After losing a large account over a missed detail in a report, Shaun began to take inventory of his work habits. It was an error that he would normally never miss but he had reviewed the document in the afternoon after a long morning of tough negotiations with another account. Determined to figure this out, Shaun enlisted the help of a coach who pointed out that he might have suffered from decision fatigue.
Defining decide and fatigue. The Latin root of the word is ‘cide’. This is also the same root as homicide, suicide, genocide, or insecticide. ‘Cide’ means to cut out or to kill. When a person “decides” they are eliminating options or possibilities. They are effectively killing other choices in favor of one. Fatigue has its origins from the French word with the same spelling and the Latin word “fatigare” meaning to tire. It is weariness from physical or mental exertion.
Putting the definitions together. Decision fatigue is a declining ability to make quality decisions after a long period of decision making. Everything is a decision, even small ones. What to eat, which shirt to wear, which way to drive, what to do at the yellow light, which internet search to click on, which email to answer, how to resolve a conflict, and so on. The more decisions being made, the more the decision supply or willpower is used up.
Impact of willpower. Willpower determines which impulses, behaviors, or emotions will be acted upon. It is defined as the conscious ability to delay gratification and override unwanted thoughts, feelings, or impulses. It is a limited resource which is capable of being depleted from too many decisions. As the brain sleeps and performs housekeeping which is the removal of insignificant information and long-term storage of important matter, willpower is replenished. This is why it is easier to stay on a diet in the morning than later in the day.
Daily rhythms. In a 24-hour day, our bodies naturally follow a circadian pattern of sleep and wake cycles which is mostly determined by the light of the day. Most people fall into one of two categories: morning people and night people. A morning person’s pattern is to peak early in the day, experience a trough by the afternoon, rebound slightly in the early evening and then sleep at nighttime. A night person rebounds in the morning, has a trough in the afternoon, peaks in the early evening, and then sleeps going to sleep later than the morning person. Decisions made during the peak periods are the best and weakest during the trough period.
The problem. A person unaware of their own circadian rhythm, the depletion of their willpower, and the resulting decision fatigue is likely to make poor decisions. Most workdays do not accommodate the trough period which happens in the afternoon for both morning and night people. With limited resources of willpower and too many decisions early in the day, the exhausted brain looks for the path of least resistance.
The result of decision fatigue. The brain naturally looks for shortcuts in decision making when it is tired. Well worn paths of previously poor decisions just come naturally when a person is exhausted. This is what causes an even-tempered person to have road rage at the end of the day. Or when energy levels decline in the afternoon, they might reach for a candy bar. Or have trouble resisting a bargain that flashes up on the computer screen.
Shortcut choices. There are five shortcuts the brain is likely to follow. Depending on the personality of the person and previous behavioral patterns, choices can fall into one or more of these categories. A person with a personality disorder, abusive behavior, or addiction, will have more wear in one area than the others. Their limited perception often keeps them from seeing other options.
- Rush. A person becomes reckless and acts impulsively to just get past the decision quickly.
- Avoid. The person might do nothing to avoid making a choice out of fear of making a poor one.
- Concede. This person is more vulnerable to others as they cave into strong personalities, authority figures, or abusive people.
- Swap. Rather than decide, this person makes trade-offs or compromises such as “if, then” statements.
- Repeat. A person settles for their default option of obsession, emotional outburst, or addictive behavior.
Know yourself. The key to overcoming decision fatigue is to be aware that it is happening. Shaun began by keeping track of his own circadian rhythms. In college, he was a night person but now he transitioned into a morning person. This shift made his morning decisions good, while his afternoon ones were more susceptible to rushing or conceding. So, he changed his schedule. In the mornings, Shaun would tackle the hardest and most significant work such as negotiations and document reviews. In the afternoon, he would do emails, return phone calls, and other less intensive activities.
This simple change in Shaun’s day helped him to be more productive and less likely to suffer from decision fatigue. By taking the time to be observant, Shaun was able to prevent other errors at work.