Leaders take pride in being able to make well-reasoned decisions – and lots of them. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine should give all frequent decision-makers pause. It turns out that all decisions, even minor daily choices, like whether to have a bagel or a banana, contribute to decision fatigue. The more decisions you make each day, the worse at making them you are.
John Tierney writes in To Choose is to Lose, “Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.”
That price is reduced mental energy that saps self-control, willpower, judgment and discernment – all qualities that leaders need in vast quantities. Essentially, your brain is tired, even if your body does not perceive it, and you take unconscious shortcuts in decision-making.
How can you maintain healthy decision-making and mitigate the dangers of decision fatigue?
Recognize it. Many leaders like to think that they are decision-making machines, capable of analysis and decisiveness from dawn to dusk. They do not want to admit that their capabilities can be limited by the number of decisions they make. In fact, their egos often lead them to believe that they get better and sharper as the day goes on. To be on the safe side, examine your mental energy at various times of the day. When are you most prone to act impulsively? Take steps to move critical discussions and judgments to a time of day when you’re fresh.
Feed your brain. Tired brains can be restored and decisions improved, in part, by ensuring that the brain is operating on enough glucose, the simple sugar our bodies get from a number of food sources. Keeping your blood sugar levels appropriately high will give your brain the energy it needs to consider implications, look at long-term prospects and make sound judgments. A Snickers bar might seem like the jolt your weary mind needs. However, the problem with the candy bar is the sugar low that soon follows, leaving you less capable of thinking clearly. The best solution is a balanced diet that gives you sustained energy throughout the day, to keep your mental acuity on an even plane.
Reduce the quantity of decisions. If the decision doesn’t have to be made by you, don’t do it. Whether it be what color to paint your office or where to hold a meeting, delegate decisions and let others make choices that aren’t critical for you to make.
Decide ahead of time. Lay out your clothes the night before, prep breakfast and pack your lunch for the next day. This will reserve more brain energy for today’s important decisions.
Examine some choices. Reserve the right to review your decision, particularly if you’ve made it under less-than-ideal conditions. While this isn’t always possible, sleeping on a critical determination will allow you to figure out if it still makes sense to your better-fueled brain.
Adjust implementation. Maybe the decision is the right one, but the details of implementation may have been overlooked by your fuzzy mind. The devil really can be in the details, as William Pollard noted when he said, “It is not always what we know or analyzed before we make a decision that makes it a great decision. It is what we do after we make the decision to implement and execute it that makes it a good decision.”
You can’t avoid making decisions, even if you want to, so take steps to amp up your mental energy. Frequent breaks for food and relaxation may seem like you’re slacking, but they are really fundamental success strategies. Focus on the more commonly-known decision-making best practices (latest data, trends and analysis), AND examine your brain’s energy stores to see if you are up to the task at hand.