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How to stop decision fatigue sabotaging your productivity

Last updated on 
May 6, 2020

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Every single day, we make a multitude of decisions at work – from the practicalities of our schedule, to the substance of our interactions and progress. While these may be small, when taken in sum these decisions can quickly exhaust us, leading to decision fatigue. It’s something nearly all of us have experienced, often without realizing it. But how exactly does decisions fatigue work and how can we stop it from sapping our productivity?

What is decision fatigue?

Decision fatigue simply relates to the drop in mental energy experienced after making too many decisions. Since the mental resources and energy we use to make decisions are finite, the more decisions we make, the weaker our ability to weigh up options and make considered choices becomes.

“No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.” – John Tierney

But unlike physical fatigue, with decision fatigue we often aren’t even aware that we’re running low on energy. This causes our brains to look for shortcuts – leading us to either make reckless decisions or save energy by making no decisions whatsoever.

Perhaps the best known example of decision fatigue relates to a study on parole hearing rulings. The study found that the single most influential factor in whether or not someone received parole wasn’t the crime itself, or the length of the sentence, but the time of the hearing. Parole was much more likely to be denied when the hearing was at the end of the day, rather than early in the morning. Essentially, the more fatigued the judges became, the less likely they were to grant parole.

Decision fatigue is linked to what psychologist Roy F. Baumeister called “ego depletion”, the idea that our willpower is limited and we make bad decisions once it's depleted. Working for long periods of time has a similar effect on willpower – and when people are mentally exhausted, they don’t want to make trade-offs. They resist change and become what psychologists call “cognitive misers”, conserving their mental energy any way they can. Decisions that pose a risk – like releasing a prisoner – are too much to deal with, so they seek an easy option, even though it might not be fair or good.

How to minimize decision fatigue at work

Most of us might not have to make decisions as consequential as deciding whether to release a prisoner, but being able to make rational, informed choices is still part of everyday life. Since we also want to conserve our mental energy for our most important work, it’s generally a good idea to keep decision fatigue in check. So how can we stop decision fatigue sapping our productivity and distorting our choices?

1. Automate as much low-value work as possible

One of the best ways to reduce decision fatigue is to cut out the unnecessary decisions from your day – that’s all the repetitive and predictable “shallow work”. By automating as much admin as you can, you remove the need to do those low-value tasks that sap your energy. Menial yet time-consuming jobs like tracking hours, scheduling meetings and logging expenses all invariably involve some form of decision making – but all can easily be automated with the right tools. Not only does this conserve mental energy, it also creates more time for complex problem solving.

2. Prioritize difficult decisions for when your willpower is strongest

As the study on parole hearings showed, the time of day severely impacts our judgment and ability to make smart choices. Difficult decisions should be made when your willpower is strongest – and for most of us, that’s in the morning, when our cognitive resources and willpower aren’t yet depleted. Always schedule your most important task for early in the day, when you’re best able to make considered, logical decisions.

3. Practice digital minimalism

Just like keeping your physical desk tidy, digital minimalism helps you keep your digital workspace clean and prioritized. It’s about sweeping away digital clutter and noise; being present on one task instead of constantly switching context; isolating the decisions that really matter. Mastering it starts with understanding where your time goes – what tasks, apps, websites, processes and interactions sink it. Consider automatically tracking your time or using smart apps like Dewo to quantify your context switching, and learn how to work smarter.

4. Time block your schedule ahead

Remove the need to make decisions throughout the day by time blocking your schedule. This helps you commit to working on a task by designating a specific time and place for it, and also creates productive boundaries to help contain it. Time blocking effectively lets you set and balance your biggest priorities. By sketching out what you’ll work on when – and for how long – your schedule becomes less decision-based and more action-based: you don’t have to wonder what to work on next, because your schedule has already decided.

5. Batch similar small tasks to capitalize on the power of momentum

If you have a bunch of similar small tasks – think follow-up communications, reporting and sharing updates – handle them back-to-back to sustain momentum. The Zeigarnik effect plays a big part here, as once we begin a task our brains find it hard to stop thinking about it until we’re done. Batching similar decision-making tasks together stops our mind from lingering on them throughout the day, and removes the need to reestablish context around them each time we pick them up.

6. Protect yourself from unimportant notifications

When you’re trying to solve important problems, block out all the pings that introduce tangents into your thinking – like in-app comments, Slack alerts, emails and desktop pushes. Every time you open an email you’re faced with a whole new bunch of decisions, and just knowing you have an unread message waiting for you can burn a whole in your attention. Avoid the issue altogether by only looking when you’re ready to – silencing low-priority notifications and setting specific times to read and respond to daily communications.

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