Decision Fatigue and How to Battle It
Obama Only Wears Gray or Blue Suits.
The Commander in Chief also doesn’t decide what to eat for breakfast. Decisions like that are simplified and outsourced. Obama explains why in an extended profile piece by Michael Lewis:
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
Obama may be “The Decider,” to borrow his predecessor’s term, but he isn’t the only person becoming savvy to the latest research on how our capacity to make good decisions comes with its own set of checks and balances. The predicament became starkly apparent in the legal community after a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that judges are more likely to deny parole as the day advances — except for an uptick in their willingness to forgive directly after lunch. In an article in the New York Times, author John Tierney explains “The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down.”
Cynics have long been lamenting that “justice is what the judge ate for breakfast.” But reviewing the way arbitrary factors (like distance-from-snacktime) can plague a class of people who are esteemed for their decision-making capacities, these legal scholars conclude: “the caricature that justice is what the judge ate for breakfast might be an appropriate caricature for human decisionmaking in general.”
And they’re right. All of us are buffeted by unexamined external factors when making decisions – most particularly how many decisions we’ve already had to make. In an extensive review of the literature researchers concluded that “effortful decision-making leads to subsequent decrements in self-regulation.”
Tierney, who co-wrote a book on the nature of willpower, explains what this might look like outside of the courtroom:
This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and C.F.O.’s prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening. It routinely warps the judgment of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, rich and poor — in fact, it can take a special toll on the poor. Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.
How bad is it?
We’ve written before of the ways willpower is a limited resource. But what makes decision fatigue so pervasive is that you feel the lag even when your decisions don’t require self-control or discipline. You can be simply mulling over which fish-food brand to buy, and still be taxing your ability to make other decisions.
This kind of mental energy isn’t worn down by debating the particular merits of our choices, nor are we exhausted by carrying out a decision that’s already been made. As Tierney explains, it’s the exact moment of making your choice and closing off other alternatives that saps your strength. Scholars refer to it as the moment of “crossing the Rubicon.”
So why should you care? When you’ve run low on your ability to make decisions, you’re more likely to avoid needed action, make mistakes, or cater to immediate desires rather than long-term goals. Writing for emergency medical professionals, Brandon Oto explains:
When you’re fatigued: you procrastinate, pick the easiest answer or choose arbitrarily, decide based only on immediate motivations, rather than long-term goals; use simplified rules of thumbs or algorithms to make decisions; lose inhibitions and behave impulsively — you might even resemble someone who’s been drinking.
This kind of ‘intoxication’ might include buying junkfood as you’re exiting the supermarket, staying home from the gym, or snapping at a loved one for no reason. Most of the time we don’t have any idea why we’re behaving like this. Tierney explains:
No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.
Tierney explains that when your body is exhausted you have signs to indicate it — maybe you’re breathing hard and your muscles shake, or at any rate you feel the weakness. This isn’t the case with the mental fatigue associated with too many decisions: “there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. [. . .] Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely.”
And if we spend much of our day decision-fatigued, it’s not entirely our fault. Jonah Lehrer, writing for Wired, believes ““the modern marketplace is a conspiracy to confuse, to trick the mind into believing that our most banal choices are actually extremely significant.” He points to research showing that when a decision takes a long time to make, our minds inflate its importance, which further taxes our capacity to make other decisions. For example, if we first browse through all the fish-food brands stocked at the Pet Palace before concluding we’ve found the right one, our brains decide much is at stake in our ultimate choice, and directs more resources to it.
Companies spend a fortune trying to convince us that only their toothpaste will clean our teeth, or that only their detergent will remove the stains from our clothes, or that every other cereal tastes like cardboard. And then there is the surreal abundance of the store shelf. Do we really need 13 different varieties of Cheerios? Why does the average drug store contain 55 floss alternatives and more than 350 kinds of toothpaste? While all these products are designed to cater to particular consumer niches, they end up duping the brain into believing that picking a floss is a high-stakes game, since it’s so damn hard. And so we get mired in decision-making quicksand.
In a world where the average Starbucks can boast over 87,000 beverage options, our basic capacity to make good decisions is being siphoned away at every turn.
The Decision-Fatigue Workaround
As far as scientists can tell, there’s no permanent fix for decision fatigue. The good news is that there are ways to manage it wisely. Tierney’s co-author Roy Baumeister explains that if you’re looking for people with self-control, don’t search for heroic inner strength and iron wills. You’ll find it instead in the ones who structure their lives in a way that conserves willpower.
He describes these people:
They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.
If you need to make wise decisions, you don’t have to be a superhero — you just need a smart schedule and self-awareness. Here are some tricks to make the most of your ability to make decisions.
