Did you know that if you were a prisoner up for parole, you’re more likely to be set free if your hearing is in the morning versus the afternoon? Well, it’s the truth and it’s due to a phenomenon called decision fatigue. See, deciding to let a criminal go who may re-commit a crime is difficult. It requires a lot of analysis and thought—it’s mentally taxing. As a judge, you want to make a good and fair decision, keeping in mind the rights of the prisoner and the safety of the public. The safe and easy decision is to say no to parole—regardless of how fair the decision is—and research has shown that as the day progresses, favorable rulings from judges drop from a peak of 65% to almost zero by the end of a session.
What this means for you is that the quality of your decision making deteriorates as the number of decisions you make increase. If you think to yourself, well, a judge is a special case in that he’s making decisions all day long, stop to think about your daily routine. Here’s mine: wake up, choose between instant oatmeal or yogurt, chai tea or coffee, it’s 68 degrees outside – do I choose a long or short-sleeve shirt, comb my hair or put on my groovy driver’s cap, and this is before I even leave for work. You could probably count dozens of decisions you make every morning. Every time you decide, even on seemingly mundane things, it saps you of just a little bit of your judgement ability.
Effects of Decision Fatigue
Poor quality and impulsive decisions are some of the main effects of decision fatigue. When we’re exhausted from making choices, we become less willing to make trade-offs—which are special decision types wherein each potential choice has both positives and negatives. These decisions are particularly taxing.
Imagine working with a computer vendor for your business, wherein you have to select the processor you want, how much memory, what kind of pre-installed software, size of the screen, etc. You’ve made a slew of decisions, some of them trade-offs, and now you’re about to sign the contract and the salesman offers you a one-time warranty for the fleet of computers. You probably don’t need the warranty, as it’s above and beyond the manufacturer’s warranty, but you’re so exhausted from decision fatigue that you can’t make one more trade off. So you buy it, even though it doesn’t make economic sense.
The same principle applies at the grocery store. After you’ve spent half an hour making decisions about what to buy and what not to, you are that much more susceptible to those candy bar impulse buys at the checkout stand.
Another effect is decision avoidance. If you’ve ever been out shopping for a particular item and found yourself overwhelmed by the options, only to walk out of the store empty handed, then you’ve experienced decision avoidance. The same can happen in the workplace. When there are dozens of options for next steps in a particular process, you may find yourself avoiding making a decision because it’s just too burdensome to choose. In a nutshell, decision making kills your willpower.
Impaired self-regulation is a particularly insidious effect of decision fatigue. If you’re dealing with a particularly difficult co-worker or client, you’re more likely to communicate in a diplomatic manner before having to make a bunch of choices throughout your day. If you wait until the end of the day, you’re much more likely to unleash that fomenting diatribe you’ve had brewing in your head, one that has you frantically searching for an “undo” button to retract it after you’ve clicked send.
Combating Decision Fatigue
Awareness is one step in avoiding the mental fatigue of decision making. By realizing how it affects us, we can better prepare ourselves mentally for those situations in which we might be susceptible to its effects.
The other is to reduce the amount of unnecessary decisions in our lives, like President Obama does: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” The president isn’t the only one trying to combat decision making through his wardrobe. Iconic figures such as Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Michael Kors all stick to their wardrobe staples. When a fashion mogul like Kors decides to wear the same thing every day, you know there must be something to this decision-reduction philosophy.
Of course wearing the same thing every day may seem drastic, but the principle is essentially to cut out decision making where it isn’t absolutely necessary. Having a regular place to eat at lunch, or deciding to wear the same jacket every day can all have a cumulative effect.
Likewise, stop deliberating about meaningless decisions. With the sheer quantity of options we have everyday, it is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to optimize every single decision. But determining the absolute best choice is mentally exhausting, and ultimately less satisfying. By approaching more of our decisions with a “good enough” mentality, we’re actually happier with our choices. As described in The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, the more options we have, the more we think we can make a “perfect” decision. Then when we ultimately discover that even our best intentioned choice has drawbacks, too, we feel even more dissatisfied. Learn to “satisfice”, or accept a particular option as being satisfactory, for optimal happiness and less decision fatigue.
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