Are You Saying “Yes” Too Much?

Do you say “yes” too much? You probably know what it’s like. A colleague asks for help with a project and you end up doing a lot more than you planned. You agree to volunteer for a local event and then discover that it’s going to take a lot more time than you assumed. Maybe a friend asks you to help them move, especially if you have pick-up truck. Sound familiar?

At the end of each of these endeavors, you may have asked yourself, “Why did I say yes to THAT?” Or you may have said, “Never again!” Then you went ahead and said “yes” again anyway. But here’s the thing, all these incidental “yes’s” are contributing to the decision fatigue that drags you down.

So, why do you say yes when you kind of know that it’s going to cost more time and energy than you had figured? There are several reasons:

  • You want to be perceived as a nice person.
  • You might feel guilty if you don’t say yes.
  • You say “yes” because you want a feeling of belonging or to be part of something larger.
  • You’re paying it forward in hopes that others will return the favor.
  • You were caught off-guard and said “yes” before taking time to think.

There’s nothing wrong with saying, “yes.” I do it lots of times myself. But I have learned to stop and consider before agreeing impulsively. It is human nature to be accommodating when approached for a favor or participate in an activity. Sometimes saying, “No” can seem almost discourteous. But saying, “No,” may be the best decision you can make. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  1. You’re not the best person to make the decision or participate.
  2. Adding this task to your plate will interfere with or impair your effectiveness in accomplishing more critical responsibilities.
  3. The person asking may be just trying to “turf the task.”
  4. You’re just plain tired and need a legitimate break. (They’re aloud, you know.)

One of the ways effective decision-makers manage their energy and focus is by avoiding less- than-strategic commitments. “But how do you say no?” you might be asking. Here are three responses that help:

  • “Thanks for thinking of me. I just don’t think I’m the best match for this task.”
  • “At this point, I can’t really take on another responsibility. I trust you’ll understand.”
  • “You might approach _______________. I think she might have more interest.”

Notice this list does not include, “I’d love to help, but . .” This phrase telegraphs you are open to other opportunities. As a result, people will continue to approach you. Remember, you have every right to be selective about the decisions, tasks, and other responsibilities you take on unless, of course, they are assigned by the boss. Even in that case, there are tactics for more effectively managing the situation. But that’s a topic for another post.

The next time you’re tempted to say “yes,” take a few seconds to consider the request. Ask a couple of questions about what it would really involve. Perhaps you can say “yes” to part of it. Making this a consistent practice will save time, energy and relieve you of some the decision fatigue that diminishes your productivity and effectiveness.

Has Fractionalization Distorted Our Decision Making?

Sixty years ago, Newton Minow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, famously called television “a vast wasteland.” This was at a time when there were a total of three networks. On any given night, you could choose between the offerings on CBS, NBC or ABC. Period. Candid Camera host, Peter Funt, recently asked Mr. Minow his thoughts on the seemingly unlimited choices now presently available. I found his response rather insightful.

“Fractionalization of the audience provides more choice,” he said, “but we pay a big price. Our country now is much more divided because we don’t share the same news or believe the same facts. I used to think that providing more choice was in the public interest. But I’m not sure today.”

In other words, part of society’s present polarization is being caused by a population that no longer shares common interests based on media. Thirty years ago, for instance, people watched The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Then they discussed his monologue the next morning at the office. Now, on any given night, you can choose between more than a dozen late-night talk shows, all of which that have hosts projecting partisan political viewpoints, something Johnny was careful not to do.

Another television phenomenon of thirty years ago was “Who killed JR?” from the night-time drama, Dallas. People spent weeks arguing about who pulled the trigger. Why? Because millions were watching the show every Friday night. In essence, it created a sense of community. You could get on an elevator and ask the stranger next to you, “Who do you think shot J.R.?” and they would immediately get the reference. Today, there are so many choices from which to choose, we have balkanized ourselves into micro affinity groups. So, the chances of the elevator stranger watching the same thing you did last night are remote. Besides, we don’t talk to strangers. We bury our heads in our smart phones.

