Do you stay in bed an extra 15 minutes past your alarm? Do you splurge and grab a party-sized bag of peanut M&M’s? Do you take a risky left turn or wait to go around the block? These are some of the seemingly trivial decisions on which you may spend your valued time. While you may or may not be the president or CEO of a Fortune 500 company, making decisions is something you can’t avoid.
Research estimate that the average person makes up to 35,000 decisions on a daily basis. This figure may seem large, but it might be helpful to consider the number of decisions you make in a day without even thinking about it. Every day you are faced with a myriad of choices: what to wear, what route to take, when it’s safe to cross the road, what to eat, who to talk to, etc. These little decisions pile up, structuring our days into a choose-your-own-adventure sequence of cost–benefit analysis and mental coin tossing.
Just like the physical fatigue you experience after a strenuous workout or emotional fatigue after a tense argument, “decision fatigue” is a phenomenon that results from frequent decision-making. According to John Tierney in The New York Times, “no matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.”
Naturally, the more decisions you make as the day goes by, the more tired your brain can become. As you may expect, this fatigue can result in substantial negative costs. How do you think you would react, in a state of extreme physical fatigue, to being chased down a dark alley? How would you perform if, after a tense fight, you were forced to give a passionate speech? After a day of little decisions piled up into a mass of second guesses and missed opportunities, what would happen if you had to make a decision with lasting impact?
Small decisions can surely snowball into a detriment to brain function and kill your momentum. Below are four ways to combat decision fatigue and boost your productivity.
Your time and energy as a form of currency
At the end of a frustrating day, you might find yourself contemplating your time being wasted. If you added up all the hours spent performing menial tasks at work or waiting in unnecessarily long lines for mediocre coffee, you may start to feel as though wasted time is more significant than time well-spent. Despite these feelings, you own a monopoly on your own time and energy. Even if you show up to work at the same time every day, sit in traffic for far too long, and dedicate portions of your day to minute decisions; this time and energy is a commodity. Changing the way you think about time is an important step in maximizing it.
In his seminal 1854 book Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.” Even after over 160 years, Thoreau couldn’t have been more correct. Humans naturally overthink, a holdover from centuries of cave dwelling and hunting and gathering. On a normal day, do your best to keep a running tally of small decisions. You can write them down or just commit them to memory. Learn to compartmentalize small decisions. Once you’ve created a mental spreadsheet, you can begin to eliminate these minute decisions.
Be honest and realistic when setting priorities
As you begin to notice yourself experiencing less decision fatigue, it’s important to remember to stay realistic. Once you realize all the time you spend making inconsequential decisions, you may start waking up feeling new. This will amount to a net positive for mental health, emotional well-being, and workplace productivity. Setting honest and achievable priorities are vital to remain grounded.
Focus on momentum, not willpower
Decision fatigue deprives us of control. There is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. Building momentum around tasks is one of the fastest ways to regain lost control. According to Stanford behavior scientist Dr. B.J. Fogg, if you can chain similar tasks together, there’s less of a chance you’ll be faced with having to “make the decision to get started.”
Take hold of making big decisions when your motivation and willpower are high
Once you have a way to maximize your productivity by cutting tedious decision-making, and therefore decision fatigue in general, you’ll amass a surplus of newfound productive energy and motivation. Based on Fogg’s studies, these feelings may be inconsistent as new habits are formed and routines are developed. When you feel a rush of energy, utilize it to your advantage. Choose times of increased energy and willpower to tackle more crucial decisions or tasks.
Lisa Fei is the founder of the Clarity app and head of growth at Kloud, an interactive meeting and collaboration platform.