Over the last six months, I’ve experienced more decision fatigue than at any point in my life. As a result, I’ve sat with my anxiety longer then it deserves, I’ve avoided decisions altogether, and I’ve beaten myself with guilt over poor, impulsive choices made when I didn’t have the willpower to defeat them.
Decision fatigue would at times cripple my self-control (see impulsive, irresponsible corner cutting), blind my vision, and whisk away my concentration (somewhere Andy from Headspace was calmly saying, “Your mind can be pretty restless at times. Like a monkey in a cage.” Thanks, Andy. But I couldn’t hear you.).
I felt like Simba during the stampede scene: scratching, clawing, and gripping for survival, only instead of wildebeests it was choices trampling me to the ground. I was everywhere but present, paralyzed by choice, suffocated by indecision, and intoxicated with despair.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was drifting through the perfect storm of cognitive overload. And it was perfectly predictable.
After all, life is a Russian nesting doll of choice, and I was making too many of them.
But this story has a happy ending. And so will yours. It has too. Because every day we wake up (choice one) and show up for life where people depend on us: family, friends, colleagues, customers, and even patients. And every day decision fatigue shows up, too (it’s science, not personal).
Decision fatigue is as human of a condition as happiness or sadness, even though at some point someone tried to convince you that “analysis paralysis” was your problem, not theirs.
It’s our problem. And it’s only getting worse.
Unfortunately, cognitive depletion, or, as author Barry Schwartz would argue, a “tyranny of choice,” affects us all. And there’s only one way to stave off total depletion: to plan for it, because it is coming. Only then can we all be better leaders, loved ones, colleagues, doctors, business owners and providers of value.
This article is about the lessons I’ve learned on my journey from a seed of indecision to a bloom of revelation; it’s about finding ways to win the battle of willpower so we can make better decisions, create stronger teams, and lead better businesses; and it’s for anyone who has ever answered the question, “What do you want to eat for dinner?” with “I don’t care.”
Mindfulness is the first step toward liberation
Decision fatigue, or ego depletion, refers to the escalating mental tax your willpower pays every time you make a decision: the more choices you make each day, the harder the subsequent choices become.
So much so that by the end of the day, you’re either descending a 90 ft. wave of impulsive irrationality or dodging decisions like they’re flying wrenches because your brain no longer has the energy to make compromises, analyze trade-offs, or regulate self-control. Delightful, I know.
As it turns out, our willpower is finite and exhaustible.
And to add calamity to an already crippling phenomenon, we can’t even tell when we’ve reached the end of our rope:
- No measurable gas tank
- No quantifiable decision limit
- No physical fatigue
- No indication whatsoever that our cognitive reasoning has declined and that we can no longer trust ourselves
So we push forward, not knowing what we don’t know, into the abyss of ego depletion, where we frolic with impulsion and drown in indecision.
My journey through the abyss started like everyone’s: with a seed of indecision.
Then another. And another.
Until all at once my life at work and home became a constant crossing of the Rubicon, as it does: new IM marketing strategy, new website build, new house (furnishing a new home is insufferable btw), new *expensive* hobby (I must’ve spent 25K hours researching every new lens, light, and LED screen for my cameras), and a new baby on board (baby registry… just. baby registry.)
I’d heard about decision fatigue before and even suspected its presence. But I didn’t approach my days, my months, my projects, my team, or my anything mindful that willpower had a shelf life, that certain choices depleted more cognitive resources than others, or that decision fatigue was lurking around the corner, even if I couldn’t hear it.
Since I wasn’t mindful of my fatigue, I couldn’t plan for it. And since I didn’t plan for it, I couldn’t minimize its impact on anyone.
As with anything, mindfulness was the first step toward liberation.
Longer projects experience higher risks of decision-fatigue
Decision fatigue usually happens at the end of the day, when you may still have the will but you no longer have the power. However, it can also occur toward the end of a project, at all times of the day.
For example, as we neared the ninth month of our website build, decision fatigue would creep its way into everyone’s mind, body and spirit before the bean water came to a brew.
We weren’t paralyzed by indecision, however; we were rejuvenated by decisions it seemed- awful decisions.
