Combatting Decision Fatigue

by Jen Williams

The benefits and principles of pre-making decisions.

Our tanks are empty. Really empty.

For two years now, the pandemic has disrupted our lives profoundly and in so many ways. Loss of life, experiencing the illness itself, inability to visit family and friends, children stuck at home, businesses and services being closed—the list goes on.

All of these changes take a toll on our sense of routine (a sense we crave as human beings to help us feel secure). And when it comes to what happens next, the only certainty is that it’s uncertain. Past stresses and future unpredictability erode the brain’s “mental bandwidth," or ability to process information, deal with stress, and make rational decisions. 

Stress reduces cognitive abilities.

You probably already know that stress reduces cognitive abilities. And the more our routines get disrupted (you know, from crazy things like global pandemics), the more decisions that get tossed our way—draining those abilities and increasing our overall stress.

A survey found that nearly 1/3 of adults said they are so stressed that they struggle to make basic decisions, such as what to wear or what to eat. And that’s when we become at risk of falling victim to a little thing called decision fatigue. It’s when we’re faced with such a high quantity of decisions to make that the quality of those decisions deteriorates.

And it affects everyone—it doesn’t matter how intelligent, rational, or naturally calm a person may be. Anyone can be mentally exhausted. The more decisions you’re responsible for, the more difficult it can become to make them (which leads to poorer decisions overall). The best way to combat decision fatigue is to reduce the effort of making decisions.

1/3 of adults say they struggle to make basic decisions.

Solution: Decide before, with principle.

Plan ahead for “what-if” scenarios before the moment strikes. Deciding ahead of time means that when it’s actually time to carry out the decision, it takes almost no effort to do so—leaving you with plenty of mental capacity in your tank to spare.

Not only that, but one pre-decision might prevent a thousand separate decisions. So how do you get started pre-planning your decisions? Root them in principle. Here are three principles to hold your decisions to: 

  • Delegate what you can. If you are not the sole accountable party for the decision, it is not a decision about something you care deeply about, and it is not a decision that is personal to you, then delegate it someone who has more time to handle it than you.
  • Make repeat decisions in bulk. Set aside time to identify common, recurring issues that come up and require a decision from you. Keep track of how the decisions you’ve made for these problems have worked in the past and make a plan to apply them to future situations. Let your team know what your plan is for “what-if” scenarios that may affect them.
  • Make criteria for draining decisions. Envision the perfect outcome of your most nitty gritty, ankle-biting decisions. Slow down, and write out what criteria needs to be met in order for X decision to be made. This will help you refine your decision-making process.

Without principles, we would be forced to react to all the things life throws at us individually, as if we were experiencing each of them for the first time.  -Ray Dalio

So if you find yourself bogged down by what feels like the heavy weight of decision fatigue, don’t sweat it. Know that it’s a symptom of stress that we all experience. Take a deep breath, and consider how you might strategize to make your decisions in advance to save time, cut down on stress, and increase the overall quality of the decisions you make in life and work.

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