Decision Fatigue Is Compromising Your Effectiveness!

by Terry Gault of The Henderson Group

It turns out that you are FAR more likely to make good decisions (or even make them at all) early in the day and just after lunch.

I came across this piece recently but it was published in The New York Times Magazine back in August 2011.

The piece opens with a story about 3 Israeli prisoners with similar situations who were appearing before a parole board.

The study reveals that:

“Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.”

This is due to the fact that humans experience “decision fatigue” when called upon to make multiple decisions throughout the day. Each decision we make tends to draw down on our decision-making capability:

… experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations. When they forced themselves to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks requiring self-discipline, like working on a geometry puzzle or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser. Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept or a metaphor. It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted.

This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that modern corporate employees are called upon to make more and more decisions all the time. For example, deciding to read or skip over an email or tweet requires a decision. And the more decisions we have to make, the more we are drawing down on our decision bank account. By the end of the day, this bank account can be depleted and we tend to make compromised decisions or avoid them altogether.

Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.

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. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.

The piece goes on to make the point that the brain requires glucose to function effectively.

The brain, like the rest of the body, derived energy from glucose, the simple sugar manufactured from all kinds of foods.

Experiments revealed:

The benefits of glucose were unmistakable in the study of the Israeli parole board. In midmorning, usually a little before 10:30, the parole board would take a break, and the judges would be served a sandwich and a piece of fruit. The prisoners who appeared just before the break had only about a 20 percent chance of getting parole, but the ones appearing right after had around a 65 percent chance. The odds dropped again as the morning wore on, and prisoners really didn’t want to appear just before lunch: the chance of getting parole at that time was only 10 percent. After lunch it soared up to 60 percent, but only briefly.

What are the takeaways?

  1. Schedule key meetings early or just after lunch.
  2. Work on crafting presentations or preparing for critical conversations early or just after lunch.
  3. Avoid making important decisions late in the morning or more than 60 – 90 minutes after lunch.
  4. Don’t eat sugary treats when you know that your glucose levels are low. Eat foods with protein and/or complex carbohydrates instead.
  5. This fits under the heading of “Terry’s Speculations” but I’ll add it anyway:
    Identify, document, and review regularly your goals and commitments. These help you remember what’s important when making decisions. In a sense, you are making decisions beforehand and are more likely to make decisions that align with your goals and commitments especially when your glucose levels are depleted.
  6. While it may not always be possible to follow these guidelines, simply being aware that Decision Fatigue is compromising your decision-making effectiveness may help you to avoid a major fail.

photo credit: Daniel Oines

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