I like to call this the “Sure” or “Go for it” stage of a project: somewhere between total conniption and DGAF, where the mental fog is so dense that you think it’s a good idea to launch a website after 24 straight hours of work (yep, impulsive irrationality):
“Everything’s good guys. Let’s launch!”
“What about mobile though?”
“Mobile? … My mobile is in my hand. Where’s yours?
“Where’s my hand?”
“No- you’re mobile. Nevermind. Ready to launch?”
But why does this happen?
The longer a project wages on, the more finite our cognitive attention spans become. Ironically, the more time we spend weighing the pros and cons of our options (trade-offs), the more impaired our decision-making becomes, too:
“As it turns out, your willpower is like a muscle. And similar to the muscles in your body, willpower can get fatigued when you use it over and over again. Every time you make a decision, it’s like doing another rep in the gym. And similar to how your muscles get tired at the end of a workout, the strength of your willpower fades as you make more decisions.” – James Clear, behavioral psychologist
And at the end of every project (including ours) there comes a deluge of decisions that you should have already made but didn’t; instead, you spent the entire time up until now putting them off or pondering them.
If we can approach our projects knowing that every end marks the inevitable culmination of indecision, then we can fill our projects with micro-deadlines that force us to act early, not ponder. Don’t set yourself up to make critical decisions in the eleventh hour. They don’t typically end well.
Anything longer than 90 days is at risk of high-velocity decision fatigue in my opinion, especially if it’s a project that doesn’t produce anything tangible (sometimes we just need to see it!).
Don’t plan big life events at the same time as big career events, or vice versa
Decision fatigue doesn’t discriminate between choices at work or choices at home. They’re just choices, and your willpower is counting backward from an unknown number until it implodes.
During the stride of our website build, we had two linchpins (our designer and developer) take paternity leave at different times. During the same time I found out that I would also be a dad, and that’s when my wife and I began our search for a bigger home (and… baby registry).
In a few months, I’ll know for sure, but I can only imagine the fatigue our designer and developer, on the cusp of fatherhood, were feeling before and after the births of their babes. I was looking for a new home, and the decision to go garage/no-garage or patio/backyard was keeping me up at night.
Think about all of your decisions when planning your next big initiative. You can’t control life from happening (“Hey! Uh, can you put off your baby a few months? Asking for a friend.”), but you can schedule your work around life when it does (like putting off the search for a home until after the website launched).
End each day with closure
Indecision haunts us: the bigger the decision, the more ghastly the torment.
It’s called passive anxiety. For all my procrastinators out there, you know exactly what I mean.
Passive anxiety is like a slow, subtle, sinister leak in your cognitive gas tank.
When we put ourselves in a decision-making mind frame, we never entirely exit that mind frame until we make the decision. Though we may think we’ve given ourselves a break by “shelving” the decision until later, the weight of that decision lingers in the back of our minds, depleting our ego, fatiguing our cognitive surplus, and robbing us of the present.
If you’ve ever “taken your work home” or had a hard time falling asleep because of a looming decision the following day, you’ve experienced the taxing effects of passive anxiety.
Analysis paralysis and decision avoidance feed off passive anxiety, too. For example, at times throughout the last year, my abstract list of indecision (floating in my head no less) got so big that it worked myself into a carbonite freeze. Hear that: I worked myself into paralysis. Ouch!
So if you want to avoid feeling like Han Solo from The Empire Strikes Back, end each day with a sense of finality: commit to making a decision that you’ve already started, even if that means staying a little late- because indecision is open all night.
And, if you’re anything like me, just do it now- in real life– not just in your head (like when you reply to an email, call, or text in your head but plan to send it tomorrow. Anyone?)
Also, when you end each day by closing open decisions and by planning your tomorrow, not only do you give today “decision closure,” but you’ve also completed your first decision for tomorrow, too.
Closure is like natural anti-anxiety medicine.
Passive aggressiveness is decision without commitment
What I’ve realized about my passive aggressive behavior is that it’s a manifestation of poor self-expression and communication; it’s unproductive, habitual, destructive, and has more to do with my own feelings of inadequacy than anyone else’s.
