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.

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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.

How to Say “No” and Get Away with It

You know the drill. The boss says, “I need you to . . . .” or your team leader informs you that everyone else decided that you’ll be one to . . . “ or maybe a new initiative comes down from above without warning. In every case, you’ve already got too much on your plate. You may feel like people are dumping. Inside, you want to yell, ENOUGH!”

But it’s the boss, or the team, or someone else you feel you can’t refuse. But maybe you can. After all, there are only so many hours in the day and most of them are supposed to belong to you. So, here are three strategies for doing what some people think is unthinkable – Saying “no” and getting away with it:

Challenge the delegation with a reasoned and rehearsed response.The last thing anyone should do is simply tell the boss “No.” But after you’ve accepted the assignment, revisit the situation when the time is right. Here’s how – Begin by thinking through why you shouldn’t be completing the assignment. Too much on your plate? Is there someone better qualified or can complete it more efficiently? Maybe you’re concerned that with so much to do, you won’t be able to do your best work. You get the idea. Then develop your reasoning for saying “no” and offering an alternative outcome. Make it succinct. No one likes a big long story.

Rehearse what you’re going to say to make sure it comes out the way you want. Finally, approach your boss, team leader or whomever. You might begin with, “Could we revisit the project you assigned me yesterday?” or “I have a concern about the assignment you gave me yesterday.” Anticipate how the person might respond and be prepared to defend what you’re asking for. Hopefully, the delegator will consider your reasoning fairly and work with you to ameliorate the situation.

Ask the person to prioritize your tasks.It is not uncommon for supervisors to lose track of how much they’ve assigned. Diplomatically asking them to prioritize the tasks on your plates will remind them of your work load. You might begin be saying something like, “I was doing some thinking about the assignment you gave me this morning. I have three other projects in process. Where would you like me to fit this task into my priorities?” Then wait for them to consider the question. If you are given an off-the-cuff response like, “I don’t know. Just get it done,” this is a red flag. Ask for clarity about time commitment, deadline, specific outcomes and so on. Hopefully this will result in you getting some breathing room. If they do it again, repeat this process. Hopefully they will get better over time about how they delegate to you and everyone else.

Approach the person about your overall workload and commitments. There are times when you simply have to confront the situation. Be careful, however, to consider the perspective of the person assigning all these tasks. You have to offer options and solutions. Appearing to simply complain will not be a successful strategy. Take some time to consider how to best rearrange your work to ease the stress and make you more effective. Then present your ideas in such a way that demonstrates that you will not be adding to your supervisor’s burden, yet easing your burden so you can work more effectively. You might consult with a couple of trusted individuals, asking them to help you think through the best way to do all this. There is no guarantee that your supervisor will go along of course. But if he or she sees that it is in everyone’s best interest, you’ll have a better chance of success.

As with any strategy, effectiveness is all in the execution. These tactics certainly won’t work every time. But it’s worth the try if you want to reduce your decision fatigue and find more balance.