Managing Decision Fatigue: Sources – Symptoms – Solutions

You probably know the feeling – it’s mid-afternoon and you’re just tired of thinking. Or maybe you’re in the middle of a meeting and you’re beginning to zone out. Perhaps you’re in the sixth virtual conversation of the day and you’re paying more attention to everyone’s background than you are to the decisions being discussed. Maybe you’re in the supermarket staring at the toothpaste and wondering why all these choices are necessary.

Decision fatigue has become the new drain on today’s daily performance. Truth is, decision fatigue has always been around because it is the result of what happens when glucose levels in the brain become depleted. But in recent years, the impact of this mental drain has become so much more intense because of the number of decisions we are compelled to make every waking minute.

Can you can you successfully manage the decision fatigue draining your energy and impairing your thinking?  Yes! To do so, however, it helps to examine both the sources and symptoms first. Only then can we discuss solutions. Allow me to do so using a three-step framework: Sources – Symptoms – Solutions.

The Sources of Decision Fatigue

Every time you make a decision, your brain consumes a bit of the blood glucose (sugar energy) produced by the body from the foods you eat. Deciding whether to turn left or right in the parking lot consumes little glucose. Analyzing data and producing a report consumes a lot more. This is why you feel drained after doing so. It’s also why you shouldn’t make significant purchasing decisions after focusing on an important task. Your brain won’t have the glucose energy to maintain proper focus to make a disciplined choice. The sources of decision fatigue fall into five categories:

First, there is work, which is composed of all the decisions you make during the day. This includes everything from significant choices to nuisance decisions such as navigating phone menus, clicking out of browser pop-ups, declining “convenience” options built into software applications and endless updates that developers promise will improve our user experience. (yeah, right!) On top of this, the pace of work, for many, has become more pressure-filled because of our 24/7/365 society. The same is true because of globalization and the endless demands for instant outcomes. Mix in the general competition for attention from social media and other forms of digital messaging and the brain has trouble processing this constant procession of decisions, both large and small.

Second, there are consumer sources. This consists of everything you buy, from food and personal care products to Netflix packages, apparel, big screen TVs and the car or truck you drive. Frankly, it’s business’ job to sell you the products and separate you from your money. The number of ways they attempt to do this, however, has exploded over the past few years. Research indicates that consumers don’t like too many choices, but it also shows people buy more when they’re confused. This is why your head hurts when attempting to purchase complex items like a cable subscription.

Third, there is social media. This includes all the platforms most of us use daily to connect with each other and keep up on what they have to say. These applications have become such an integral part of life for so many, they deserve their own category. Millions have been invested in making sure that users remain continually engaged, whether it is the never-ending scroll feature or the continual pop-ups that offer assistance, advertisements or the diversions we have come to know as click-bait. Add to this a design that ensures you will never see the same page display a second time, and these companies have created billions of users afraid to close the app. Each one of these sessions, of course, includes hundreds of decisions about what to read, what to click, and how to respond.

Fourth, there is news and entertainment. These have blended together so much that they really fall into the same category. As much as entertainment should be a source of relaxation, research has shown that the overwhelming number of choices confuses viewers resulting a sort of mental surrender for many. When it comes to news, it is important to remember that CNN, FOX, print media and the others are NOT in the business of keeping us informed. They are in the business of making money. Hence, the long-time industry motto, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Bad news, polarization and stories with manipulated narratives stress readers and viewers resulting in decision fatigue. At the same time, there is a sense of being left out if you don’t keep up.

Finally, there’s You and Others, or relationships. This category includes family, friends, colleagues and everyone else with whom you relate on a regular basis. Each of these relationships requires its own set of decisions based on how you interact, along with past experience. Each one of these decisions requires the brain to consider dozens of factors, consuming boatloads of glucose, especially for those relationships you find more challenging. Just as a large report or presentation can consume a lot of sugar energy, the same is true with the lengthy or intense conversations you have with one or more people over a beer. At the end, you feel tired of thinking because your brain has had to pay attention while developing what to say in response, based on your past experience with these individuals.

As mentioned before, many of these decisions have been a part of life since the dawn of time. But in recent years we have added social media, the options that come with menu-driven software, and an explosion of consumer choices in pretty much every product category. According to research from Roberts Wesleyan College, adults are now making an average of 35,000 decisions per day. As a result, there are five symptoms that hinder our thinking and impair our daily performance.

The Symptoms of Decision Fatigue

First, there is continuous partial attention, which forces our minds to constantly dart back and forth from micro-decision to micro-decision, each one costing us a bit of glucose energy. This darting becomes cumulative over time and the reason why we wonder what happened to the productivity of the day. Have you ever said to yourself, “I know I made a lot of decisions, but I didn’t really accomplish anything?” When the brain is not given a change to replenish itself, glucose levels become so depleted that you can actually feel your thinking shutting down.

Safe Decision Syndrome is the fear of making any decision that might result in a mistake, an unfortunate outcome, or perhaps correction or discipline by a supervisor. With the number of decisions we are required to make these days, the possibility of this happening has gone way up. Those who have been “burned” by one or more of these situations become overly cautious about making any decision that is even tinged with uncertainty. Most times, they just stop unless they have explicit permission to act.