This fractionalization is not limited to today’s media. The same thing is true with pretty much every product, topic or issue. As a result, we have not just become fractionalized, but hyper-fractionalized. Without shared experiences, it becomes so much easier to hide behind the beliefs with which we feel comfortable. We seek out others who share those beliefs and avoid those who might have a different point of view. Digital algorithms enable all this, feeding us links and suggestions based on our past browser use, unless we periodically clear our cache and history.

The problem with this, of course, is that when we all retreat to our individual corners, we lose the perspective to make truly informed decisions. This is reinforced by the highly partisan politicians, activists, media and colleagues who choose to press their beliefs on others without remaining open to alternative points of view. The best decision-makers accept that their beliefs are not the only ones out there. They ask questions, knowing that the answers or opinions they receive in response may not be to their liking. But they accept that colleagues, friends and strangers can have diverging beliefs without being evil, hateful, stupid, or any one of a number of other invectives. Effective decision-making is the result of seeking out the best information, opening yourself to thoughtful discussion and acting knowing that you might be proven wrong.

Without discourse, we lose the freedom of speech upon which this nation was founded.

The Future is Unknowable – Risk is Measurable

“Congratulations! You’ve won a package of sky-diving lessons.” Just the thought of this sends shivers down the spines of some people. A little informal research tells me that skydiving is five times as safe as flying commercially, which is five times as safe as driving a car, which is five times as safe as crossing the street in a big city. But for many, even the infinitesimal possibility of hitting the ground at 120mph overwhelms any thought of the experience being safe and exhilarating.

Economist Frank Knight observed that, “The future is unknowable, but risk is measurable.” In other words, it is best to ask “What are the chances?” when contemplating any decision of significance. By taking time to logically consider the risk of possible outcomes, we are able to manage the emotional discomfort that can distort our thinking.

As we come of age and mature through life, we are constantly influenced by those around us along with our experiences with success and failure. When something goes wrong, those around us help to interpret these consequences. Many times, unfortunately, these comments begin with sentences like, “I had a feeling this would happen,” or “That should teach you not to try something like that again.”

Listening to these laments engenders a fear of the unknown. When considering future opportunities, purchases, and relationships, these words of caution can come flooding into our minds and overwhelm any thoughts of excitement, anticipation and positive outcomes. Sadly, this cycle becomes a reinforcing expectation for most people. This results in their assuming the worst when considering opportunities. If they surround themselves with others who think this way, they begin to settle for certainty, even if it means sacrificing better jobs, better incomes, better relationships and a host of other opportunities. Even when they want to consider these endeavors, they are counseled by these risk-adverse friends to be careful and the cycle is reinforced.

So, how can someone break out of this rhythm? Here’s a good way to begin. Make a practice of asking yourself, “What are the chances” when considering decisions and opportunities. Then go about quantifying and qualifying the probability of each possible outcome. Next, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “If the worst was to happen, would I be able to manage it?” Finally, ask, “Does the value of the positive outcome outweigh the possible loss of the negative outcome? If it does, proceed. Logic is the great mitigator of fear. As the saying goes, feel the fear and do it anyway.

 

Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

Are you one of the millions who will sit down later this month and layout your resolutions for the new year? I sure hope not. We value all kinds of traditions here in the United States. But this is one that should be abolished. Why? Because it doesn’t work and never will.

Here the simple reason. The brain hates change and uncertainty. Your brain’s first job is to keep you safe. Every time it perceives a possible threat to your well-being, it responds in two ways: 1) It introduces two stressor hormones into your nervous system, adrenaline and cortisol. This focuses your attention and prepares you for what it perceives as the threat. That’s why cortisol has been called “nature’s alarm clock. 2) Using systems neurologists still don’t understand, the brain brings to your attention all ways this perceived threat could harm you. (Granted, this is an oversimplified explanation.)

Here’s the problem. Your brain can’t tell the difference between a perceived physical threat and a perceived emotional threat. If a foul ball is barreling toward you, the brain is remarkably good at calling your attention to it so you can get out of the way. That’s a good thing. But when you’re faced with emotional unknown such as approaching a stranger, initiating a difficult conversation or making a presentation, it reacts the same way. It floods your nervous system with adrenaline and cortisol and calls to the front of your mind all the ways emotional catastrophe could strike.

