Overcome decision fatigue

Leadership  Learning
21 September, 2020

Counteract COVID decision fatigue, caused by making complex decisions under very challenging conditions

The pandemic has placed a heavy weight on our everyday decisions, big and small. Should I risk a trip to the grocery store? Is it okay to meet the neighbours for a cup of tea? Do I let the kids have extra screen time so I can finish my work? When should I open up the office? There is an endless series of choices to be made – and each one involves an agonising analysis of risk versus benefit, convenience versus safety. A recent piece in Psychology Today sums up the situation well: 

The stakes are high, confidence is low, emotions are hot, and answers are non-existent. The result is we are making complex decisions on a daily basis under very challenging conditions, and our decision-making tools are not at their best. 

Things are even more stressful for business leaders, whose choices govern not just their own lives but also the fate of their organisations and workforce. As Jenny Reilly, C-suite coach and chair of The Executive Committee – Canada, points out:

The continual pressure of being asked to respond with certainty to a situation through the coronavirus pandemic when we do not have all the answers has been taxing on individuals in leadership positions.  

The feeling of exhaustion created by making too many choices is known as decision fatigue, a concept developed by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. The human brain has a limited store of energy, which gets depleted every time you make a choice. When mental reserves run low, your willpower plummets and clarity gets clouded, leading to poor judgment. So, if you make several decisions one after the other, the later decisions are likely to be compromised.

With fatigue kicking in, there is a tendency to maintain the status quo and take the path of least resistance – or avoid making a choice altogether. Research has demonstrated this in varied settings: from judges denying parole far more frequently later in the day, to nurses making more conservative recommendations further along in their shift.

This week, my message focuses on the impact of COVID decision fatigue and what steps you can take to counteract it. How can you equip yourself to make important choices from a place of clarity and control?

Pandemic-driven decision fatigue

Decision fatigue existed long before coronavirus, but the effects are more widespread and intense today. As an article in USA Today explains: 

When we’re able to maintain daily routines, the brain can automate decisions and rely on heuristics – or mental shortcuts – to avoid fatigue. But the pandemic has disrupted many of our routines, forcing us to allocate more mental energy to decision-making.

Aside from impairing judgment, decision fatigue creates a high level of cortisol within the body, which impacts your mental as well as physical wellbeing. This hormone is produced every time you stress over a decision, triggering a fight-or-flight response. Constantly being in such a state of fear and apprehension causes all kinds of problems – from headaches and irritability, to muscle weakness and high blood pressure.

Given that we’re in this pandemic for the long haul, we need to optimise the way in which we make decisions. You will be called upon to make numerous decisions that will have a huge impact on your team and organisation. Life outside work is also set to remain uncertain – from evolving norms around health and safety, to potentially major changes in children’s education.

Many more unknowns on the horizon 

Given that we’re in this pandemic for the long haul, we need to optimise the way in which we make decisions. The lockdowns may be lifting, but the pressure isn’t easing up. For business leaders, the need of the hour is to be highly adaptive and reshape operations, while bracing for future shocks. This kind of relentless reinvention is exceptionally stressful. In the coming months, you will be called upon to make numerous decisions that will have a huge impact on your team and organisation. Life outside work is also set to remain uncertain – from evolving norms around health and safety, to potentially major changes in children’s education.

In order to navigate this extended period of stress, you need to conserve your mental energy and restore a sense of control. Here are seven suggestions to help you curtail decision fatigue, at work and at home.

1. Pare down decisions

Preserve your mental energy by combining several choices and tackling them in one go. For example, you could pre-decide your work schedule and meal plan for the entire week on Sunday evening. This way, you don’t waste precious brain power on these tasks throughout the week. You can also eliminate decisions by developing default routines. Life can be simplified in a number of other ways, from choosing a default template for all your presentations to accepting invites for virtual gatherings only on set days of the week.

2. Take out the guesswork

Uncertainty is a huge cause of decision fatigue. When we don’t have all the information, we keep going back and forth between different options, steadily depleting our mental resources. Wherever possible, plug these gaps with the help of experts and data. For instance, if one of your employees has tested COVID positive, don’t try to “guesstimate” the risk to the rest of your team. Instead, turn to a healthcare expert and use their recommendations to guide your decision. Unknowns can also be reduced with the help of data. Seek out relevant facts and numbers to bring clarity to your thought process.

3. Don’t compare choices

If you’re frequently second-guessing yourself these days, you’re not alone. The pandemic has amplified the tendency to measure our own choices against those of our friends and colleagues. The Psychology Today article mentioned above advises against playing the comparison game: 

Questioning your decisions by comparing them to others’ only increases the fatigue. Other peoples’ risk factors and risk tolerance may be higher or lower than yours, their primary needs may be different yours, and the factors you are weighing may be weighted very differently for them.

 4. Share the decision-making

As a leader, you need to take certain decisions on your own. Others, however, can be reached in a more collective fashion. Not only will this ease the pressure on you but also help to balance your perspective. Consider creating a small group of trusted advisors with whom you can discuss your plans and talk through the process of making key choices.

At home, too, share the load as far as possible. If one partner is making all the choices – from cleaning protocols, to home-schooling schedules – they are bound to suffer from mental fatigue. Distributing the decisions is a more sustainable solution. Older children can be included in this process. For example, they could take over the task of fixing up Zoom calls with extended family or setting up a fun activity for the weekend.

5. Listen to your intrinsic motivators

In a Forbes article on this topic, executive coach Regan Walsh distinguishes between intrinsic motivators (curiosity, passion, love) and extrinsic motivators (money, praise, popularity). Those experiencing decision fatigue should bring their focus to the former. As Walsh explains: 

Intrinsic motivators…are genuine and deep-rooted, and they offer contentment and joy. Extrinsic motivators, like money and approval, stand in stark contrast because they come from outside sources and tend to bring only short-term gratification…. Making decisions based on what inherently lights us up, what gives us meaning and makes us happy, can free up some much-needed head space when we really need it. (And right now, we all really need it.)

6. Prioritise rest and fitness

There are two good ways to bring down high cortisol levels naturally: sleep and exercise. Unfortunately, the pandemic has disrupted sleep patterns for a lot of people, probably due to a combination of overwork and anxiety. To switch from “survive” to “thrive” mode, it’s crucial to return to a healthy sleep routine, whether that involves some light reading before bedtime, a session of Yoga Nidra or your favourite relaxing playlist. Exercise is the second vital component. Even a short 30-minute workout reduces cortisol and produces endorphins, leaving you mentally energised.

 7. Give your brain a recess

There will be days or weeks when you will simply have to make several choices in close succession. To safeguard the quality of your thinking, keep replenishing your mental energy tank. If you need to make a major decision but are feeling drained, take a short rejuvenating break. Go for a walk outside, do some stretches or call a friend who always puts you in a good mood. Come back to the decision-making process when you’re feeling refreshed. It’s also important to make time after work for things you really enjoy, regardless of usefulness or productivity – whether it’s a Zoom night with friends, binge-watching that new Netflix show or curling up with a page-turner.

Being less noticeable than physical tiredness, decision fatigue tends to sneak up on you – which is why it’s crucial to tackle it proactively. Preserve your mental resources for what really matters by optimising your decision-making process and eliminating unnecessary cognitive burdens.


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