Decision Fatigue

35,000 Decisions a Day

2018-07-13

The average American adult makes over 35,000 decisions each and every day, as recently reported by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).  This is likely no different for Canadians. Not every decision is critical – for example, what to eat for breakfast or which shoes to wear – but when these seemingly simple tasks engage our decision-making mental resources in a consistent, unrelenting stream, we feel mentally drained. The decisions required to manage a busy household, a business, or both can lead to a weariness that feels like complete exhaustion – the kind of exhaustion that cannot be cured by a good night’s sleep – this is “Decision Fatigue”.

The Paradox of Choice

The WSJ notes that Decision Fatigue is sometimes confused with the the paradox of choice, in which a person struggles to make one decision from overwhelming options.  Remember how we used to shop for a basic household item, like a lawnmower?  Years ago, we might have asked our neighbours for input, then visited a local store, then we selected from a few models with a few different features at a few different price points.  And we would rely on the sales staff to answer our questions and concerns. Today, we have online research and reviews.  We can “Google” the “best lawnmower” and become experts in the field.  Then we make many choices to narrow down our selection to specific brands and models best suited to our own needs and price range.  After completion of that process, which can be a very lengthy one, we search “where to buy” which results in another selection process: retail points of sale near and far, online points of sale with delivery, delivery only or in-store pickup; second hand points of sale.

Time/Energy Investment

All those decisions before the actual purchase can feel like a lot of exhausting work.  And then follows the feeling of achievement at having fulfilled the mission objective.  So while an abundance of choice is at the root of both issues, both paradox of choice and decision fatigue, the same WSJ article insightfully observes, “Decision-making has the appearance of work. But it can often be distraction disguised as productivity.”1   Unless the lawnmower purchase process was a joyful, exhilarating journey, it’s likely the extent of the decision-making investment created an unnecessary “busyness” – time and energy that might have been used far more productively on another more important task or pleasurable pursuit.

Time and energy have quickly become very valuable resources for most every adult and the careful choice of where and how to invest is becoming more and more important.  Business owners should relentlessly conserve their time and energy for high priorities – the decisions that drive and impact business direction – and should not waste precious reserves on meaningless/low-impact decisions. Look at Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who wears the same basic, grey t-shirt every day. Why? Because he understands that even very small decisions consume energy. Noting that Apple’s Steve Jobs took the same approach, Zuckerberg is quoted in Business Insider, “I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”2

The Solution

Wearing the same shirt every day won’t be everyone’s solution, but we can customize the approach to suit our own life- and work-styles, to adopt new practices that eliminate unnecessary drains on time and mental energy. A CEO may eat the same lunch every day or delegate the lunch order to an assistant. Team leaders can delegate decisions and even limit team choices to achieve better, more focused results. If a meeting or conference call isn’t genuinely important, simply opt out (and consult a participant for highlights).  Choose to empower others and decline to weigh in on low level tasks, both at work and at home. This shift is likely a radical change for some, especially micro-managers with control issues.  But the gradual adoption of this approach can be truly liberating.  When pending decisions are removed from the to-do list, remaining is more time & energy for high-level, high-quality, well-planned decisions – the ones that truly impact quality of life and/or business direction and performance, the great decisions that ultimately do deliver a greater sense of security, satisfaction, achievement, and well-being.


1 https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-cure-for-decision-fatigue-1465596928
2 http://www.businessinsider.com/mark-zuckerberg-same-t-shirt-2014-11