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Beyond Decision Fatigue: How Managing Decisions Can Help or Hurt Your Productivity

By Jill Duffy · May 15, 2018
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We all make important decisions, sometimes daily, yet there's a mystique about being called a decision maker. That label crowns one with power, especially when used in the workplace. It signals authority, leadership status, and influence. Decision makers shape the business, and the most successful ones seem to get stronger with each decision they make.

For the rest of us, however, making decisions doesn't always leave us feeling empowered. There's a dark side to decisions: Making too many of them can suck us dry, leading to lower productivity and greater unhappiness.

Decision paralysis
Decision paralysis, courtesy of xkcd, https://xkcd.com/1801/

People often summarize the decision fatigue phenomenon like this: The more decisions we make, the more it depletes us and therefore decreases our ability to make good decisions. Therefore, the logic goes, if we make fewer decisions of any kind, we'll be better off.

While there's a nugget of truth to it, decisions aren't simple and neither is the human behavior wrapped up in making them. By knowing the different types of decisions and how to approach them, you can feel empowered when making decisions, rather than drained.

Not All Decisions Are Equal

There's tremendous variety in the decisions we face. Any one of the following questions is a call to make a decision, but they require vastly different amounts of thought and energy to answer:

  • Would you prefer still or sparkling water?

  • How can we cut 15 percent of the budget, given this financial audit?

  • What should the organization's primary goals be this year?

Rule-Based Decisions

Sometimes, we're asked to decide on something that has a clear-cut answer. Often, it's a rule-based decision, meaning if you drew up a rubric, you'd be able to make the decision quickly and usually with little room for deviation. With the question, "Would you prefer still or sparkling water?" I always prefer sparkling water when it's complimentary, but I'd rather have still water if the sparkling water is too expensive. What's considered "too expensive" in this particular establishment? I can work my way through this rubric and come to an answer quickly.

If it truly doesn't matter, don't dedicate any of your brain power to it

Rule-based decisions are all over the workplace. Think of a telephone support person who follows a script to provide help to customers or someone who processes invoices. Even a question as routine as, "Should I archive this email?" can be answered with rules or a flowchart. If the contents of the email are resolved, then yes. If the contents are not resolved, then no. Your decision-making tree might have more branches, but that's the general idea.

Higher-Order Decision

What about the examples of cutting a budget or shaping the goals for an organization? These are tough decisions that require more than a rubric to answer. To make these decisions, we need not just more time but also higher-order skills, such as judgment, creativity, and emotional intelligence. There's no snappy name for these types of decisions, so let's just call them higher-order decisions.

  • Can I trim a little funding from each department, which will add stress across the entire organization, or should I eliminate positions, which will hurt morale?

  • In creating goals for the organization, how do I make them achievable while also keeping board members and investors happy?

Group Decisions

Another difference among decisions comes down to how many people must agree on them. The question of still or sparkling is a no-brainer if you're alone, but it's likely to become a group decision if you're at the table with friends.

Anyone experienced at working on a team knows that group decisions can be double-edged swords. Certain decisions benefit from groupthink, while at other times it's more a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. It's hard to know when a team lead or senior team member should be decisive for the sake of the group or if making decisions as a committee would lead to a better outcome.

Your Willpower Is a Muscle

Willpower plays a large part in decision-making. In one experiment, researcher Roy Baumeister, who coined the term "ego depletion," shows how willpower is like a muscle. He and his colleagues found that the more we use our willpower in a short period, the more we tire it out. When our willpower is tired, we're more likely to make choices that are not in our best interest, because willpower takes a backseat to desire.

One of the most famous experiments Baumeister and his colleagues did is known as the chocolate and radish experiment. The participants were made to see and smell chocolate chip cookies alongside other sweets. One group was asked not to eat them and instead have some radishes. Another group was told they could eat the cookies. And a control group skipped the food part entirely.

Afterward, the subjects took a test that measures their persistence, measured in part by how many attempts they made at solving puzzles.

On average, the radish eaters made fewer attempts and gave up faster than the other groups. The theory is that their willpower had already been exercised and made tired by not eating the cookies, leaving them with less resolve for the other task.

When our willpower is tired, we're more likely to make choices that are not in our best interest

(Speaking of cookies, Baumeister has gone on to study the role of glucose in our ability to exercise willpower. It doesn't negate his work on ego depletion, but it does indicate that in some situations, we're able to boost willpower by simply drinking a glass of sugary lemonade.)

Willpower can play a role in making some types of decisions, but not all decision rely on it. Think again about trimming a budget. That kind of decision doesn't rely on willpower at all. But when willpower is needed, it's good to know that using it affects our ability to continue using it.

Too Many Options Makes Us Unhappy

Barry Schwartz's book The Paradox of Choice goes to great lengths to explain why having too many choices can lead to greater unhappiness. The thrust of his argument centers around consumerism and the belief in the U.S. in particular that an abundance of options is a manifestation of freedom. "I can have anything I want."