When you behave passive-aggressively, it’s like you’re trying to communicate, but resisting the truth; you’re saying something, but not what you mean; or you’re expressing an emotion, but channeling another.
It’s decision without commitment (or indecision about expression).
Instead of confronting the real point of tension, we parade in circles around it- jabbing, sulking, insulting- until we’re swoll and sullen. And after all that deliberate inefficiency, we still haven’t communicated what we really mean, we still haven’t confronted our passive resistance, and we still harbor unresolved anger. We’re making stressful decisions, however non-committal, and getting nowhere!
Worse, this perpetual form of indecision not only clouds our vision, but it hamstrings the mental resources of everyone in our wake, too: it creates decision fatigue for everyone.
Here’s what someone much smarter than me taught me about overcoming passive aggressiveness:
- Commit to your feelings
- Don’t deny your anger
- And confront conflict no matter how difficult it seems
- Then let it go
Ahhh, feel better?
A healthy dose of positive unity at home or at work will reduce stress and postpone decision fatigue.
Build your routine around creative work and administrative work
Not all decisions are created equal.
First, different people handle the same decisions differently. Introverts vs extroverts? Ya!
Fear, experience, confidence, passion, skill, curiosity, and personality type, amongst other reasons, all play a role in making certain decisions more taxing for some and less for others. This law spares no one, either (not even you, Andy from Headspace).
Hard truth: until I accepted this, I had no chance of leading anyone, including myself.
Because if I didn’t, that meant I would continuously put myself and my teammates in position to make decisions we weren’t suited to make. I was setting everyone up for failure and fatigue.
Seriously, it’s like making Shaq shoot three-pointers while Steph Curry posts up down low.
Instead, make your toughest decisions first if you have to make them, like in the morning or at the beginning of a project, when your cognitive resources are full. Then identify your colleagues’ or team members’ toughest decisions so you can establish roles (critical) and build your project around everyone’s strengths as opposed to their weaknesses.
Second, different types of work require different types of decision-making (no matter the person) which I’ve learned require different types of routines.
More specifically, as Paul Graham originally pointed out, creative work benefits from a maker’s schedule, where you dedicate long blocks of time to one task so you can hit your flow and gain momentum (if you’re a surgeon, that’s in the operating room); administrative work benefits from a manager’s schedule, where you break your day up by the hour, and every hour you move to a different task, like a meeting, a consultation, or an email.
Both schedules are designed to optimize productivity and decision-making for their respective mode of thinking.
However, the problem arises when we transition back and forth between the two schedules (like most of us do). Since creative work requires long, sustained focus, the tiniest interruption or administrative task can throw off an entire day.
Instead, the trick is to split your day in half or dedicate entire days to one schedule or the other.
For example, for me, Tuesday is a manager’s schedule all day: I have 3-5 meetings throughout the day and use the rest of my time to manage my team, plan for the rest of the week, answer emails and calls, research, or make quick decisions. If someone needs to schedule a meeting with me, I try to schedule them all on Tuesday.
Thursdays and Fridays are maker’s schedules all day: these are the quietest days around the office, so I work from home and dedicate a 4-5 hour block in the early morning to creative work (writing, design, presentations, processes, video, etc.) and another 4-5 hour block after lunch. I almost never check emails, calls, or messages until the very end of the day.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, I split work between a maker and a manager.
Since manager work doesn’t require sustained focus or deep thinking, these decisions are easier and less taxing. So on days when I switch between a maker’s schedule and a manager’s schedule, I always do my maker’s work in the morning (first half) and manager’s work after lunch (second half) when my willpower is low and I can no longer ignore the day’s distractions.
Try breaking up your day into two halves: long, singular tasks in the morning and short, reactive tasks after lunch. And if you can, experiment with blocking off entire days for either a maker’s schedule or a manager’s schedule (just keep in mind that a full 8-hour maker schedule is impossible to sustain).
Then, know what schedules your colleagues or staff members work on so you can respect their flow.
Decision-making bliss awaits.
