How To Avoid Decision Fatigue

Cardiff | California

A big part of the reason why I recommend systems and routines for productivity and a calm mind comes back to this concept of decision fatigue. I use that as a broad term, but basically what I means is: our ability as humans to make good decisions erodes, as we get tired.

Think of it like an energy bar in a video game. You start with a full bar when you wake up in the morning and every time you make a decision the energy bar will lower a bit.

Decision Fatigue

When that bar gets low, we default to our routines, habits and systems.  By setting up the right routines & habits, we can not only reduce the amount of decisions we need to make, but also safeguard ourselves against bad decision making.

Ideally, in a perfect world, we would never let our energy bars reach that low level and so we will discuss a few ways to prevent against this as well.

I think it is also important to understand why we want to avoid decision fatigue.  If you make a decision when fatigued you will most likely do 1 of following 3 things:

1.  Act impulsively- When talking about decision-making, this can be dangerous and can lead to a failed business, lost money, increased fat and so on if extrapolated over time.  In addition, it can lead to decreased happiness when you experience regret or buyer’s remorse.

2.  Do nothing- Sometimes not a bad option actually, but it can also lead to not actually getting things done because you cannot make the needed decisions to move forward. In psychology and marketing, this is often called the Paradox of Choice. Basically when there are too many choices, and/or, in this case, also not enough decision-making power, the default will be to not choose at all.

3.  Default to your habits- It makes sense when you cannot make any more decisions, your brain wants to shut down to recharge, so you go on autopilot and your life runs on the habits you have created. If those are good habits then you are probably ok for a little while, but if they are bad habits then you may start seeing less than positive results.

Regardless, this is not a state we want to be in for too long.  Remember much of what we talk about is living a “deliberate” life.  This means not just going through our days on autopilot, but rather making sure that we have the mental capacity and willpower to make those deliberate decisions throughout the day.

 

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I first heard about this concept in a podcast from Tim Ferriss outlining an old article he had written called the “choice minimal lifestyle.”

It discusses using the MED or “minimum effective dose” which Tim talks about often and which you also see frequently in medicine. For example. You only want to give a patient the MED for a given outcome. Any less and you may not get the desired result, say elimintaing an ailment. Any more and you may get undesired side effects, such as reduced immune system function.

“There is a tangible biological price to pay for every decision you make” -Tim Ferriss

The same is true when making decisions.  You ideally want to make the minimum number of decisions needed to achieve the desired result, in this case, living the life you want and achieving your goals. If you make too few decisions, you may not get there. If you make too many decisions you will not have the proper amount of brain power to make the right decisions at the right time.

More is not always better, you will find this is a recurring theme on this blog and it certainly rings true for decision-making.  In addition to simply making good decisions, however, there is more at stake.

If you are overwhelmed or drained, this is also going to throw off your mental state and thus reduce your quality of life and mental state (gratefulness, appreciation, happiness) as well.  All of a sudden this just became a much larger game, your happiness is on the line.

Before we talk about strategies to avoid and prevent this fatigue from happening, let’s take a look at an interesting case study which illustrates this concept nicely.

CASE STUDY – Israeli Prison System

In a study recently conducted at the University of Negev in Israel in collaboration with Columbia Business School.

The study looks at parole board decisions in the Israeli prison system and the impact that the decision fatigue faced by the judges had on the outcomes of parole hearings.  The research documented a 10-month time period in which judges presided over 1,112 parole hearings.  The results are eye-opening.

While we would like to believe that all criminal and civil cases in our courts and the courts around the world are judged simply on merit and true interpretation of the law, the results point elsewhere.  They showed that all sorts of “outside factors” played a major role in the outcomes of the parolees.

In short what the study found was that early in the day, the likelihood that a parolee would get a favorable ruling was about 65%.  As time passed, however, the judges became noticeably drained by making decisions and the percentage of a favorable ruling dropped almost down to zero!

After a taking a break for food, however, the judges would return with renewed energy (shown below by the dotted lines) and decision making power and the favorable ruling percentage would jump right back up to 65%. Then, like clockwork, as the day progressed, the favorable ruling percentage would again plummet back down to zero.

See below.

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 2.14.43 PM

Sourced From: PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy 
of Sciences)  Volume 108 | Number 17

Regardless of the crime, the pattern held.  If you were scheduled first thing in the morning or directly after a lunch break you were much more likely to get paroled.  If your hearing was scheduled at the end of the day or right before a break, there was little to no chance of a favorable ruling, regardless of the merits of the case or crime committed.

The implications are astounding, think about the decisions being made in courts every day, all over the world, good and bad, simply because people are decision fatigued.  Now think about the implications in your life and how simply armed with this knowledge, you can set yourself up for better decision making across the board.