The same thing is true of initiating a change of routine or habit. Routines and habits are predictable, even if some of them are harmful, such as smoking, eating too much and a dozen others we might list. But once a habit or routine is well established, the brain takes comfort in these predictable outcomes and sensations. Eating a quart of ice cream when you’re upset is not good for you, but it provides relief for the moment and that’s what the brain craves. That’s why they call it comfort food. So, if you attempt to resist these temptations, the brain actually increases the thoughts of these cravings to keep you focused on your desire for safety and comfort. You’re also surrounded, of course, by environmental triggers such as ice cream advertisements and the fact that they place ice cream right next to the frozen tofu in the freezer aisle.

The same thing is true if you try to initiate a new routine or habit. The brain says, “I don’t know. This could be a threat. So I’ll make you uncomfortable and compel you to think about all the ways you might feel bad if you try this new practice.” (Again, an oversimplification.)

This is the reason why new year’s resolutions don’t work. The average person sits down on December 31st and says, “Okay, I’m going to change the following six things. But on January 1st, what you’ve done is introduce six new sources of discomfort into your daily life all at the same time.

Is it any wonder that the average person gives up on their new year’s resolutions within a week or two? It’s better to start out with one and practice it and establish it for 30 days. Once you’ve established that practice, go on to the next habit you want to change. Doing this with six habits or routines over six months is much better strategy. Starting them all at once just initiates six new sources of stress into your life all on the first day of the year. Why would anyone do that?

Rather than sitting down later this month and listing all the routines and habits you’re going to change or establish beginning January first, list these habits and routines. Then prioritize them and schedule them for implementation throughout 2021. Your brain will still resist these attempts, but you’ll be able to overcome this resistance when you’re establishing these changes, one at a time.

Five Proven Ways to Sharpen Customer Service Decision-Making

When was the last time you heard the sentence, “Let me ask my manager?” It might have been on the phone. It might have been in a store. It might have been in a restaurant. Wherever it was, you probably wondered, “Why can’t this person just make a decision?”

Chances are, one of two things was going on. 1) The manager was such a control freak that no one wanted to break the rules, even for a request that seemed reasonable. 2) The employee lacked the confidence to make a decision that their common sense told them would be okay. As a result, they left you on hold or at the counter to ask for the permission they knew was coming. If we added up all the times this happens across the US marketplace every day, it would number in the millions.

So, how do you solve this problem in your corner of the world? Here are five suggestions, gleaned from my interviews with managers who have dealt with this challenge:

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Give them a spend – Richard manages an auto dealership. He authorizes every one of his employees to spend up to $500 to make a customer happy without checking with him. This relieves the burden of them checking with the manager and reassures customers that the person they’re dealing with is capable of making reasonable decisions. By the way, not one has ever spent anything close to $500. Mostly it’s coffees, car washes, and new floor mats.

Provide clear boundaries – LaWanda takes time during staff meetings to discuss unusual customer questions and issues that have come up in the past month. She presents the situation and asks for input on how it can best be handled. Then the group comes to consensus on what to do the next time the issue arises. This encourages her people to think for themselves rather than rely on her every time.

Refuse to give them an answer – Greg is the owner of a heating and cooling service company. His technicians were forever calling him from customer locations to ask if they could do this or that. It became so overwhelming that it was consuming an hour or two of each day. So he stopped answering their questions and told them to use their best judgment. “It was a bit rough at the beginning,” he said. “But once they figured out that I meant it and wasn’t going to penalize them for the occasional mistake, everything worked just fine.”

Process and reward the use of common sense – Jayme pulls her servers together before the restaurant opens every evening. She begins by briefing them on special menu items. Then most days, she recognizes someone for the way they handled a customer issue. She explains what happened, hands the server a $10 gift card, and reminds everyone to think for themselves. In return for a couple thousand dollars in gift cards, the restaurant has been receiving thousands of dollars in customer kudos and increased traffic.

How many of these ideas can you implement? The long-term boost in productivity and reputation will be enormous.

The Perfect Time to Act Doesn’t Exist

I am fond of reminding those in my audiences that decisions don’t have answers. They have outcomes. In most cases, these outcomes will not be exactly what you are expecting. Even if you watch the sandwich artist make your cold cut combo at Subway, for instance, you may still end up with too much mayo or not enough mustard. When it comes to bigger decisions, the outcomes can vary so much more. But regardless of these risks, it is still better to make a decision than to hesitate until one is made for you.

