Unravelling Decision Fatigue and how to avoid it

Decision fatigue is affecting us all. It doesn't have to though

Vidhi Kumar
Director - People Capability 01 Oct 2021

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Unravelling Decision Fatigue and how to avoid it

Decision fatigue is affecting us all. It doesn't have to though

Is a cotton mask better than an N95 mask?

Should we buy a face shield?

Can we have friends over for a tea?

Which sanitiser is safest for our family?

The past sixteen months have thrown a myriad of decisions at us – most that were unused to or had no precedent to refer to for. Add to it the ever-changing information we received every day about the virus and how to deal with it. This overload of information weighed down on our minds, clouding our decision-making abilities.

Known as decision fatigue, this strain on our decision-making faculties is due to mental exhaustion or being forced to go through multiple complex choices.

Is decision fatigue real?

There is no doubt – decision fatigue is a real threat in this post-pandemic new normal. It’s not a new phenomenon, however. We have heard of leaders and businesspeople dressing up in similar outfits to avoid the need to make complex styling decisions every morning. Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg being the classic and oft-quoted examples here. The key psychological concept here being that by freeing up the brain from taking redundant or repetitive decisions, the brain can focus its decision-making capabilities on more complex circumstances.

Decision making by itself, even on the best of days, is a tough skill to master. In these unprecedented circumstances, it becomes more depleted because we have no experience of taking these new decisions. What, then, is the impact on us and our decision making when faced with this barrage of questions?

Decision fatigue is not just a feeling of tiredness. It has a real impact on our physiology and the outcomes of our decisions. According to one study,

chess grandmasters often burn up to 6,000 calories per day when participating in high-level tournaments due to the intense stress of the strategic decisions they’re making.

Increased brain activity is indeed a real drain on energy

In addition, research also shows that decision fatigue affects the part of the brain associated with cognition and self-control. This implies that decision fatigue can, on the one hand, cause us to take impulse actions (like binge eating or shopping) and on the other hand, get us into analysis paralysis (like delaying important decisions). Being at either end of this spectrum can be a risky proposition and lead to poor decision outcomes

How to avoid decision fatigue?

The good news is that so many months into the pandemic, it is now possible to take control of our lives and the decisions around them, to a large extent. Some proven ways to avoid decision fatigue are:

1. Self-awareness

Knowing what the source of your decision fatigue is and how your brain is responding to it is the first step in helping yourself avoid it. Understand your cognitive waves like the time of the day when you take your best decisions. Flow with your natural energy instead of trying to cram your day with activities as they come. For example, as a morning person, I never leave critical decisions till the end of the day. I know they will get my depleted mind share.

2. Simplify or automate choices

Learn from Obama and Zuckerberg! Clothes is an easy decision to automate. I also like to automate grocery shopping, menu planning for the week and other such mundane decisions which drain my energy otherwise. The idea is simple - pick your battles!

3. Have an ally

Decision fatigue affects all of us. Rely on your allies to help you through the low stretch and vice versa. Enlist close friends and family members to flag off poor decisions when you are fatigued. Also, try delegating decisions where stakes are lower for you.

Burnout is the enemy of good decision making. Just as self-care and health have become important parts of the modern productivity toolkit, decision strength is an element that can no longer be ignored.