The end goal for this post, aside from understanding decision fatigue, is to set up your life to minimize or eliminate unnecessary decisions so that you have the appropriate amount of brainpower to make good decisions and implement the needed willpower when needed. The idea is to reduce decisions in much the same way a scientist would “control their variables” in an experiment.

As a fallback, by creating the appropriate routines & habits we also hedge against making bad decisions, as our default will also be designed for good choices.

How To Avoid Decision Fatigue-

Ok, so now that you understand the goals and the basic premise, let’s dive into some actual scenarios on how to avoid it and note that some of the ideas here are paraphrased and expanded ideas from some existing writing on the topic.

Create routines for decision heavy parts of your day

  • The morning routine  may actually be the most important because it tee’s up the rest of your day and has the potential to either leave you energized and ready to make good decisions, or leave you feeling drained and already behind the 8 ball in terms of mental capacity.
    • Instead of going deep into what to include in your routines here, I created a series of posts I affectionately refer to as “The Path”
      The Morning Routine
      Mid-day Reset
      Finishing The Workday Well
      Evening Routine
    • You can even find extreme examples of top performers (Steve Jobs for one) who even wore the same clothes every day so they could reserve that small amount of decision-making power for more important decisions.
  • Creating Failsafe “Recipes” For Success-Much of what you are trying to do by creating a solid routine is eliminate decision-making through prior planning that has been thought out and analyzed. This way you can make good decisions without using brainpower in the moment.

Checklists

Another great way to accomplish this is by setting up checklists for certain tasks throughout your day. Checklists are great for tasks or procedures where missing a step can affect the outcome. Builders and pilots use checklists for this very reason; they cannot afford to make a mistake.

In reality, it’s probably something you should be using a lot of in your business anyways to create your SOP Manual (standard operating procedures). If you do not have simple or repeatable processes for new employees to learn and follow, then it’s going to be hard to grow as you have no roadmap and it’s going to hurt when you lose a key employee who kept everything in their head, so checklists serve your business two fold.

Use If/Then-

Akin to the checklist is the automation action. In Internet marketing, we call this an if/then statement. With many of the new marketing software available today, you can set up your marketing response rules for a certain prospect to perform certain actions when a prospect exhibits a certain characteristic.  So if this, then that.

Examples in the marketing world would be.

  • If the client opens this email, then send them a text message.
  • If they buy a product then, send them a series of customer-specific messages. 

In your life, you can also create these types of rules.

  • If I haven’t worked out in 48 hours I will go to the gym after work.
  • If I am running behind I will meditate for 10 minutes instead of 20.
  • If I get paid an extra $3000 this month then I put x amount into these accounts.

These are just examples, but you can extend these to all aspects of your life and work.  Start small with this as it can become overwhelming and the goal is not to pre-plan your whole life, just the things that might take up a lot of decision power, so pick 2-3 of them that you run into a lot in your life and simply create the if/then statement for that situation and implement as necessary.

 

Have a Protocol for Making Small Decisions-

Regardless of what we like to tell ourselves in the moment, the majority of decisions we face in our lives are small and meaningless. That said we often spend an inordinate amount of time deliberating and planning on small decisions, so the goal here is to start making smaller, less critical, decisions quicker.

  • If the decision will not affect you monetarily either way for less than X amount (set by you) then make the decision quickly knowing that you saved currency in the form of brainpower, something along those lines. Even if you lost a small amount of money by making the decision quickly you saved yourself countless decision making power, stress, time and over-analyzation that could be put towards better decisions later on and the time used to generate more income.
  • The same with decisions about where to eat, what to wear, what movie to watch, or whether or not to go on a certain vacation.  Make a choice quicker and you will have more brainpower to work with and actually enjoy the results of your decisions.The same is true again for decisions with your time and agreement with other people.
  • If you don’t want to go to a party, say no upfront. Don’t say maybe and then deliberate over it all week and worry about what you are going to say, simply make a decision and stick to it. This reduction in “open loops” in your life will result in a more completed feeling at the end of the day knowing there is not something that “still must be decided later.”
  • One last note on opening loops.  If you cannot effectively make a decision or address something now, don’t open that loop either.

4 Steps To Reducing Decision Fatigue

Tim gives the example of knowing if you open your email on Saturday, there will be something that you cannot address till Monday, so why open that loop until you can actually address it? I am not suggesting that you avoid work or problems.   On contrary, all I am saying is simply address them only when you can actually do something about them and then do it swiftly.

When talking about longer-term decisions, sure take some time, but don’t over analyze, as the psychological cost is real.  The key thing to remember is we can’t control the future anyways; so spending time worrying about possible variables of the future in decision-making is pointless.

Spend some time to do your research and make the best informed and educated decision you can at the time, move forward and let the chips fall where they may while you go enjoy life.

If you are constantly second-guessing or worrying about your decisions you are going to consume all of your mental power on things that you cannot control anyways! Worrying and regret are both forms of decision-making, albeit the ineffective kind. You cannot change a decision you made in the past, it’s done, none of your brainpower is affecting the outcome. Always keep moving forward.

