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Decision Fatigue and What to Do About It

Here's what happens when you have to make too many decisions to make.

Key points

  • Decision fatigue can occur when you have to make too many decisions over a short period of time.
  • With decision fatigue, decision-making becomes increasingly difficult, and the quality of your decision-making progressively detiorates.
  • It is important to prioritize the decisions you must make versus those you can delegate or delay.
  • Experience can help you prioritize where to focus your energies and which decisions deserve attention now versus later versus never.
Source: Photo by Pixabay.
When you have to make too many decisions in a short period of time, decision fatigue can occur.
Source: Photo by Pixabay.

The other day I experienced some decision fatigue. After I had spent three straight weeks dealing with multiple major emergencies that had required decision upon decision upon decision with little rest in between, a friend asked me what I wanted for a food order. My response was essentially, just choose anything, as long as it is edible and it doesn't run away from me. In general, anything with moving legs isn't too appetizing to me, and, at that moment, it really didn't matter to me what food was available. My mind was more on the loved one in the hospital, the urgent deadlines that couldn't be missed, the project that had to be rescued, and all of the other stuff that happened to hit simultaneously.

This was a reminder that your brain is like a muscle. While using it regularly should make it stronger, there are limits as to how many different decisions you should be making at a given time. When you use your muscles too much, they fatigue. Similarly, as you have to make more and more decisions within a very short period of time, at some point, the quality of your decision-making deteriorates. You make worse and worse choices, and decision-making becomes more and more difficult. This in essence is decision fatigue.

That's why it's so important to determine which decisions really matter and which ones can be delegated to the future or to other people. But it can be increasingly difficult to do these days as businesses seemingly offer more and more options. This can be simply the illusion of choice, such as thr dozen different channels where you can find the same Adam Sandler movies. Nonetheless, even the appearance of choice can add to the cloud of decisions that need to be made each day.

Pillowcase in point. A few years ago, I wanted to buy a pillow. So, naturally, I went to a store that sold a lot of different pillows. When I got there, though, there were far too many pillow choices. Each pillow package described how important it was to have the right pillow materials, sizes, and shapes for the size and shape of your head, the way that you sleep, and all this other stuff. Reading such specifications for each pillow made my head spin to the point that I just wanted to rest my head on a pillow. Of course, I had to choose the right pillow first to do so. Eventually, I gave up reading each package and instead asked the salesperson to just tell me what pillow to buy. After all, as long as a pillow is not too hard, not too soft, doesn't smell like fish, and won't yell, "ouch" when I put my head on it, I'm fine.

Source: Photo by Antoni Shkraba.
Businesses can add to your decision-making plate by making you choose between what seems like many different options or at least the illusion of choice.
Source: Photo by Antoni Shkraba.

Now, you may say that something like the specifics of a pillow matter to you. Still, everything can't matter equally to you. You've got to prioritize which decisions actually need to be made. You can't control everything around you and insist on making every single possible decision. Otherwise, one of two things may happen. You may get decision fatigue. Or you may unconsciously narrow your world and your experiences to reduce the total number of decisions possible. Either is not good.

Experience can help you better prioritize where to focus your energies and which decisions deserve attention. When you are younger and more inexperienced, everything seems to matter. It's so important what you wear to your prom. (No, it isn't). That popular person's view of you is really key. (Not really). Every single line in that 500-page report is equally essential. (No one is going to read every line.) If you don't get that job, your career is done (Umm, that boss isn''t so wonderful anyway.) Your significant other must look this way. (Hate to break it to you, but looks aren't going to take care of you when you are going through a health crisis.)

As you gain more and more experience, you realize more and more what matters less and less in your professional and personal lives. This leads to a better understanding about what are the key decision points in a project, in each career step, in a life event, and in a relationship. You can then be more precise about your decisions regarding the key things and at the same time be more flexible about the decisions that really don't matter as much.

Of course, there are situations in which every decision may matter, such as during a medical emergency. Such situations will suck up much of your decision-making capacity, leaving much less time and energy for everything else. So in such cases, it is helpful to proactively punt away a lot of decisions that you usually make. For example, simplify what you wear and do every day. Get others around you to make some of your decisions. And build in times when you just do whatever the heck you feel like doing.

Because ultimately what matters is not the number of decisions that you are making but whether you are making the key ones correctly. Speaking of which, I've decided that it's now time for me to eat. Eat what specifically? I'm not so sure.

More from Bruce Y. Lee M.D., M.B.A.
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