Third, there is menu-driven thinking, which is an over-dependence on digital cues. The advent of computer software has brought with it increasingly sophisticated ways of guiding, some would say manipulating, our thinking and choices.  Whether it is telephone menus, airline reservation sites, or the screen in your car’s dashboard, we are thinking less and being led more. Some might argue that menu-driven thinking reduces the need to think, thereby saving mental energy. The price of this, however, is a deficit in creative and critical thinking especially among many of those coming of age in this digital society. When they are compelled to make decisions with an uncertain outcome, the associated stress of doing so consumes a tremendous amount of glucose.

Fourth, there is the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). This has become a juggernaut in both social media and marketing. The fact that a sizeable number of people interrupt their sleep to check their mobile devices illustrates the way FOMO has become a major factor in fostering decision fatigue. As with any other digital interaction, the fear of missing out requires dozens of decisions throughout the day, each one consuming a bit of the blood glucose so essential for attention and concentration.

Finally, there is the sense of manipulation we develop when we feel like we’re being led to a particular outcome, even though we’re being told we have complete control. Sadly, this has become pervasive throughout society because of digital technology. As a result, we expend more blood glucose trying to game the systems that are trying to maneuver us into pre-ordained choices. Having to anticipate these processes for even simple purchases or decisions draws our focus and energy away for more significant issues. Feeling like you’re settling or surrendering results in an underlying sense of distrust in all these systems.

The Solutions to Decision Fatigue

Over the past several years, I’ve identified more than 30 strategies for battling decision fatigue and continue to discover more as I interview effective decision-makers. Here are three to get you started.

First, begin each day with something that will you give a sense of completion. Admiral William McRaven has become known for his ten rules learned during Navy Seal training. The first of these is “make your bed,” a simple task but a good way to start the day. For me, it’s posting an inspiring thought on Linked-In. Others with whom I have spoken have a ritual that helps center their thinking before diving into what needs to be done. What do you do every morning to top off your energy before commencing the work at hand?

Second, work at eliminating unnecessary decisions. I spoke to an executive who told me of assuming the leadership of a manufacturing plant. Being a first-time plant manager, he dutifully studied all the reports that arrived in his in-box, sometimes late into the night. But one day it dawned on him that no one ever asked about these reports. He started asking those generating them about their purpose. He was told that his predecessor was a “numbers guy” and couldn’t seem to get enough data to analyze. So, this manager sat down one morning considered the value of each report. Then he eliminated all but two, saving him a couple of hours of work a week. Effective decision-makers are constantly looking for ways to consolidate, delegate or eliminate decisions for both themselves and those with whom they work. How about you?

Finally, chunk your time. I’ve interviewed several executives who divide their time into 15- or 30-minute segments. Then they assign the decisions they need to make to those segments. This is especially useful if their days is filled with requests from others. Not only does it compel those asking the questions to better organize their time, it forces the decision-maker to act, rather allowing the issue to drag on or be postponed. Even if you cannot do this for the entire day, simply dedicating time chucks every morning or afternoon will enable you to focus without the endless distractions. Don’t worry. The people around you will get used to it. If you have a boss that wants you available at every whim, sell him or her on how you can get more done if you compartmentalize some of your time.

When battling decision fatigue, the goal is NOT to better manage the 35,000 decisions we might face every day. It is to REDUCE the number of decisions we make. In other words, fewer decisions equals less blood glucose consumed. This leaves more sugar energy for focus on the most important issues.

Do Beliefs Inform Behavior?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend reminded me of the old saying “beliefs inform behavior.” Everyone reading this post has heard this adage, or something similar. While we mostly invoke it when considering our outlook and perspective, it is critical for supervisors to consider it as well.

In managing people in a variety of settings over the past 35 years, I’ve always found it fascinating how different people respond differently to identical instructions. Some just put in their time and the absolute minimum effort. Others put everything they’ve got into the task, regardless of what’s involved. Then there’s the bunch that fall somewhere in between.

If you’re a seasoned manager, you’re probably thinking, “All of this is common sense.” Maybe, but how much do you use these insights to inform the way you supervise people?  Here are a few suggestions, based on my experience and those of others I’ve observed over the past three decades.

First, find ways to assess work ethic. The longer I study management and supervision, the more I am convinced that everything starts with selection. If you are not placing candidates in a situation where they are compelled to demonstrate their skills, work ethic, and creativity you’re only getting half the picture. You can’t change someone else’s work ethic. So if they don’t have it to begin with, don’t hire them, no matter how much you’re tempted. If you already have an existing team, consider what seems to motivate each individual. Even those who count the minutes on Friday afternoons are engaged by certain things. You just have to find out what they are.

Second, ask people what they think. I read Jon Huntsman’s autobiography recently. Over the past 40 years, he and his team have built the second largest chemicals and plastics producer in the world. Time and again, he mentions that the key to acquiring and turning around failing chemical plants has been to ask the people working there how to improve the company’s functions. When was the last time you asked your employees how to improve things and incorporated those suggestions?

Third, offer opportunities your people will find engaging. Once a skill or routine has been mastered it becomes repetitive, regardless of its complexity. Even the most devoted employee will grow bored with day-to-day tasks. The formula is sadly familiar: Boredom informs belief. Belief informs behavior. Whether you provide cross-training, release time for new research, industry association involvement, or some other activity, consider what can you do to reinvigorate solid performers who feel locked into a dead-end routine?

With the turnover of each employee costing tens of thousands of dollars these days, paying attention to belief and outlook is an essential element of supervision.