Why do we often say before making an important decision, “Just let me sleep on it”?
It turns out this is more than just a popular idiom — actually catching some zzzz’s before making a decision helps us make better decisions.
Decision fatigue is just what it sounds like — the feeling of exhaustion and overwhelm that comes from making too many decisions.
But it doesn’t just wear you down. It also weakens your willpower and self-control, the ability to focus and be productive, and the ability to make wise choices.
(Yes, the effects of decision fatigue are very similar to the effects of consuming one too many cocktails.)
If only we could take more naps …
So are we supposed to take a nap every time we’re faced with a tough decision? Or should we try to avoid decisions altogether and follow the exact same routine day after day?
Obviously neither of these options is feasible, especially because with 24/7 access to technology, we’re now faced with more decisions than ever before.
You start making decisions from the moment you wake up until your head hits the pillow, thoroughly exhausted from all the choosing. Should I read this blog post? Should I avoid answering emails and check my Facebook feed instead? What should I make for dinner? The choices are infinite!
Trying to avoid decision fatigue may sound futile, but much like a muscle, you can strengthen your willpower and prevent overuse.
Time to do Some Willpower Reps
You can think of willpower as muscle. With overuse, it gets worn down and can’t do as much heavy lifting.
When you start looking for the easy way out, you’re subconsciously trying to conserve your willpower — much like when you have to take a break between reps at the gym or go down in weight.
Unfortunately, when decision fatigue hits, we tend to make bad choices — choices that favor short-term gains and delayed costs. This can translate into impulse buys, caving to your sugar cravings, and getting into needless arguments with coworkers, friends, or family.
Your productivity also suffers because you’re more likely to favor easier projects. You get frustrated and distracted more easily, making it hard to focus on difficult, high-priority projects.
So how can you strengthen your willpower and stop yourself from making poor choices? Try these five simple exercises:
5 Ways to Combat Decision Fatigue
1. Structure your day to conserve willpower
Although you can’t entirely avoid making decisions, you can establish daily habits that decrease the number of decisions you have to make throughout the day. Here are some examples:
- Set yourself a work schedule (if you’re a freelancer or work remotely). Wake up at the same time everyday, determine where you work on each day of the week, eat lunch at the same time, etc.
- Try themed days of the week. This way you know what you’re going to work on before you sit down at your desk. On Monday you might schedule back to back meetings, leaving Tuesday for the hands-on creative work. You can also try grouping each day by project: Monday and Wednesday for Client A, Tuesday and Thursday for Client B, and Friday for admin and personal development. Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and CEO of Square, uses this schedule to manage his 80-hour(!) work week.
- Adopt a work “uniform.” Obama only wears blue or gray suits and Steve Jobs always wore jeans and a black turtleneck. Simplifying your wardrobe saves your mental energy for the bigger, more important decisions you may be faced with throughout the day. If adopting a work uniform doesn’t appeal to you, try picking out your outfit for the next day before you go to bed. That’s one less decision to be made in your already hectic morning.
- Make an exercise routine. If you want to ensure you go to the gym or go on a run, establish workout days and stick to that schedule. If Monday, Wednesday, Friday are always your gym days, you don’t have to try and decide after an exhausting day of work whether or not you’ll be exercising before dinner.
2. Schedule the important things first
Almost every blog post and article on decision fatigue sites a study that analyzed the decision making patterns of judges over one year. The results found that regardless of the crime committed, the person on trial was more likely to be given parole if he or she was seen early in the morning or right after lunch. If seen later in the day, the prisoner’s odds of being released greatly decreased, even if that person committed the exact same crime as someone given parole earlier in the day.
Does this example ring true for you? Do you find yourself less willing to compromise and more likely to look for the easiest solution the later it gets?
Most of us avoid tackling hard projects or difficult decisions later in the afternoon because we’re tired and hungry and decision fatigue has taken hold. Avoid making a decision you’ll regret later by sleeping on it and revisiting the issue when you’re fresh the next morning.
3. Write down your top 3 goals for the day
Do this either before you go to bed or before leaving for work in the morning. Prioritize these goals so you know what you should work on next throughout the day. The idea is that you’ll complete the hard stuff before decision fatigue hits.
According to Getting Things Done creator David Allen, planning before you start working saves valuable energy because it decreases the mental energy required to switch between tasks. Instead of ending one task and having to decide what to do next, you will already know your next task because you planned and prioritized at the start of your day.
Once you set your top three goals, stick to them. This means you’ll have to learn to say “no” to taking on other tasks before you complete your priorities. This will help you stay focused on the important stuff and reduce the number of decisions you need to make.
(Learn more about capturing your most important goals of the day in our previous post: How to Achieve Your Goals & Reclaim Your Focus.)
4. Break down complex projects into simple tasks
A large project can be immobilizing. How are you possibly going to get it done on time? Where do you even begin? Begin by answering that question.
Figure out the first step you need to take to get the ball rolling and then determine the next step after that. Break it down into smaller tasks that you can complete in a day or even just an hour or two. This will prevent you from constantly deciding, “What should I do next?”
5. Take more breaks
Making decisions is exhausting so give yourself some rest throughout the day. Going back to the example of the judges, the study found that both early morning and right after lunch were when the judges were at their best. Why? Because they were well rested.
Here are a few things I do to give my mind a break:
Between intense meetings play games on your phone. It’s a great release and keeps you from thinking too much about the next meeting.
Do a mini-meditation
Close your eyes for 5 minutes and either listen to some nice relaxing music or just sit in blissful silence.
Power naps rule but don’t sleep too long or you’ll feel groggy. For me, 20–25 minutes is perfect. If you have trouble falling to sleep midday, Pzizz is an amazing free iOS app that combines soothing music, a guided meditation, and binaural beats to guide you into a restful power nap. Hasn’t failed me yet.
Take a short walk
Getting up and moving gets the blood flowing and can help relieve stress. Taking a walk outside in a natural setting is best but even a short walk around the office can help. I recommend setting a timer and working in Pomodoros (work sessions of ~25 minutes) and then taking a 5 minute break to stretch your legs. After you’ve done four or five Pomodoros, allow yourself a 20–30 minute break and take a real walk.
Have a Snack
One of the sources of decision fatigue is a drop in blood glucose in the brain. So have small healthy snacks that give you immediate and long lasting energy. Think trail mix or a high-quality energy bar rather than something that’s all sugar. Look for a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat that will fuel your brain in a long lasting way instead of a short spike.
You will combat decision fatigue and experience moments of weakened willpower throughout your entire life — it’s just a part of being human. If you realize you’ve made a wrong choice due to decision fatigue, don’t beat yourself up over it. Instead, learn when not to trust your decision-making capabilities and use exercises like the ones above to conserve your willpower.
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Jordan Baker is the founder of Focuster, an app that helps entrepreneurs reclaim their focus and crush their goals by automatically scheduling your must-dos into your calendar and reminding you until they’re done.
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