Have you ever had the perfect used car snapped up before you could say yes, for instance? You might have thought, “That’s not fair!” But fairness had nothing to do with it. It was all about another person making a faster decision than you. Perhaps you waited for the perfect moment to ask for a sale, only to watch a more assertive competitor close the deal while you were “getting ready.” Maybe it was that date for the prom so many years ago, who was “stolen” from you by somebody else. You might still wince when you think of that. But what did you learn?

Every decision we make, large or small is made through the lens of our emotions. If we let those dominate our logic, we will hesitate until the opportunity is lost. If we try to make the perfect decision, the decision made be made for us because other people couldn’t wait. So, we have to find the balance between listening to that little voice that says, “Wait, and our logic that says, “stop getting ready to decide and take action.”

In a previous post, I wrote about conducting a “pre-mortem” before a big decision. Coined by psychologist Gary Klein, a pre-mortem is thinking about all the ways the decision could go wrong and preparing to deal with those outcomes

In the case of the used car, a simple fix for this dilemma would have been to develop a prioritized list of what was important to you in any car. Then, when the first car was snapped up, you could take comfort in the fact there are lots of other cars out there that will meet your criteria. In the case of the lost sale, you might once again have a list of what you need to qualify the prospect. Once that list is complete, ask for the sale as soon as possible. No matter what you do, you’ll never make the perfect pitch. When it comes the stolen prom date, I can’t really help you. Sorry.

Hesitation before making a decision, is in most cases a product of procrastination. Procrastination is a product of fear. Fear is overcome by preparing to the best of your ability and then having the faith that whatever decide you will be able to deal with the outcome. So, think of a decision you’ve been struggling with and act on it right now. There’s not going to be a perfect time.

Bagels and the Science of Self-Discipline

It had become a ritual for me to begin my day in a coffee shop writing blog posts like this. I would buy a bottomless cup of coffee along with a bagel and cream cheese. The staff at several different shops knew me by name. It was a deeply ingrained habit if there ever was one. Of course, a bagel with cream cheese 250 times a year catches up with you. If you’ve been doing this for more than 30 years, like I have, your metabolism starts to punish you by draining your energy and focus by 10AM.

This is not unlike the other habits we all develop over time, out of convenience, desire, or wanting to belong. (“Everybody else does it.”) The brain, of course, develops a well ingrained neuropathway for each one of these habits that reminds you to do it every day at a particular time and in a particular way. In fact, it creates a sense of discomfort if you don’t complete this task. Develop enough of these neuropathways, and you become a victim of this jumble of habits, most of which cost money, drain energy and waste time.

So how do you break this costly momentum? By doing three essential things: 1) Replace the old with the new, 2) Change your self-talk and 3) Change your surroundings. Ironically, in my case, it was the third strategy that came first. When every coffee shop in the world shut down abruptly this year, I had no choice but to change my surroundings. I didn’t eliminate bagels from my diet, but I did eliminate cream cheese. Did you know a dry bagel’s not bad once you’ve had a few. I also started telling friends and colleagues that I limit myself to a dry bagel and a banana between breakfast and lunch. When you say something like that enough, you begin to reprogram your thinking and, as a result, your habits. (This worked well with, “I love salads,” a number of years ago.)

Now, you might be thinking, “I know all this. I can change if I want to.” Okay, I’ll stipulate that. But what costly habits have you actually succeeded in changing? Go ahead, I’ll wait for you to list them. Lest you think I’m being preachy, I face the same challenge. Like you, I can be really good at listing the reasons why I should be doing this or that right now. But then time slips away and it’s suddenly the next year.

So, what’s one habit you can replace over the next thirty days with something more productive? Remember, limit your plan to one habit at a time, otherwise the stress of doing so will defeat your efforts. Anticipate the initial discomfort you’ll experience and reframe it. It will diminish over time. And change your surroundings. It is environmental cues that subtly remind us of these destructive routines. Finally, spread the word. Tell your friends and family what you’re doing and ask them to hold you accountable. Offer to do the same for them some time. We all need the support.

