You’ve just worked your third 12-hour day in a row, with no sign of the craziness winding down in the days ahead, when a client calls you with yet another problem that needed to be solved — yesterday.
In that moment, it may seem like your brain simply gives up while your client is still on the line, waiting for you to provide another one of the quick, brilliant solutions that she’s come to depend on you for.
This moment of mental paralysis, or the inability to make an effective decision in a brief moment, even if it’s normally easy for you, is what’s known as decision fatigue. Psychologists who’ve studied decision fatigue have found that it can cause anything from indecisiveness to impulse purchases (a yellow jumpsuit — really?).
Because humans have a finite reserve of mental energy on a given day, when it’s exhausted we either make poor decisions or avoid making them altogether. And in this day and age of long hours, overflowing inboxes, and packed calendars, it’s no wonder we’re depleting these mental reserves more quickly than we can replenish them for optimal decision-making.
Decision-Making: It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
It seems that the more decisions we’re forced to make — and often the more weight these decisions carry — the more we can deplete our ability to sustain good judgment calls.
Think about it: How many decisions have you made, big or small, in first few hours of any given day? It begins with deciding what to eat for breakfast, what clothes to wear, and what music to listen to on the way to work.
From there, decisions and their consequences grow in number and significance. Just think about the number of emails you receive and the decisions you need to make around how to respond, what to prioritize, whether to delegate to a colleague. Your inbox alone can be an overwhelming example of decision fatigue.
But, since none of these decisions is going anywhere, it’s important to learn how to avoid burnout and manage your mental energy effectively. To get started, try following a few tried-and-true decision-making guidelines.
First Things First
Each evening, anticipate what, if any, major decisions you’ll need to make the next day, such as approving a budget or selecting a vendor. Then, try to organize your day as much as possible so that you can make these decisions early on during the morning, before your reserves are depleted.
If an important request or question comes up in the late afternoon or evening when you already feel run ragged, flag it as a to-do for early the next day when your brain is refreshed and you’ve had some time to process it.
Replace Decisions with Commitments
It’s 6 p.m., and you promised yourself you’d go to the gym after work. But now you’re leaving the office late, your stomach is starting to rumble, and you opt for watching House of Cards on the couch instead of cardio.
Now imagine if you’d made a nonnegotiable contract with yourself to hit the gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. By committing to and scheduling the gym, there’s no decision to make: Working out is already a part of your day that you’ve determined you’ll make happen.
You can do the same thing throughout your day or week. For example, try laying out your wardrobe on Sunday evening for the week ahead (making note of the weather forecast and any special occasions) so you won’t be stuck in a panic each morning, wondering what to wear.
Make Space in Your Schedule
Give yourself some time between meetings to let your brain process the information you received so that you’re able to offer up good decisions in subsequent sessions. Try scheduling meetings for 45 minutes instead of an hour, allowing 15 minutes for reflection and as a mental break ahead of your next appointment. And definitely don’t schedule meetings right before lunch or at the very end of the day when people’s decision-making capabilities and attention span are typically low.
And speaking of lunch, now’s the time to finally quit eating lunch at your desk and get out of the office! This switches your mental gears, releasing your mind from the grip of your to-do list, and lets you come back to it with a fresh perspective, helping replenish your decision-making capabilities for the next part of your day.
Your mom always said never to make an important decision on an empty stomach, and it turns out that isn’t bad advice. If you know you’ll have to be making decisions late in the day, snack after lunch to make sure your brain is receiving the energy it needs to run on.
In the end, one of the best defenses you can have against decision fatigue is simply knowing it exists and how it works. Mastering optimal decision-making in spite of this can help you make better decisions consistently and avoid the negative consequences that come with inadvertent bad judgment calls.