, it is when our decision-making ability is depleted.

Psychologists have found that people have a finite amount of ‘brain power’ that is reserved for making decisions. This is a precious resource that is used up more quickly than we realise and can lead to us making poor and illogical decisions if we are not careful.

Have you ever wondered why tech moguls such as Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerburg have been known to wear the same outfit every day? Or why Barack Obama has been known to decide what to wear the previous evening?

It is not simply because they are not up to date with the latest fashion trends, but because they wish to reduce the number of decisions they make. They do this in order to reserve decision-making capacity for more meaningful and impactful decisions.

Has this been proven by science?

Multiple studies have shown the very real effects of decision fatigue in our lives.

In one study, it was shown that prisoners applying for parole were much more likely to be successful if their hearing was in the morning.

The results were shocking. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning were granted parole about 70 per cent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 per cent of the time.

By the end of the day, judges were exhausted from all the decisions they made. So unfortunately for the prisoners who appeared in the afternoon, their decisions were of a poorer quality - less fair and logical/

In another study at Stanford University, it has been revealed how decision fatigue can leave people vulnerable to marketing and sales strategies.

After having to make lots of small decisions such as choosing between 56 colours of paint, people were much more likely to buy extra add-ons such as rust-proof paint or enhanced options when purchasing a car.

When our decision stamina runs out, we opt for the easy, default choice. Even though it may not be the most favourable, or even most ethical.

What can we do to avoid the drawbacks of decision fatigue?

Much like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg or Barack Obama, we can all reduce the number of decisions we make by cutting down on those that are less relevant or important. Here are three things to consider when doing this:

1. List all of your decisions

Firstly make a list of all the decisions you make in a day. Organise this list by level of importance.

Once you have outlined these in order, you are able to see what, at the moment, you value most and would rather conserve your decision making power for. Then you can carefully choose what kinds of decisions you wish to prioritise and make earlier in the day.

For example, if you are a leader, you may find that the decisions that are most important to you at the moment are those on your prospecting strategy, rather than those to do with future recruitment. For this reason, you can plan to make these strategic decisions early in the morning, before decision fatigue can take hold.

2. Eliminate trivial decisions

Once we have chosen the types of decisions we want to prioritise - and subsequently, the ones that we do not - we are able to remove the trivial ones that do not add value. Then we can conserve this precious resource for more meaningful decisions.

For instance, if you spend time in the morning deciding what to have for breakfast, simply prepare it the night before, or have the same thing each morning. This will remove one decision of negligible importance.

3. Plan around it

The third thing we can do is simply to be aware of when our decision-making ability is impaired, and when it is at full strength. As past studies have shown, our judgement takes a dip after the morning, or after having made lots of other decisions.

Baumeister, a expert prominent psychologist in decision fatigue responsible for much research surrounding this phenomenon, has been quoted as saying, “The best decision-makers, are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

CEOs do not restructure companies late at night, and politicians do not make vital decisions during cocktail hour. At least, we hope not.

Planning around this would be scheduling your tasks and decisions; if you have a heavy-decision afternoon, spend your morning hours on tasks that do not fatigue our decision-making ability.

Decision fatigue is real and can be harmful. However, if we stay aware, prioritise decisions, and plan accordingly we will achieve better outcomes from the decisions we have to make.

We would love to hear your thoughts on decision fatigue and your methods of dealing with it. Please get in touch if you have anything to share.

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