"Choices" here means options, not decisions. For example, you can have your choice of 50 salad dressings, or you can choose which universities to apply to among the thousands around the world.

When we face too many options, we become prone to decision paralysis

Numerous studies show, however, that having too many choices rarely results in better outcomes. Columbia University researchers found, over several experiments,that having fewer choices leads to better results and greater satisfaction. In one of the experiments, students could opt in to writing an essay for extra credit after choosing from either six or 30 potential topics. Those who faced fewer choices from the outset were more likely to take on the assignment, and they wrote higher quality papers on average than those who faced more choices. In another one of the studies, subjects got to choose gourmet chocolate from either a small or extensive selection. After some time had passed, those who picked from the smaller pool were more satisfied and felt less regret about their decision.

TLDR: When we face too many options, we become prone to decision paralysis and we worry more about whether we made the right choice. It creates unnecessary stress, and guess what happens when we cope with more stress? Our resources get depleted. We go into resource-protection mode. And our resulting decisions and overall productivity suffer as a result.

So how can we make better decisions, in light of all of these obstacles?

Should You Minimize Trivial Decisions?

One way to combat decision fatigue is to eliminate the tedious, regular decisions you have to make every day. Former President President Obama, for example, shared in a Vanity Fair article, why he only wears 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 late Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and author who helped humanize neurological diseases through storytelling, used to eat exactly the same foods in precisely the same quantities every day. This tactic eliminated not only needless choices, but also the need to self-regulate when eating. By making the quantity the same at each meal, there was never an option to overeat.

Author and former business executive Seth Godin similarly recommends cutting out choices, noting that he believes the difference between a choice and a decision is that a choice is trivial. The suggestion is if it truly doesn't matter, don't dedicate any of your brain power to it at all.

The point is not to throw out all your clothes or dump all the lovely condiments from your refrigerator, but rather to consider what kinds of routine decision you make that are trivial to you, and which you could be better off eliminating.

How to Make Better Decisions

How can we take what we know about decisions, choices, stress, resources, and willpower to create some guidelines that will direct us toward better decision-making skills?

Steer Clear of a Wealth of Choices

It might be impossible to avoid the wealth of choices we have in the world, but we can improve how we interact with them. If you can narrow down your list of options before you even consider any of them, you'll start with a smaller pool. Maybe you'll decide to only apply to universities in your home state. Or perhaps you can narrow down the options on a menu by deciding to eat vegetarian today. Make the pool smaller before you consider the choices.

Rely on Rules and Rubrics

When rules exist or you can create them, use them! Decision made by rubric use up very few resources. One study showed that when people were sleep-deprived, their decision-making powers weren't significantly affected, so long as they were making decisions that weren't complicated, such as rule-based decisions and planning.

That wasn't the case for decisions that used higher-order thinking.

Keep in mind, too, that when rules don't exist, sometimes you can create them. "New rule: I only wear black or blue suits," or "Every workout starts with 15 minutes on the treadmill."

Delegate When It Makes Sense

You can delegate decisions the same way you delegate tasks. By giving responsibility for decision-making to other people, you reduce the number of decisions on your plate. Managers can delegate some decisions to employees. Parents can delegate to children. There are even times when we can delegate to friends and family. "I'd love if you would choose the playlist for the party." "We went to a restaurant I picked last time, so why don't you choose this time?" When done right, delegating decision-making can empower people and show them that you trust them.

Take Breaks

Taking breaks, including short internet surfing breaks refreshes our mental facilities. Breaks help us manage stress by giving us a moment to rebuild resources. The ability to surf online for a few minutes has also shown to give people a feeling of autonomy and increases loyalty. When you're pushed to make a lot of decisions in succession, give yourself pause by taking a few minutes to yourself from time to time.

Sleep Well, Stay Comfortable

Whether you get sufficient sleep affects your ability to make tough, higher-order decisions. Sufficient sleep means an adequate amount of restful sleep for your body and during hours that are suitable to your internal clock. It also means getting enough rest consistently, as sleep deficits can impair judgment. Similar to getting sufficient sleep, we tend to be more productive when we're in a comfortable environment. That may sound like common sense, but people easily get inured to offices that feel too cold or too hot. If you're distracted by your discomfort in the environment, it's worth it to move to a different space.

Expend Energy on Hard Decisions

Spend your energy making hard decisions that require emotional data and promise high payoff. Then let unimportant decisions go so that you have the reserves to make the tough decisions.

When It's Choice or No Choice, Something Is Better Than Nothing

Despite our fraught relationship with decision-making, we humans still cherish having options. We enjoy it! The key to making good decisions is knowing how different types of decisions affect us, day in and day out, and which ones deserve more attention than others so we can stay productive.

Read more: 7 mental models to help you make better business decisions

Title image via totemisottapa

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