1. Know when to distrust yourself
Baumeister states: “The best decision makers are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.” The first step in becoming a better decision-maker is to accept that your foresight and self-control will rise and fall in response to factors outside of your control. When you’re depleted by a day of making endless decisions, you likely won’t be able to feel the difference, which means it’s all the more important to deliberately second-guess yourself.
If you begin to think of yourself as inexhaustible, you’ll set yourself up for a rude awakening (perhaps literally, as you wake in the morning with replenished willpower and realize the mess you’ve gotten yourself into).
2. Take advantage of high-willpower times
As illustrated by the research on parole judges, the typical peak times for making decisions are early in the morning and following a replenishing break, like lunch. Prioritize your day according to the projects that require the most careful decision-making — put them as early in the day as possible, before other things have had the chance to drain you. If that’s not possible, schedule it directly after lunch.
Be certain not to squander these peak times. A physician writing about the disastrous effects of decision fatigue in the medical field, cautions against the common habit of beginning the day by going through email. Email often requires a rapid-fire series of decisions, which can sap us for the rest of the day. Get in as much good work on your project as possible before sinking into the email morass.
3. Plan your mornings the night before
Not all of us have presidential aides who can pick out the day’s suit for us, but we can function as our own aids each night in determining the course of the next morning. The more we’re able to shift small, banal decisions to the night before (what we’ll wear, eat for breakfast, take for lunch, etc.), the further we’ll be able to extend the morning’s decision-making magic.
4. Sleep on it
Conversely, shift important, complex decisions to the next morning, when possible. Psychologists writing in the Harvard Business Review applaud President Obama’s choice to sleep before deciding whether to authorize the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Though Obama’s method was later decried by the press as “feckless,” the authors explain: “Sleeping on it was the scientifically sound decision for Obama and is the right course of action for anyone facing a challenging quandary.”
Not only does this allow you to make your decision at your peak time for mental clarity; there is also evidence for the power of ‘unconscious thought,’ which we engage in while we sleep, to direct us toward better decisions in complex matters.
This portmanteau of “satisfy” and “suffice” can be a great strategy with banal decisions. Instead of demanding the optimal option for everything in your life, satisficing involves choosing the first alternative that means your basic requirements. If you’re looking for fish food, you don’t need the perfect pellet at the lowest price — if you pick up the first one that’s good enough, you’ll avoid sapping your energy from things that are more important to you.
6. Be cautious about outsourcing decisions
All that I’ve written so far might tempt people to put their decision-burdens on someone else and beg them just to tell us what to do. But the same researchers who highlight decision-fatigue have noticed that obeying orders also takes a psychological toll, which can impair self-control and willpower in the same ways as decision-fatigue. Even though choosing gives us stress, there’s a reason why arranged marriages have fallen out of fashion and revolutions always demand more freedom rather than less.
7. Routine, routine, routine
We keep repeating the importance of routine, but on this subject it’s worth emphasizing. This time our recommendation is coming from a group with the job requirement of making many life-or-death decisions every day in stressful environments: emergency medical professionals.
In a well-written article on the topic, Brandon Oto reveals that the best decision-makers among emergency medical providers are those with good routines and strong habits:
One of the most interesting findings in the studies on decision fatigue is which types of people seem to manage it best. By and large, those individuals who could conserve willpower the longest and maintain the highest quality in their decisions weren’t doing it by being tougher than the rest of us. They weren’t adhering to higher principles or demonstrating stronger character. Instead, they simply set up their circumstances to minimize the amount of self-control they’d need to exert. They planned ahead. They scheduled, made lists, finished to-do’s early, and handled problems before they escalated. They built their lives so that they wouldn’t need to make as many decisions.
In other words, they had good habits.
Oto explains that when an action becomes part of a routine, you no longer have to dedicate energy from your internal reserves to determine whether you’ll do it or not. “So, the more of your daily activities that you can lock into a fixed, unchanging routine — something you simply do, every time, without debate — the more mental energy you can conserve.”
This makes routines something of a magic escape-hatch out of decision-fatigue. Oto writes: “Habits may seem boring, but by relegating our mental busywork to mindless routine we can be fresh and ready for the true challenges of the job.” We clearly would like our EMTs to be routinely sterilizing their equipment after use, rather than debating each time whether it was really worth it. The same principle holds with the behaviors that are important to you. Turn your values into a repeated behavior (eating dinner with loved ones, taking care of yourself with rest and exercise, giving to worthy causes), and you’ll be able to do them without contributing to decision-fatigue.
I’ll give the last words to Oto:
“We tell ourselves it’s how we perform under pressure that counts most, but the sum of who we are as professionals is just as much determined by the everyday habits which make up our work.”