The Attributes of an Empowered Employee

Every day, each employee you supervise makes hundred decisions to order to resolve problems and complete tasks. Most are routine and have been executed many times before. This repetition becomes the mastery that’s necessary to navigate the daily work. Then there are those unexpected obstacles that can disrupt your momentum. We all fear making a wrong decision at times, even though we pretty much knew what to react. Most of us possess the confidence move on to a successful solution.

Some people, however, struggle to adapt. Some of this apprehension can be attributed to a lack of confidence to solve problems and make decisions. So, how can you help these individuals develop this confidence? The effort comes down to one word — empower.

The best performers in any work environment exude confidence. They fully believe they are capable of dealing with whatever issue comes up. What does it mean to feel empowered? First, it’s the ability to discern. This means examining the elements of a situation, evaluating what needs to be accomplished and determining the necessary steps. The ability to discern evolves over time as the result of trial and error.

Second, feeling empowered is the ability to manage uncertainty. Uncertainty produces discomfort. Top performers become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Any significant decision involves some uncertainty.

Third, people who feel empowered possess the confidence to recover from what goes wrong. Some decisions don’t work out. Top performers accept that you don’t go through life making the perfect decision every time. When things go wrong, they take a step back, evaluate what happened, and come up with an alternative.

Fourth, empowerment is the confidence to act independently. The best decision-makers take the initiative without asking for permission. They examine the environment for what needs to be done. They think three and four steps ahead. Because of this, they are more likely to be rewarded with positive outcomes. They have a sense of perspective in situations that others may find overwhelming.

The element that connects all of these attributes is confidence. More of society is focusing on blame these days when something goes wrong. As a result, more people hesitate before making decisions They don’t want to suffer embarrassment if a decision goes wrong. In the process, they seek permission before acting, even if they are clear on what to do. This is especially true of those just entering workplace.  So, how can you help people feel empowered? Here are three tactics to try:

Begin by providing clear parameters – Each time you delegate a responsibility, ask the person to explain the instructions back to you. While they’ll get most of it right, you’ll probably find gaps in their understanding. Go back and review what they missed. Reinforce the concept with a bit of practical application. This encourages them to ask questions. Remember, asking “What questions do you have?” is more effective than asking, “Do you have any questions?” Asking “what” lets them know that questions are expected.

Provide the authority – Sometimes, we delegate responsibility and just assume the person understands the parameters about spending money, making exceptions and so forth. Then we become frustrated when they ask lots of questions. Instead, express authority using these three steps:

  • First, explain that they may feel some uncertainty about making these decisions, at least initially. You might say something like, “You’re probably going to feel a little uncomfortable making these decisions at first. I know I did. But don’t worry, I’ve got your back.” This will ease their concern.
  • Second, provide examples of the decisions where they may hesitate. Show them the process for resolving them. If you have worked this job in the past, make a list of the typical decisions you made and explain how you made them. Create a matrix or cheat sheet they can consult when they’re working independently.
  • Third, step back and watch what happens. It is a natural urge to jump in when you see someone about to make a mistake. Resist that temptation. If they begin to believe that someone will save them every time something is about to go wrong, they will become fearful of acting or become careless.

Reinforce the process – Rehearsing and reinforcement are critical. Some people will embrace these principles right away. Others will take more time. This is generally more about emotion than intellect. In other words, they understand what they’re supposed to do, but uncertainty is holding them back. How do you get them to do this? Try these tactics:

  • Tell them that you understand their apprehension. Everybody’s been there. Reinforce that you’ve got their back. If something goes wrong, you’ll work together with them to resolve the situation.
  • Work with them on each of the processes they need to master. A good way to do this is by posing situations and case studies, based on their experiences and your experiences.
  • Observe as they start to implement. Check in periodically, but be careful not to make the decision. It is a good sign when they start pushing you away, because they have built the confidence to act on their own.

When the people around you feel empowered, they will make smarter decisions and feel inspired to work confidently and independently.

 

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.

