Too Many Tabs Open: Managing Decision Fatigue
Ever had that bright shining moment when you’ve been running non-stop and you just let someone have it? Yea, I know, we’ve all been there. Not our finest hour, but we’re human and well, it happens. It’s almost inevitable, because “no matter how smart or diligent we are, our ability to make decisions eventually runs out” (Oto, 2012). We call this phenomenon decision fatigue. It is the idea that one’s ability to force oneself to do difficult things, whether that is applying self-control or self-discipline, draws upon a certain limited resource inside of us. When we’re forced to make tough decisions, it calls upon that resource and when our self-control runs low, we tend to start making poor decisions (Oto, 2012).
So why does this happen?
Despite the shortage of a full scope of psychological or neurophysiological understanding behind decision fatigue, there are a few theories:
Ego Depletion was coined by Dr. Roy Baumeister in the late 1990s, and emphasizes the willpower and ability to control your immediate desires. The theory says that “as human beings- endowed with independence and free will- we are frequently faced with a choice between obeying our basic, low-lying orders (eating a piece of cake, sleeping in, venting our anger), or suppressing them with higher-order, more responsible choices favoring long-term benefit (eating healthy, going to work, biting our tongue)” (Oto, 2012). The skill of weighing options and managing priorities is fairly unique to humans and is known as executive function. The ego depletion theory shows us that when we have to perform this feat of weighing decisions, it starts to drain us. We’ve spent some of our internal energy on the decision making process and as that level decreases, the power of our executive function diminishes along with it. Simply put, we become far less able to override any of our basic desires and our decision making abilities inevitably suffer (Oto, 2012).
It’s important to recognize the realness of decision fatigue and the implications if has for us. We all occasionally make bad decisions when we’re running low on energy, patience, steam, you name it! We collectively believe that if we’re good at what we do, we’ll automatically do a good job, but research may suggest otherwise (Oto, 2012). Being able to identify characteristics of decision fatigue is key.
- Self-control- the motivating fuel by which you direct your actions and thoughts. When you make yourself do something you’d rather not, you tax your supply of self-control. Next time you have to commit to a decision, you have less in the tank to draw upon (Oto, 2012).
- Mental energy- most decisions and tasks requiring self-control will drain your reserves of mental energy. The more high stakes or complicated a decision is, the more energy it will consume (Oto, 2012).
- Rest- Your tank of self control can be replenished by adequate rest. Even something as short as a 10 minute break between tasks can renew your performance output (Oto, 2012).
- Eating- The impact of decision fatigue can be reduced or eliminated with the consumption of food. Some studies have shown that any intake of glucose can help replenish and restore your ability to make decisions (Oto, 2012).
My parents told me that every decision has a consequence, some far greater than others, but regardless, there was always an outcome that needed to be considered. Ohhhh if I could only give my 16 year old self some advice, probably could have saved myself some “talkin’ to”! When we’ve exhausted our “decision making tank”, we tend to:
- Avoid unnecessary decisions, a.k.a. procrastinate! If we don’t have to make a commitment right then, we won’t (Oto, 2012).
- Choose the easy road out. If we can “do nothing”, we’ll likely take that path. If a decision is marked with difficulty, complexity, or hardship, we’re unlikely to pick it. If we potentially have to sort through multiple options, we’re more inclined to pick the first thing that comes to mind or choose arbitrarily (Oto, 2012).
- Choose based on immediate motivations, such as fatigue or hunger and neglect the long-term or difficult to observe consequences (Oto, 2012).
- Make decisions based on “rules of thumb” or inappropriately simplified algorithms, rather than thinking through the full breadth of the problem (Oto, 2012).
- Behave impulsively and neglect our inhibitions (Oto, 2012).
So what do we do? How do we combat decision fatigue?
- Reduce our decision load by creating good habits
Some of the most interesting findings from studies on decision fatigue are the types of people that manage it best. Individuals who were successful in conserving willpower the longest and maintaining the highest quality in their decision making weren’t doing it by being “tougher”, adhering to higher principles, or demonstrating stronger character, they simply set themselves up to minimize the amount of self-control they’d have to exert. They planned ahead with schedules, lists, finished to-do’s, and handled problems BEFORE they escalated. They were able to reduce the amount of decisions they would have to make by creating good habits (Oto, 2012).
If actions are habits, they do not drain our self-control. “Thoughtful and complex analyses require investment from our internal reserves, but rote memorization and execution requires none” (Oto, 2012). Transitioning more of our daily activities into a routine, something you do without fail or debate every time, the more mental energy you can conserve. It may seem like you’re making more unnecessary work for yourself, but you’re cutting out the burden of having to constantly weigh risks and benefits. Don’t get me wrong, we all need occasional variety, but you are able to control how much of it that you introduce. Keeping a routine helps to make the “easy stuff easy so the hard stuff is possible” (Oto, 2012).
- Plan Ahead
A lot of what we encounter is predictable and can be managed. Do the things you don’t like or don’t enjoy earlier in your day. It’s better to complete these tasks before you’ve started running low on self-discipline. Putting them off introduces additional opportunities to not address them at all. Procrastination pushes the harder tasks into the part of the day that is more difficult to push through and can also stack them up so your doing everything at once. Help yourself out! Rather than leaving the hard stuff for the end of the day, get it done early so it’s easier as you become less equipped to deal with unenjoyable tasks or decisions. (Oto, 2012)
- Don’t forget to eat!
Nutrition plays a big role in our mood and quality of work. Remember the Hangry article ?!?! Most people should go no more that 4-5 hours between meals. Developing a healthy eating pattern will help balance out your blood glucose levels so you avoid sharp peaks and steep drops. We want to avoid the roller coaster effect!
- Know when you’ve reached your limit
Keep a check on your mental state. Know when you need to bow out to avoid burnout. If you don’t have the capacity to engage, it’s ok to say “no” and table for another time (Oto, 2012).
Let’s be real, sometimes our decision-making abilities falter. Creating good habits may seem slightly mundane, but if we are able to relegate our mental busywork to a solid routine, we free up space to be able to deal with true challenges (Oto, 2012).
Oto, Brandon. (2012). When thinking is hard: managing decision fatigue… EMS world. 41. 46-50.
Figure 1: The Lady Edison. (2017, February 21). Spongebob Image [Digital Image]. Retrieved January 24, 2019, from http://www.theladyedison.com.au/blog/what-to-do-when-your-brain-has-too-many-tabs-open.
Figure 2: Giphy. Alice Wonderland GIF [Digital Image]. Retrieved February 4, 2019, from https://giphy.com/gifs/bored-alice-in-wonderland-meh-ZXKZWB13D6gFO.
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