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Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? Try These 6 Strategies

12/02/2014 01:32 EST | Updated 02/01/2015 05:59 EST
peshkov via Getty Images

Do you ever feel completely exhausted near the end of a workday after making countless decisions in meetings, phone calls, emails and even with text messages? Your desk is still littered with paper. Your inbox still has dozens of unanswered emails and you only got through half your to-do list. By mid-afternoon or evening, any decision you make -- no matter how small or big -- is likely to be a bad one. You are probably suffering from decision fatigue.

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Decision fatigue is a psychological condition, where a person's decisions degrade due to mental exhaustion after a long session of decision-making. In their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, argue that every decision -- no matter how big or small -- zaps a part of your mental energy and willpower. Decision fatigue, resulting in poor choices, happens because you have used up what is a finite amount of willpower in a given day.

Baumeister and Tierney further explain:

"The problem of decision fatigue affects everything from the careers of CEOs to the prison sentences of felons appearing before weary judges. It influences the behavior of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, every day. Yet few people are even aware of it. ... They don't realize that decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at their colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket, and can't resist the car dealer's offer to rustproof their new sedan."

If decision fatigue affects everyone, then poor choices can happen anywhere with colleagues, customers, family, friends and acquaintances.

The following six strategies will help you tackle decision fatigue and make better decisions.

1. Conserve energy by automating trivial decisions

Automating decisions into routines like automatic monthly bill payments, eating the same meals every day and wearing the same outfits reduce the numbers of decisions. Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and President Obama had something in common: they all believed in wearing the same thing to work everyday.

When asked why he wears the same grey T-shirt to work, Zuckerberg's said,

"I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything, except how to best serve this community. And there's actually a bunch of psychology theory that even making small decisions around what you wear, or what you eat for breakfast, or things like that, they kind of make you tired and consume your energy."

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Similarly, President Obama in an interview with Michael Lewis in 2012 said in Vanity Fair:

"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. It's why shopping is so exhausting. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can't be going through the day distracted by trivia."

2. Simplify choices and ask for help

Whether you are buying jam, a car, a computer or an electronics gadget, research shows that having fewer choices is good for the customer and the merchant. When customers have too many choices, they find it hard to decide and defer the decision.

In one study, Baumeister and Tierney describe three groups that were asked to evaluate buying a computer on the self-service website for Dell Computers.

One group was asked to study the advantages and disadvantages of various computers like screen type and size of hard drive. They did not have to make any decisions. A second group was given a detailed list of predetermined options and asked to find and click on each option. While both the first and second group took time, neither had to make any decisions. The third group, a control group was asked to do much more and make all decisions. They had to select the best option for each computer part like type of motherboard, screen size and resolution, hard drive type and size, memory sizes, battery type and so on. Not surprisingly, the third group was the most depleted. They became frustrated with the countless choices and switched to choosing default options, something most of us do when mentally tired.

At Manawa, we noticed the same pattern. Customers expect their needs to be clearly understood and met. We ask about short and long-term goals for each department and the company. Finally, we present two or three big picture options and remove the small details and decisions (unless they ask for it). They appreciate and trust our expertise in presenting options that quickly help them make a few decisions.

3. Eat during breaks

Willpower is like a muscle in that the body and gets tired when it is overworked without breaks. Baumeister and Tierney report that eating three meals a day and during breaks rejuvenates willpower and helps us make better choices. Specifically, a low-glycemic diet prevents big spikes in glucose levels because it takes longer for the body to absorb.

In a study of Israeli judges reviewing parole applications, researchers examined 1,100 decisions:

"The study found that, at the beginning of the day, each applicant had a 70 percent chance of parole. Over the course of a few hours of back-to-back deliberations, the odds of a prisoner receiving parole dropped to virtually zero."

What is surprising is what happened after lunch and breaks in the morning and afternoon.

"After the judges took a mid-morning break to rest and eat a snack, the rate jumped back to 70 percent. The same pattern played out again before and after lunch."

When a judge's glucose level was replenished after a food break, prisoners had a two-thirds chance of receiving parole. Prisoners with similar sentences and time served had a less than 10 per cent chance of receiving parole if they appeared before breaks, lunch or near the end of day.

4. Make To-Do lists realistic are actionable

We live in a to-do list society. People when asked can come up with a list of 10 to 15 goals quickly. However, lists have two major shortcomings.

First, the bigger the list, the easier it is to have conflicting goals. For example, being a better parent may conflict with spending more time with your spouse. While there are bound to be some conflicts, minimize them. Goals that conflict, according to Baumeister and Tierney, lead to unhappiness and inaction. The second shortcoming is that To-Do items are often vague and fuzzy. "Birthday gift for Mom," or "do taxes" are too complicated and lead to inaction. There is no clear next action step. Next actions like "drive to jewelry store" or "call accountant" are clear and easy.

Najieb Nabil, a Manawa associate, is a fan of David Allen's Getting Things Done system. At the end of each day, he creates various lists for each client, which are broken into sub-tasks with specific next action steps. He knows his day will be interrupted many times. After each interruption, he refers to a list, performs the next action and checks it off. He updates his lists using Dropbox because they are accessible from any device at any time.

The main takeaway is to make your to-do lists short, actionable and minimize the number of conflicting goals.

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5. Do small willpower workouts

Baumeister and Tierney suggest doing small workouts to practice self-control and strengthen your willpower.

In one study, students, who were prone to slouching, were asked to sit up straight every time they noticed they were slouching for a period of two weeks. The students most diligent in correcting their posture had the biggest improvement in boosting their willpower. Moreover, the students saw improvement in other tasks that were unrelated to posture. The authors suggest simple exercises like using your weaker hand when performing certain tasks, finding a workout buddy to go to the gym at the same time and changing your speech habits by not saying words like 'eh', 'yeah, 'yup', 'nah', 'nope' and 'like'. (This is taught at Toastmasters International, the nonprofit professional development group.)

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6. Use Self-self regulation technology

With the explosion of smartphone apps and the rise of wearable technology, more people are using technology to help monitor their behavior and make better decisions. By monitoring how you spend your time on different activities, better decisions and habits are possible.

The range of things companies offer to help you electronically monitor yourself is endless. They include monitoring habits about budgeting, spending, weight, sleep, exercise and how you spend time on the Internet, the computer and your phone. In order to use these services, you must give away some of your privacy to these companies. If you have concerns about how your data will be used, talk to friends, search discussion forums and ask the companies directly. The website Quantified Self was created in 2008 for collaboration between customers and the makers of self-tracking tools. They meet regularly in cities globally and have a Toronto chapter.

Decision fatigue is a fact of life. Start out by picking a strategy for a week and see what happens. Then move to another strategy. Pretty soon, you will learn how to strengthen your willpower and make good decisions at any time in the day.