One Sure Way to Reclaim Your Life from Decision Fatigue

You probably know the feeling. You get up in the morning, get ready for the day and drive to the office. Then you sit down at your desk and brace yourself for the onslaught of messages needing to be cleared. You navigate the pop-ups, opt-ins and opt-outs, the unsubscribes, and the reply-alls you don’t need to see.

Then there’s the pressure to get more done. Just about the time you’re caught up, something lands on your desk that needs to be done “right away.” In the midst of all this, you deal with texts, Slack messages, and e-mails from customers, bosses, and co-workers who seem to think that you should be immediately available 24-7-365. After all, in this globalized economy, it’s always 8AM somewhere.

There’s just not enough, time, energy and focus. Does this sound familiar? This is the beginning of decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is when you make poor choices because your brain is overloaded due to the overwhelming demands of modern life. It is directly linked to a concept called satisficing – not making the best decisions, but decisions that are good enough. The reason? Each one of these “micro-decisions” consumes a bit of the blood-glucose energy your body produces every day, based on what you eat and the amount of sleep you get. In making 100 or more of these micro-decisions at the very beginning of the day, by clearing email and other distractions, you take the edge off of your concentration for the more important tasks later on.

So, how do you deal with this challenge? Plan to clear your e-mail and other messages after the first project of the day. Now, I can hear you thinking, “Yeah, right! You don’t know my boss, my customers, my company, my culture.” As a matter of fact, I do. And what I know is that there are individuals in any organization who have found a way to manage the email and message onslaught rather than becoming a victim of it. Frankly, what you may be fighting more than the culture is your fear of missing out (FOMO).

Most of us have become so conditioned to answering e-mails and other messages first thing every morning, that we feel a visceral discomfort if we don’t. It hangs over us and feels like a big incomplete until we satisfy the craving. How do you accomplish this change of routine? Here’s a simple five-step process.

First, acknowledge the discomfort. Yeah, I know, no one likes discomfort. But the only way you’re going to reduce your decision fatigue is to make changes to your routine. And change, by its very nature will trigger a bit of discomfort because the brain doesn’t like change. But look around, the best decision makers have made that adjustment. They use their high-energy times for tasks that require the best thinking. Clearing e-mail is not one of those tasks.

Second, sell it to your boss. There a few draconian bosses out there who may demand an immediate response to whatever messages they send. For the most part, however, the average supervisor is more interested in your output than an arbitrary measurement of task completion. If you frame it as, “I get my best work done first thing in the morning,” chances are they will buy into the idea of not hearing from you until 9 or 10AM. In fact, you may even start a trend. More than one workplace has improved its productivity by relaxing the expectations around the timeliness of message response. All bets are off, of course, if you’re in a position where timely response determines quality of customer service. But then you knew that, right?

Third, announce it. If you think it is appropriate, create an auto-responder that reads something like, “Thanks for your message. I usually focus on high-focus projects early in the morning and don’t generally return e-mail before 10AM. Thanks for your patience and understanding.” Do not, however, end with a sentence like, “If you have an urgent need, text me at 123-456-7890,” because they will. If it’s really urgent, they’ll figure it out.

Fourth, remove environmental triggers. Rethink your morning routine. Work on that project before you head to the office. Complete it at a coffee shop. Find a secret spot in the building. If you remain in the same work space where you have a deeply-routed cadence, your brain will send you endless discomfort signals that will be impossible to ignore. Change the rhythm by replacing with it something novel.

Fifth, focus on the reward. Decision fatigue sneaks up on us more than we realize. Take time to revel in the one or two hours you have every morning to attack a project, complete it to the best of your ability and check it off your list. By setting parameters around your time like this, you’ll make better decisions and have more peace of mind.

Leveraging your energy is a key to making the best decisions. If you consistently pursue this strategy for 30 days, it will become an ingrained routine. You’ll enjoy the freedom and those around you will be more respectful of your time.

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