Decision-making is a key skill to develop and strengthen for use in both our professional and personal pursuits. However, the effectiveness of our decision-making can become degraded when we’re bombarded by minutiae or saturated with too many decisions, from the unimportant to the critical. This situation is known as decision fatigue, it’s real, and when it strikes it can be dangerous.
Decision fatigue refers to the diminishing quality of decisions by an individual that results from a long period of too many decisions. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted numerous studies on a mental phenomenon he coined “ego depletion”, which he incorporated into his studies at Case Western and Florida State University. In his numerous studies, Baumeister determined that each of us has a certain store of mental energy that is depleted as each decision is made. Make enough decisions in a period of time and the store can become extinguished, which leads to one making bad decisions about diet, money, or getting easily angered by the trivial. Or it can lead you to avoid making a decision at all or failing to see trade-offs.
For an engineer decision fatigue can be downright dangerous if it involves critical design decisions. For you it can lead to poor financial decisions, incorrectly choosing the right position, or failing to decide on a lucrative opportunity…perhaps the one you’ve sought for years.
Decision Making Workouts
There’s no way to eliminate decision fatigue, it’s a fact of human existence. Therefore, you need develop a means to identify when decision fatigue is imminent and a method to reduce the burden of the not-urgent/not-important decisions that consume your mental energy. Doing both will up your decision-making capacity greatly.
1. Reduce Decision Complexity. This is best applied in the commercial product realm of life. One visit to a grocery store can lead a person into decision paralysis simply because of the plethora of options. This happened the first time I visited the cereal aisle at a neighborhood grocery store after living outside the U.S. for seven years. I didn’t even know where to begin! The answer: find what works and stick with it. Narrow your product lines to no more than necessary in every product line you use and stick to them. For example, I use one type of shaving cream; I have six preferred sources for business attire; I use only one type of stationary; etc. The result is that I don’t have to make decisions about where I’ll get what I need.
2. Get Organized, Build Processes, and Remain Disciplined. OCPD aside, being organized, having processes for routine actions, and being disciplined in both is a great way to free up mental energy for decision-making. If I know where everything is that I use/own then I don’t have to burn mental energy deciding where I might have put it. If I have a process for accomplishing paying bills, accomplishing annual employee appraisals, or setting goals for my children’s education in the coming year, then I don’t have to spend brain cells deciding how I’ll accomplish it all. I know where the label maker is; I know when, how and what the appraisal will look like, etc. It may seem rigid and perhaps it is, but I’m able to put my mind to work on other important decisions that present themselves.
3. Eat Good Food and Get Good Sleep. How often do you hear about doing these two things? Often, right? That’s because both are essential to ensuring your biological systems are working at optimum levels. Eat junk, sleep too little or mess up what sleep you do get with too much caffeine or alcohol and you’re killing your decision-making stamina before you even have to decide what clothes to wear in the morning. I know exactly what I feel like when I eat foods that deplete my energy levels or when I get a bad night sleep from the extra glass of vino I didn’t need. So I stick to a smart diet and protecting my sleep…at all costs.
4. Rest and Relaxation. Constant decision-making without a break ultimately leads to bad decisions, bad results, and bad effects on health. That’s why the Army gives soldiers R&R breaks – rest and relaxation. I’ve been in situations where I was on the point for decision-making for six months straight, day-and-night. The decisions ranged from what work schedules would be implemented and who would be submitted for recognition awards; to design decisions with long-term operational and multi-million dollar contract implications. Just before an R&R break I could feel my mental capacity strained and ability to remain fully engaged slipping. The mental weight lifted upon getting R&R was amazing – like getting a blast of pure oxygen after an exhausting mountain climb. Once back on the job, my capacity and engagement in decision-making was back to the levels they needed to be. The take-away: give yourself the breaks needed to recharge, even when you believe you can’t possibly break away.
Bottom Line: The more minor decisions that have to be made, the less bandwidth you have to make decisions on important stuff. The work-around is to make the minor decisions so easy that you merely have to say yes or no or apply a process. This frees you up for the important work you need to engage.
“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” Jim Collins
Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leader, civil engineer, and author. He’s an accomplished professional specializing in A/E/C work internationally and author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life success for engineers and professionals.
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