22 January 2016

Decision Fatigue & Other Late-In-the-Day Maladies

Image of woman experiencing decision fatigue, filing her nails

I.  Decision Fatigue

Late in your workday, do you ever find yourself unable to make decisions, even simple ones? You may be suffering from decision fatigue, defined by Wikipedia as “. . . the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual, after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making.”

In a fascinating story in Fast Company Magazine about the strategies successful people use to get a lot done, Barack Obama is quoted: “The act of making a decision erodes your ability to make later decisions.”  One of the ways he avoids unnecessary decision fatigue is by eliminating unnecessary or trivial decisions.  He says, “‘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.” And to state the obvious, many of these “other decisions” are complex and difficult, with enormous impact on a great many people. He doesn’t want to use up his daily, finite amount of decision-making prowess on his clothing choices or whether to have the frittata or the tuna roll-up for lunch.  He’d rather keep that prowess available for the dicey and sensitive international diplomacy crisis that just developed.  Good plan, wouldn’t you agree?

What a strong argument for simplifying our lives!  Here are 2 (very) simple types of changes that can reduce your decision-making load:

  • Have the same breakfast every day for a week at a time; on Sunday decide on the breakfast for the week to come.
  • Schedule repeating tasks into your calendar and follow the schedule. Instead of winging it every month about when you’ll work on the monthly report, establish a routine: start working on the report the first Monday of the month and finish it by the Friday of that week. Keep your agreement to do this.  No more, “When am I going to do that report?”

How can you simplify or routinize your life so that you have fewer decisions to make on a regular basis and have a shot at less decision fatigue?  Most of us have so much change going on at all times — it can feel like a retro anomaly to have some regularly scheduled routines — but they can be a great support to your effectiveness and a relief to your overworked mind.

Here’s an article containing more of Barack Obama’s productivity habits.

II. Other Late-in-the-Day Maladies

No matter how simplified your life is, and no matter how strong your boundaries around unnecessary decision-making are, there will still be times when you feel like you are not doing your best work — you’re not thinking clearly, you’re going around and around the hamster wheel about something, you have to read every email 3 times before you actually pay attention to what you’re reading, you are unfocused, scattered.  Sound familiar? We all go there sometimes.  Here are some ideas for what you can do when you’re in that space and need to be productive;

  • Here is a link to a video demo of a breathing technique that can both clear and energize the mind. You can try a shortened version of what’s demonstrated in the video.
  • More short breathing techniques can be found at Amy Weintraub’s website; she is a great resource of breathing techniques to quiet anxiety or to energize a sluggish or depressed head.
  • Enjoy a handful of almonds and raisins, or some other snack of fruit and protein. A little protein and a little healthy sugar can revive a flagging worker bee. Try to actually taste and enjoy the snack, rather than just scarfing it down unconsciously.  Briefly tapping into your senses can be a nourishing relief from hours spent in your head.
  • Get outside and WALK, or in some other way get into your body. It can be grounding and energizing. Albert Einstein is said to have mused, No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” When you are buzzing around in your head and getting nowhere, get out of your head by leaving behind your task-list obsessed, get-it-done mindset by getting into your body. and breathing and moving.  Even 20 minutes can make a difference.  Have you ever solved a knotty work problem when you weren’t thinking about it?  It’s because you’re using a different part of your brain and can hear the quieter signals from other parts of you brain.
  • Sometimes a couple of cleansing breaths can clear the mind and bring you present and change your energy.
  • Then there’s caffeine.  But not all of us can (or should) continue consuming the volume of caffeine we did in our 20s.  Not to frighten you, but I’m down to 1/2 cup of coffee a day or my night’s sleep is disturbed.
  • Keep a list of low-level tasks that you are capable of doing even when your brain is fried. Sometimes nothing will get us energized and clear, so we can at least use the time to get something done.  My list: clean up my electronic desk and my physical desk, schedule appointments by phone or email, make calls I need to make to customer service or tech support.

Whatever works for you, work it!  YOU are the only one who can take responsibility for your efficiency. What helps you avoid decision fatigue?  What helps you get focused again once you are spacey and scattered?  Please share your ideas in a comment!