in Productivity

Mission Critical: How to Combat Decision Fatigue


Soup or salad? Chicken or fish? Which blog article should I read? What should we do this weekend? Which route will I take home from work?

Think about the number of mundane, micro-decisions you’ve already made today. From choosing among 80,000 beverage options at the coffee shop, to deciding what brand of toilet paper to buy—if you stopped to think about all of the tiny decisions you’ve endured in just a few hours, you’d likely lose count. That’s a waste of brain power and poor time management.

In the modern age, we’re faced with an overwhelming onslaught of decisions just like these. But as small and seemingly insignificant as these choices are, the act of deciding is draining, both mentally, emotionally, and chronologically.

What Is Decision Fatigue?

The aggregate result of making these micro-decisions over and over again causes what psychologists have coined as decision fatigue—a condition in which the quality of a person’s decisions is negatively impacted by mental exhaustion.

In their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, research psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times writer John Tierney assert that every decision you make, no matter how inconsequential, depletes your willpower and decision making ability to some degree. Because willpower is a finite resource, and because we in modern society are faced with an infinite number of decisions to be made—we reach a point where we can no longer make sound decisions.

Are You Running On Empty?

Decision fatigue explains a lot of phenomena in modern life—from impulsive spending to why dieters are so much more likely to “cheat” or break their diets in the evening hours. After a full day bombarded with decision making and the mental exhaustion that results, we’re no longer rational. All our good intentions from the morning go out the window, and we become impulsive. We can’t look at the bigger picture or long term consequences. Combine that scenario with a culture of sleep deprivation, and we’ve reached a breeding ground for chronic decision fatigue.

Healthy Choices Are Happy Choices

Of course, a lot of the secrets to combatting decision fatigue come down to all those same old things your Mom nags you about. Get enough sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Drink plenty of water. Research has shown that healthy habits make decision making easier.

But even so, what can we do to combat decision fatigue, or at least mitigate the impact of decision fatigue on the most important things we do every day?

Make the Big Decisions First

Studying decisions made by an Israeli parole board, researchers found a strong correlation between time of day and the decisions of the parole board judge. The researchers’ takeaway was that parole hearings later in the day garnered less favorable decisions for similar cases compared to hearings held in the morning. Over the course of the day, the mental taxation of decision making overwhelmed the judge significantly enough to alter his decisions by late afternoon.

From this study, we learn the importance of making the big decisions first. If you know you’ll be faced with a complex or significant choice, try to reach a conclusion on the issue early in the day, when your mental capacity is at its best. Or, if you’re presented with a critical choice at work late in the afternoon—ask if you can table decision making until the next morning, when everyone has had the chance to sleep on it. Doing so will lead to more rational decision making on the part of the whole team.

Simplify Your Life

Maybe it’s meal planning in advance so that after a long day, you’re not faced with, “What’s for dinner?” Maybe it’s automating common household purchases through a subscription service, or choosing a cable package with fewer channel options. Any steps you can take toward automating micro-decisions will help you create more mental space for cognitive reasoning when you’re faced with more significant choices.

Decision fatigue may simply be an unavoidable side effect of modern American life. Even with simplification and automation, it’s unlikely that we’ll escape the impact entirely. But as developers, we would do well to consider the intellectual requirements of our work and determine how best to allocate our decision making energy.

Unfortunately, in order to do that—we’ll have to make some decisions.