Don’t let someone be the workhorse just because they’re capable
In every business, we rely on our most skilled and experienced employees to do more. And for good reason: they’re skilled and experienced. But giving someone more just because they’re capable (or because they want it), doesn’t mean we should.
These employees (or business owners) fatigue quicker than most for one main reason: the constant transition from one mode of thinking to the next (from maker to manager, manager to maker) makes it impossible to gain or sustain momentum.
It happened to me.
Over the last year or so, I became the “utility” guy at Incredible Marketing.
I was capable. And I wanted it. So it sounded like a good idea.
From video production to copywriting, from product development to developing internal processes, from sales conferences to marketing strategy, from email marketing to SEO… I wore a hat in every shape, size, and color (except a fedora!).
It went something like this: I’d spend three weeks dedicated to video for clients, then jump to copywriting the new website for six weeks, then back to sales travel for ten days, and then to designing graphics for the site for an entire month. By the time I returned to video two months later, I couldn’t even remember my way around the editing software much less my routine, my processes, or my shortcuts.
Efficiency suffered. Productivity suffered. Quality suffered. Decision-making suffered. The company suffered. And I suffered.
All because I was capable.
I alluded to this before, but it deserves repeating: never underestimate the importance of a routine and its ability to temper anxiety, create momentum, and build habits that make decision-making easier, more efficient, and more productive.
Above all, specialization can cut through decision-fatigue like a propeller cuts through a cloud.
Even if you can, it doesn’t mean you should.
Collaboration is the art of distributing decisions
The benefits of collaboration are numerous- that we already know. But what I’ve learned about collaboration over this past year is that it’s really the art of distributing decisions amongst other people; it’s a way to shoulder the burden of decision overload.
But not just any decisions; decisions associated with activities that you don’t need to be good at or that you have zero intrinsic motivation to be good at in the future.
There’s only one reason why we don’t delegate activities that we don’t need to be good at: ego. (Men, see toxic masculinity.) However, analyzing choices and trade-offs becomes exponentially more difficult when we lack proficiency, passion, or prowess.
In his book, The Dip, about strategically quitting the right stuff, Seth Godin describes how every obstacle, from running a marathon to learning a new skill, has a “long slog between starting and mastery” (a dip) that only your talent or passion can get you through.
The dip is a sand trap for control freaks like myself: if we don’t have the expertise or enthusiasm to climb the walls of the dip, we stay in it, burning time, money, and valuable cognitive resources when we should have quit or never even started.
Don’t get stuck in a dip when you can delegate to someone who’s already made it through one. And if you find yourself in a dip that you know you won’t get out of, strategically quit now.
Unless you’re developing a new skill that you’re passionate about, delegate decisions to a collaborator who’s better equipped, saving you precious time, money, and mental energy in the process (not to mention years of your life).
Make a “Don’t Do” list
We rely on mental shortcuts called biases or heuristics all the time to help simplify decision-making. It’s our brain’s instinctive way of dealing with choice overload. But confirmation bias, stereotypes, or fancy-named heuristics like “escalation of commitment” usually oversimplify a decision, leading to poor outcomes.
One cognitive shortcut you can rely on, however, is making a choice ahead of time not to do something.
Make a “Don’t Do” list.
Then, when it’s time to decide whether or not you should pursue a project (or a particular part of a project), you’ll already know the answer: No!
Like I mentioned before, stick to your strengths. There’s no good reason to do work that you’re not good at and that you have no intrinsic motivation to be good at in the future. Life’s too short to suck at anything.
For example, maybe you’re a great doctor but an awful manager, and you have no passion for being a great manager in the future. Starve your ego and put it on the list: hire a manager.
And don’t forget life decisions either, because we know your decision fatigue won’t.
For example, I put “handy work around the house” on my don’t do list (hanging wall decor, plumbing issues, building furniture, etc.) because 1). I’m awful at it (don’t encourage me) and 2). If I put another shelf on backward (not kidding), hang another mirror off center, or push another picture anchor through a wall, my wife will kill me even before an aneurysm does. Now I just call my brother (sigh).
Make your don’t do list. Then, don’t do. I know- freedom.