    1. Do Your Most Important Work First-If our decision-making ability is most effective in the morning, then it makes sense to schedule in your most important work at that time.  Notice I said schedule in.  If you leave this to fate, someone will inevitably try to book a meeting, ask you a question or something of the sort.  If you schedule that time just like any other important meeting then you ensure that you get your most important work done every day.  This is a little trick out of Gary Keller’s Book “The One Thing” which is on my book recommendation list for productivity.
    2. “Reset” Before Big Decisions-Every wonder why you make bad decisions at the grocery store when you go in hungry?  Sure, maybe it’s because you are actually hungry, but it’s probably also because your mental capacity to make a good decision is drained as well.  Simply look what happened in the case study above after food breaks.  Fairly simple fix right, just eat before you go.The example is not just for grocery shopping however, it rings true for all decisions, especially big ones when you might already be depleted.  So how can you “reset” the ability to make a proper decision?  Let’s discuss…

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How to Recharge Your Decision Making Power-

It is absolutely possible to recharge your energy bar (as illustrated in the case study above), let’s discuss.

Arguably the most effective and ready to make decisions you will ever be is in the mornings. An extended period of sleep resets your energy meter and as your body and mind recharge, so does that meter.

Now, we cannot always take always take a multi hour nap mid-day, but most of us can usually take 10-20 minutes to reset the meter. I call it a mid-day reset.

A mid-day reset is a great way to get a quick charge in for your decision making and willpower in a short period of time, here is what it looks like.

I would recommend doing this right before lunch actually. Find a quiet place. Remove all phones and screens or at least turn them off for 10-20 minutes and follow the same meditation procedure laid out in the “The Simple Mans Guide to Meditation” post. If you need to make it shorter, you can but the goal is at least 10 minutes. Only have time for 3-5 minutes? Still better than nothing, do it.

Once you have meditated, then head to lunch (I would recommend greens, a lean protein and complex carbs). So something like a chicken salad and sweet potatoes or avocado would work well. After lunch, walk or do some sort of activity to warm up your body and wake up the mind again for at least 5 minutes and you are back in action so it looks like this.

After lunch, walk or do some sort of activity to warm up your body and wake up the mind again for at least 5 minutes and you are back in action so it looks like this.

1. Meditate (10-20 minutes)
2. Lunch (20-30 minutes)
3. Walk (5-10 minutes)

Still the same amount of time for your lunch hour but now it is used much more deliberate and you will get much better decisions and productivity out of the second half of your day.

If you take a late lunch usually, try to fit the meditation in a few hours earlier so you essentially get two mini resets throughout your day. Take lunch and a short walk for one and meditate for the other, two solid resets.  Don’t have time to meditate at all?  At least eat something and sit quietly for a few minutes without noise, computers or inputs.

These resets allow you to reclaim a portion of your decision making power and mental capacity as long as you allow the mind to recharge. If you are taking phone calls through lunch or constantly on your email, you’re are not going to get the benefit.

I would actually recommend to not even take your phone to lunch if you don’t have to. We are very conditioned and tethered to our phones in every moment of downtime. Take a look next time you are on the bus or train, in a line at the supermarket or at the table at a restaurant.

What is everyone doing? When you take a step back its actually quite shocking sometimes, we are all latched onto these small electronic devices and any moment our brain has downtime, we fill it with these devices to keep the inputs coming so we do not have to be with ourselves for a few moments.

Now if you absolutely have to take your phone, ok, put it on vibrate and leave it in your pocket for the important call you have to take.  If there is no real NEED to take it, make the conscious choice to leave it in your desk. The smartphone may be on the most decision fatiguing devices we have in our lives, not to mention potentially the most happiness draining as well depending on how you use it .

This is a “reset” so take this short amount of time away from the overwhelming amount of data and inputs thrown at us daily through TV, radio, email, work, and the internet. Simply having a lack of outside stimuli for half an hour or so is going to allow you reclaim some of that mental capacity so you are able to approach the rest of your day with more awareness and energy.

 

Conclusion-

Decision fatigue is real.

Almost all world-class performers, whether they know it or not, have a way of focusing their decision-making power and maintaining their mental capacity to be able to make the right decisions at the right time. Everyone from hedge fund managers to tech entrepreneurs to top athletes utilize techniques and routines to live their lives more deliberately and be ready to make the big decisions that matter.

The good news is now you can too. Start experimenting with the concepts and ideas above and implementing them in your own life, seeing how they affect your results. Remember, 1 day is not a relevant data set, although my guess is, if you apply the principles outlined above you will start to see and feel results right away.

Have questions or want to share your experience? Ask away or share in the comments below and I’ll respond to as many as I can.

Talk soon,

Mat

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