Decision Fatigue

To be or not to be? Face wash or scrub? Shave or trim? Red lipstick or nude? Pantsuit or dress? Plaid or stripes? Brown shoes or black? Lunch or no lunch? Metro or cab? Tea or coffee? Before you even reach your office, you’ve made tens of decisions without even realising. By an estimate, we make over 30,000 decisions every day. No wonder we wake up tired and dry because even sleep couldn’t fix the exhaustion.

This is Decision Fatigue, a term coined by a social psychologist, Roy F. Baumeister, based on the Freudian hypothesis of ego depletion.

Yes, it’s exactly like muscle fatigue after a hard exercise routine where we can barely drag ourselves out of the gym. Our physical battery is drained and that’s the same case with our mental battery. It gets drained after we juggle too many choices and make too many decisions in a day.

And what happens when we experience fatigue? We tend to go for the least resistant route or pass on our burden to next day or someone else. Apply this to mental fatigue, we find us making bad decisions that we may regret later.

Real-life damage of Decision Fatigue

Two researchers from Ben Gurion University and Columbia University analysed north of 1100 decisions made by judges over the course of a year. They wanted to understand if there was a relation in prisoners receiving parole with the crime committed, length of the sentence and ethnicity of the prisoner.

Surprisingly, nothing affected the judges’ decisions to grant parole more than the time of the day the hearing was scheduled. The prisoners who appeared in the latter half of the day were less likely to be released on parole than those who appeared in the first half. And, this was not done on purpose!

The judges were only experiencing decision fatigue. Going over the many variables and scenarios of many cases each day wore them down. Their mental ability to make an equally good decision (as in the morning) weakened towards the end of the day. 65% of the times, the result was a quick (read: easier) decision to keep the prisoner locked up because that saved the judge from agonising over their decision.

Causes of Decision Fatigue

The first one is, of course, being exhausted by having to make too many decisions in one day. Our neurons are extremely energy-hungry cells. Even though they form 2% of our body’s mass, they consume 20% of the energy produced by it. So, the more we strain them, the more energy-deficient they become and the more drained we feel.

The second cause is the combination of variety and chaos. In an experiment where the subjects had to choose one bar of chocolate from a group, it was found that they are most likely to choose a random one when the group had 20 chocolates. The same people chose their favourite chocolate from the group of three. The culprit is the variety. An increase in variety from 3 to 20 chocolates boggled them and they ended up picking just about any chocolate.

Dr Baumeister and his team concluded that there is a link between willpower, self-control and decision making. So, the third cause of decision fatigue is investing too much willpower in self-control that we end up losing it. Say, you’ve got unread texts from your partner and lots of work. Every time you check an item off your to-do list, you see the red dot of unread texts calling you, but you resist. What happens eventually? You take a washroom break and quickly go through the texts and before you know it, you’ve been occupying the loo for over 30 minutes. On top of it, you’ve been texting in a hurried fashion saying things that you may regret later. That’s the sad part, but the bottom line is that controlling yourself and avoiding to make a decision also drain your willpower pushing you into decision fatigue.

How does it harm and why fix it?

When we experience decision fatigue, we start looking for shortcuts to call it a day and become slaves to our impulses. We may even decide to just postpone the work.

We’ve all had those days when we go on a diet with one cheat day which soon extends into a cheat week and a cheat month. Weighing nutrition with calories, our mood and the availability of the item is a plethora of decisions which warps our judgement and leaves us with bad habits and lasting consequences.

In the digital age, we are bombarded with information from all sides vying for our attention. Every second we are fighting temptation or a call to action. Ignoring them is also a choice we are making which depletes our mental energy. So, to save us from that, our brain forms shortcuts to arrive at decisions quickly. Psychology calls these shortcuts Cognitive Bias, and we all know, we don’t want to be biased.

As we saw in the case of judges and prisoners with parole hearings, there was no bias, but the fatigue forced the judges to stick to a safer (even if unfavourable) decision.

Baumeister’s team found that decision fatigue also results in underachievement, lack of persistence, lack of multitasking abilities, insomnia, emotional problems and even failure! This is our brain literally going into analysis paralysis. Imagine this on an organisational level – There will be bottlenecks and bad decision everywhere. The higher management wouldn’t be able to come up with innovative solutions. And even if they are proposed by the juniors, the management would find it difficult to assess risks and end up sticking to the tried-and-tested safe routes.

Finding a workaround decision fatigue

11 sure-shot ways to combat decision fatigue infographic
Download it as pdf with embedded links

Short-term strategies

  1. Make the most important decisions in the morning.
  2. Plan your to-dos the night before.
  3. Make simpler choices once and for all for less important tasks.
  4. Avoid making decisions on an empty stomach. Carry a granola bar with you.
  5. Don’t get hung up on perfection. Work with good-enough now and perfect it later.
  6. Pull back from chaos every day with a scheduled digital detox.
  7. Give your brain a break on weekends and indulge in a hobby.
  8. Batch your work and try the Pomodoro technique.

Long-term strategies

  1. Try a minimalistic lifestyle and reflect on your choices every once in a while.
  2. Evaluate your values and priorities. Don’t give in to your impulses.
  3. Turn your decisions into commitments. Schedule it in your calendar and stick to it.

Read in detail about them in this article.

For further reading –

Book: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

Related topics: Willpower – Ego Depletion – Cognitive Bias

Go to Psych-easy-pedia | Read articles on Decision Fatigue

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