Take fewer willpower reps and “choice prep” your life
If decision fatigue occurs after we’ve bench pressed one too many reps of willpower, then limit the number of reps in one day. Simple, right?
This is why Steve Jobs wore the black turtleneck with denim jeans so often and why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same grey t-shirt to work every day. Simplify life by reducing choice.
Two easy ways I’ve learned how to limit reps: by “choice prepping” (like meal prepping, but for choices), and by not making recurring decisions twice.
First, choice prep your life by either automating routine tasks or by making choices ahead of time, when you have time, so you don’t burn willpower later when you need it most.
Here are some examples of how I’ve choice prepped my life recently:
- Select the entire week’s dinner menu on Sunday so my wife and I don’t catch the “I don’t cares” every night during the week
- Auto-pay my bills so I’m not worried about missing a payment and don’t have to carve out time to do it
- Bring lunch to work so I don’t need to decide whether or not I have time for a break and so the temptation to eat out (and spend money) never creeps in (the decision over whether or not you should spend money is particularly taxing).
- DVR my favorite shows so I can fit them into my schedule, not the other way around
- Create a routine that schedules time for family, leisure, and solitude (it’s much easier to balance your life on paper first vs. serendipitously).
- Plan exercise time so I don’t wake up every morning and fight with myself over whether or not I should workout (a taxing way to start your day).
Second, try not to make recurring decisions twice, no matter how trivial.
For example, after my cycle class on Fridays, I always get an acai bowl from Banzai Bowls (best bowls in the world if you’re ever in Orange County).
But it didn’t always go that way…
After cycle, I always crave something healthy and refreshing. So, every Friday, I would analyze the trade-offs between my options: Greenie from Nektar? Berry Blast from Jamba Juice? Maui Sunrise from Banzai Bowl? Pitaya Bowl from Mother’s?
And, every Friday, I would waste ten minutes and ten percent of my cognitive gas tank weighing options.
Now, every Friday after cycle, I no longer deliberate over what to choose. Instead, I go to Banzai Bowl, always. Trivial? 100%. But one less choice I have to make on Friday.
The truth is our lives are a lot more predictable than we think. Even amid the chaos or an apparent absence of routine, life repeats itself, from the trivial to the critical. But if we exercise clairvoyance, we can reduce decision fatigue by automating frivolous decisions, by making decisions at better times of the day, and by making recurring decisions once.
Simplify your life. Limit your reps!
You can’t control the outcome, anyways
If we didn’t worry about making the wrong decision, then decision fatigue wouldn’t exist.
Think about it…
Choice is really a quarrel for control: We contemplate, propagate, isolate, and nominate, over and over again, all so we can increase the odds of making the right decision and avoid making the wrong decision.
We’re trying to control an outcome in our favor.
But analyzing trade-offs in our attempt to control the outcome takes an emotional and psychological toll on our brain’s cognitive resources. It’s exhausting and filled with cortisol.
And still, we make the wrong choices all the time (just ask Arie from the Bachelor).
And good decisions go bad, too.
You’re going to make the wrong choices. Good choices will, indeed, go bad. And you can’t control those absolute truths.
No matter how hard we try, we can’t control outcomes.
So the next time you need to decide whether to go midnight blue with chaise or dove grey full sectional, put your decision in perspective, learn to live without control, and rest assured knowing that no matter how long you weigh the pros and cons, you can’t control whether or not your new couch will jive with the area rug and coffee table until you get the couch in the house. (True story.)
A bias toward action is more important than perfection.
The price we pay for autonomy
Suffice to say that an abundance of choice has become a burden, not a blessing.
Unlike generations past, we live in a world dripping with autonomy. And the cost of decision fatigue isn’t trivial; it’s unhappiness.
Today, managing the deluge of decisions may be the greatest skill we learn to develop. After all, if life is one booming field of options with no end in sight, that’s a lot of hay bales of unhappiness.
Good decision-making doesn’t last forever. But it can last longer, if you’re mindful of it.
Only then can we all be better leaders, loved ones, colleagues, doctors, business owners and providers of value.