How much of your day is spent making decisions? Think about work. If you count everything from how to seek information, how to negotiate with others, how to implement ideas and how to monitor outcomes, then you might find that taking up quite a bit of your time. Then think about all of the tiny decisions you make outside of work. What should I wear? Should I have a morning coffee? Shall I have an extra biscuit with my tea? Shall I listen to music or read a book? Shall I browse Facebook or Instagram? Shall I pop into the pub on the way home…again?
Willpower and decision fatigue
John Tierney and Roy Baumeister calculated in their book “Willpower: Rediscovering our Greatest Strength” that people spend at least a fifth of their waking hours resisting the desire to eat, to sleep, or to take breaks. ¹
Decisions and willpower both use the same sources of energy.
Making decisions, resisting something, or persisting in something difficult, have been shown to be high-energy tasks for the brain, which is the most energy intensive part of the body.
The act of deciding is also a lot tougher than the early stages of the decision-making process. For instance, a fashionista might have fun browsing the web for the latest trends, but energy is like money; it is spent most at the point of sale, or at the online check out. Many car salespeople are aware of this, and will exhaust you with minor options when buying a car, before asking you to make more expensive choices. By this point, you will be less able to make sound judgements. So, a crucial tip for decision making is to prioritize what is important.
Decision and willpower fatigue explain why it is so easy to lose focus and give in to temptation. In court, judges are more likely to allow parole in the morning, after a mid-morning snack and immediately after lunch. However, as the day goes on, judges are more likely to refuse parole.
Making decisions use large parts of our brain, and depends on various parts, from the system that deals with our strategic thinking (pre-frontal cortex) to our emotional systems. Emotions are the brain’s way of giving meaning to inputs.
Emotions dictate whether we view something as good or bad, safe or dangerous, or right or wrong. In his 1994 book “Descartes’ Error”, Antonio Damasio showed that without access to emotions, people could not make rational decisions about work, personal or social issues.
Without emotions, people wouldn’t be able to make the simplest decisions. But, on the other side of the scale, strong emotions such as fear or desire can restrict the decision-making process, making it hard, or impossible, to decide rationally. With all of this in mind, it is important for leaders to be aware of their own emotional states, and to be able to manage them.
Not deciding is bad for you
A simple approach might be to defer making decisions in a bid to conserve energy. In fact, the opposite happens, unfinished tasks and unmet goals tend to linger in the mind. This can take up very valuable conscious brain space. This is known as the Zeigarnik effect.
There are many reasons that we put tasks off. It could be emotion-based (involving guilt or fear), because the task may be ill-defined, or maybe even because the task requires information that we do not have. The subconscious mind ‘nags’ the conscious mind to get on with unfinished tasks, but stays quiet when you make firm decisions as to what to do about each one. Some tasks can be finished quickly, some can be delegated, and others need a plan. If the plan is specific enough, the unconscious mind will often be satisfied, and stop nagging.
Biases, conscious and unconscious, also get in the way of good decisions, in individuals and groups. But that is a long story, and we will be publishing a number of articles specifically about bias.
Understanding decision making can help leaders manage workloads.
If you have big decisions to make, make sure you feel replenished and fresh. Go for a walk, take a power nap, meditate for 5 minutes, or do whatever works for you. Learn to manage your emotions and your biases. And, if you can’t decide, well, then get in touch, and we’ll do our best to help you.