Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment. – Dale Carnegie
We find it relatively easy to recognize physical fatigue, for example whilst moving house we lifted boxes all day hence we are physically tired. This easy link between cause and effect makes it fairly straight forward to see and accept the way to address the situation i.e. we need to sit down and rest. However it is much harder to recognize and accept the existence of mental fatigue because it is harder to link cause and effect. Whilst it is relatively easy to gauge and judge our physical energy levels, the same can not be said for our mental energy. For example most people have some idea of how far they walk each day and hence have a gauge for what would be their distance limit they could walk in a day but we generally have absolutely no idea of what types of decisions our brain makes daily, let alone how can how many decisions are brain is capable of processing in a day and whilst still performing at optimum level. However we should as decision fatigue is real and can be a trigger for losing a sense of control and bringing on stress.
Decision fatigue is real and can be a contributing factor to stress.
People often summarize the decision fatigue phenomenon like this: the more decisions we make, the more it depletes us and therefore decreases our ability to make good decisions. Therefore, the logic goes, if we make fewer decisions of any kind, we’ll be better off. While there’s a nugget of truth to this, decisions aren’t simple and even less is the human behavior wrapped up in making them. So what we need do is not limit for stop the amount of decision we make but rather focus them on the decisions we must make. By knowing the different types of decisions and how to approach them, you can feel empowered when making decisions, rather than drained. First of all it is important to accept that like we learned not all responsibilities and tasks we have are equal (see quadrant II thinking), not all decisions are equal either, hence to think just of decisions doesn’t help, rather we need to think in categories of decisions.
Broadly speaking work decisions can be separated into: trivial, rule based, group and high order ones. It is beneficial to be able to group the current decisions we make into one of these four areas as it helps us to know how we should aim to treat them. Trivial decisions are ones which perform no strategic or practical function or do not need made by you. Why these are interesting to identify is because they are the ones you should either stop making right now or leave someone else to make autonomously. Managers who are unable to strategize and hence link their plan for their day with a coherent vision, frequently get sidetracked by side projects and use much of their decision making will power on non coherent goals. Likewise managers who delegate ineffectively (see gofer over stewardship delegation) often dis-enfranchise their staff creating decision paralysis for that staff member which often the poor delegator then resolves by taking over those decisions hence being involved in “trivial” decisions for their level of responsibility as they end up making ones their staff should. We should aim to stop making and being exposed in trivial decisions cause it allows us to focus on the ones we must make.
Trivial decisions are ones that perform no strategic function or should not be made by you.
Group decisions are ones which are made via the contribution of a team or various teams (departments). What matters most about these is you expose team environments only to relevant decisions for them, breaking down the actual decisions to sub teams or to individuals as much as is possible. Team decisions should usually only be put to that group platform when you are looking for some form of consensus before carrying out a key directional shift or project. This consensus should more often be about deciding how to implement things over making the actual strategic decision. For example it usually it works better to make strategic direction decisions yourself or in small micro groups (after proper analysis of course) and then present strategy to the whole team in order to get validation and buy in for the idea and allow the team to focus on the implementation, rather than on the strategic decision itself. This way the team is involved and connects with the why of decision but you have avoided the lack of direction, as politicians constantly find, that can come from over debating and analyzing a direction. You should communicate well to your team and you should work hard to connect them to the purpose of their work but it is usually a weak leader seeking to be liked who thinks that effective decision making comes from a mass team environment over a executive leadership one. The key part to group decisions is to know which ones to make in that platform and which ones to avoid doing so at all costs.
Group decisions should more often be ones about how to implement over strategic directional ones.
Rule-based decisions are ones which can be made autonomously and quickly via using a set understood or available framework to form that decision. Forming and making as many rule-based effective frameworks for autonomous decision making is a key quadrant II exercise of any manager and encompasses all levels of our work from decisions our clients make about our products, to those our staff make when doing a project and also ones we as managers make daily. Rule-based frameworks for decisions come in many forms from the help desk platforms we provide to our clients online or our staff internally, to strategic direction value and mission statements that provide a framework to say “no” to things which aren’t part of those goals when they distract or sap efficiency. Effective rule-based decisions can also be automatic work flow systems that take one piece of data from selling to payment stage and all without a staff member making the decision of how to take the data there. The aim of any good manager should be to create as many effective rule based systems for as many decisions as possible. Not only will this makes things more efficient but it will save you and your team from decision overload allowing everyone to focus their mental energy on the decisions which really require brain and willpower can not fit into a rubric.
Creating rule based systems for decisions that can be made this way is a key quadrant II productivity exercise.
High Order Decisions are the strategic, conflict resolution and crises or emergency response decisions that are tough to make and require more than just a rubric to make. Some like how we are going to cut 20,000€ from our expenses are tough because they require research and analysis and the mental toughness to carry thought your decision over the long haul to success. Others like a crises response to unforeseen situation, like a collapse in your computer system, are challenging cause you have to make them on the spot and make them work in order to prevent disaster. The key thing about high order decisions is that you should be as fresh to make them as possible and always, when a more long term decision, do needed research, analysis and discussion with the right people to make them well. Saying this it is also critical to remember and understand that the worst decision is no decision which is why it is important always to make the best decision you can and then make it work it afterwards but never delay the decision past its own critical “disaster date” as decision paralysis is one of the worst afflictions a manager can have. Usually of course you make the best decisions you can when you have cleared the clutter of other decisions: avoided trivial ones, non got bogged down in needless group discussion and most of all worked hard for you and your team to create as many rubrics as possible for decisions to made automatically or autonomously. It is handy to think of your limit of decision being controlled by your willpower, and naturally this is not unlimited which is why your decision will-power should be focused on the decisions that matters most.
You should focus your decision willpower on high order decisions.
The most important thing to do to keep decision fatigue at bay is to breakdown decisions into group and control that your exposed as much as possible to only making the ones you must make, i.e. the high order ones. It is also helpful to be as fresh as possible when you make decisions, with both sleeping well and taking breaks important to willpower you have to make decisions frequently. Likewise there is some evidence that sugary drinks can help your mind stay alert when you feel the beginning of some decision fatigue but this is just a short term boast – plaster – and should never be seen as replacement to proper rest or to organizing the decisions you are exposed to making. Another element that helps is to limit the number of choices you are exposed to whenever this is possible. Considering 5 options tires you out more than considering two. Some alternative is always needed but there is price to be paid in mental energy for each additional option you have to consider, so in general try to limit your options to 2 or 3 good ones over considering all that is out there. Finally and most importantly start to see your decision willpower as having a limit, not to limit yourself, but rather to focus your mind on to using your willpower as much as possible on the most important decisions.
Great managers recognize that they have a limit to how many effective decision they can make and hence manage their willpower to focus it on the right decisions.