The Attributes of an Empowered Employee

On any given day, each person you supervise makes more than a hundred decisions to resolve problems and complete projects. Most are routine and have been executed many times before. This repetition evolves into the mastery necessary to navigate the daily workload. But then there are those unexpected challenges that can disrupt momentum in a heartbeat. We have all experienced the fear of making the wrong decision, even though we pretty much knew what to say or do. Most of us possess the confidence move past this initial apprehension and navigate to a successful solution.

Some, however, struggle to adapt. Much of this apprehension can be attributed to a lack of confidence in their ability to solve problems and make decisions, especially in the stress of the moment. So, how can you help these individuals develop more confidence in their daily decisions? The effort comes down to a simple word – empower. 

Top performers in any work environment exude confidence. They believe they are fully capable of dealing with whatever issue confronts them. In order other words. They feel empowered. So, what does it mean to feel empowered? First, it’s the ability to discern. In the workplace, this means being able to examine the elements of a situation, evaluate what needs to be accomplished and determine the steps for doing so. You can share all the universal truths you want about how to solve problems, but the ability to discern evolves over time as the result of trial and error.

Second, feeling empowered is the ability to manage uncertainty. Uncertainty produces stress. Top performers become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Any significant decision involves some uncertainty.

Third, those who feel empowered possess the skills to recover from what goes wrong. Some decisions don’t work out, even if you’ve made a thoughtful choice. Top performers accept that you don’t go through life making the best decision every time. When things go wrong, they take a step back, evaluate what happened, and come up with a fix.

Fourth, empowerment is the confidence to act independently. Top performers take initiative without asking for permission. They scan the environment for what needs to be done. They are always thinking three and four steps ahead. Because of this, they are more likely to be rewarded with positive outcomes. They have a sense of control over situations others may find overwhelming.

The element that connects all of these attributes is confidence. More and more of society is focusing on blame when something goes wrong. As a result, many people hesitate before making decisions, not wanting to suffer embarrassment, or even humiliation if a decision goes wrong. For this reason, many seek permission before acting, even if they are clear on what to do. This is especially true of those just entering workplace.

How can you help people feel empowered? Try these three strategies:

Provide clear parameters – Each time you delegate a responsibility, ask the person to explain back to you what they heard. Chances are, you’ll find gaps in their understanding. People don’t generally get an entire concept the first time. Go back and re-explain what they missed. Then reinforce the concept through a bit of practical application. This will also encourage them to ask questions about other concerns they have. By the way, asking, “What questions do you have?” is more effective than asking, “Do you have any questions?” Asking “what” communicates that questions are expected.

Provide the authority – Many times, we delegate responsibility and assume the person understands the parameters about spending money, making exceptions and so on. Then we become frustrated when they ask endless questions. To be effective, express authority using these three steps:

  • First, explain to the person that they may feel some uncertainty about making these decisions initially. Say something like, “You may feel uncomfortable making these decisions at first. I know I did. But don’t worry, I’ve got your back.” This will ease their concern.
  • Second, provide examples of decisions where they may hesitate. Then show them the process for resolving them. If you have performed this job in the past, make a list of the typical decisions you made and explain how you made them. You might even create a matrix or cheat sheet they can consult when they’re on their own. Recognize, however, that those individuals who are overly reliant on “rules” may require more coaching than those possessing confidence in their ability to think things through.
  • Third, step back and watch what happens. It is human nature to jump in when you see someone making a mistake. Resist the temptation. If they begin to believe that you will “save their butt” every time something is about to go wrong, they will become afraid to act or become careless.

Reinforce the process – Rehearsal and reinforcement are critical. Some will embrace these principles right away. Others will remain uncomfortable embracing their new authority. This is generally more about emotion than intellect. In other words, they understand what they’re supposed to do, but uncertainty and fear of failure or blame is holding them back. How do you get them to do this? Try these tactics:

  • Explain that you understand their apprehension. We’ve all been there. Reinforce that you’ve got their back. If something goes wrong, you’ll work together with them to resolve the situation.
  • Work together on each of the processes they will need to master. This means posing situations and case studies, based on their and your past experiences.
  • Stay close as they begin to implement. Check in regularly, but be careful not to make the decisions for them. It’s a good sign when they start pushing you away, because they have developed the confidence to act on their own.

When those around you feel empowered, they make better decisions and feel inspired to work confidently and independently.