How many times a day do you open a new browser tab just to Google something quickly? 10 times? 20? 100?
After analyzing over 225 million hours of working time in 2017, we found the average user switches between tasks more than 300 times per day during working hours.
Not only does this level of context switching pick apart our focus, but each of those decisions to switch tasks eats into our willpower a little bit. Eventually, we hit what’s called decision fatigue: Where our lack of energy and focus leads to making poor decisions. This is a problem.
More and more, our careers depend on making good choices. And by understanding decision fatigue and how we can counter it, we can make sure we’re operating at 100% all day long.
Decision fatigue is the deterioration of our ability to make good decisions after a long session of decision making. In other words, the more decisions you need to make, the worse you’re going to be at weighing all the options and making an educated, research-backed choice.
Here’s an example: In one study, researchers looked at more than 1,100 parole hearing decisions made by judges in the U.S. What they discovered was that the most influential factor in whether or not someone was granted parole wasn’t their crime, background, or sentences, but what time their case was heard.
“Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70% of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10% of the time.”
No matter how rational or sensible you are, you simply can’t make decision after decision without paying a mental price. And unlike physical fatigue–which we are consciously aware of–decision fatigue often happens without us knowing.
How To Protect Yourself From Decision Fatigue And Make Better Choices
If your job means making constant decisions and complex trade-offs, you’re bound to get burnt out and start making poor choices at some point. It’s not enough to just say, “Just stop believing that you’re tired,” and make it all better.
Instead, we need to look at ways to counteract all the factors that go into decision fatigue–from protecting our focus and willpower, to making sure our energy levels are high throughout the day.
1. Simplify The Choices You Need To Make Throughout The Day
The idea behind their limited wardrobe was simple: With so many important decisions throughout the day, why start with deciding what to wear?
Like a soldier’s uniform, Obama and Jobs decided to simplify some of their most basic decisions on a daily basis.
For others, this might mean working from the same place every single day, following a strict routine, or having a set weekly meal plan. By reducing the amount of decisions you make every day, you free up space for the ones that matter.
2. Set Honest Priorities For Earlier In The Day
Just like the judges who were more likely to grant parole earlier in the day, your best time to make hard decisions is when you first start.
Schedule your most important things for first thing in the day–whether that’s working on a personal project, getting a hard-work task done, or dealing with something you’ve been putting off.
One technique I’ve found especially helpful is to limit my daily to-do list to only five items and writing the list the night before.
This way, I’m forced to prioritize what needs my attention and energy most. Complex tasks go in the top three spots, with more “mindless” ones filling out the rest of the day.
3. Focus On Momentum, Not Willpower
Decision fatigue makes us feel out of control. And building momentum around tasks is one of the fastest ways to get that feeling of control back. If you can chain similar tasks together, there’s less chance you’ll be faced with having to “make the decision to get started.”
Psychologists call this the Zeigarnik effect. Once we start a task, our brain becomes obsessed with finishing it.
The most simple example is how Ernest Hemingway would always finish his writing day mid-sentence:
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day . . . you will never be stuck . . .
That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously, or worry about it, you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.
Find ways to build your own momentum throughout the day, either by following Hemingway’s example, or scheduling similar tasks together and then using the five-minute rule to push through the friction of getting started.
4. Lock In Big Decisions When Your Motivation And Willpower Are High
Rather than being susceptible to your changing energy levels, lock in key decisions when your energy is highest.
For example, you could do meal prep on Sundays to ensure you’re not making poor food decisions throughout the week. Or you can use RescueTime’s FocusTime to set scheduled work sessions that automatically block distracting sites like social media or news.
One thing I’ve found particularly impactful is setting a daily FocusTime session for first thing in the morning. This way, I get at least 1.5 hours of work done without being distracted by social media, or bouncing all over sites and apps getting my morning news fix.
The best part? By scheduling it in advance, I don’t have to make a decision in the moment.
5. Use The Power Of The Afternoon Nap
Research has found that naps are like a Zamboni for our brain–clearing away the gunk that builds up.
This is thanks to what researchers call the “Housekeeping Theory.” When we sleep, our brain prunes away some of the connections between neurons, making room for whatever new information we’ll come across when we wake up.
If you’re feeling the effects of decision fatigue, a quick nap can help reset your mental space. You won’t be back at full capacity. But you’ll be more likely to make better decisions, at least for a little bit.
If the amount of times we switch between websites and apps throughout the day says anything, it’s that our lives have become increasingly filled with tiny decisions.
That busyness has a price. The more choices we’re faced with, the more likely we are to fall victim to decision fatigue. To make good choices, we need to listen to our thoughts, recognize when our energy has dropped, and react accordingly.
A little understanding of how willpower affects our ability to make choices can go a long way in making sure we’re doing the right work, not just whatever is easiest at that time.