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3 Ways to Combat Decision Fatigue

Have you ever had to make so many choices in a given day that you just plain burned out your decision-making muscles? If so, congratulations: you are human, with all the intricacies and limitations that implies. Decision fatigue is real, and if you're suffering from it, the last thing you need to do is beat yourself up for "not having more willpower."

Have you ever had to make so many choices in a given day that you just plain burned out your decision-making muscles? If so, congratulations: you are human, with all the intricacies and limitations that implies. Decision fatigue is real, and if you’re suffering from it, the last thing you need to do is beat yourself up for “not having more willpower.”

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(Photo Credit: snigl3t/Flickr)

“After my first day of work in a new city, I found myself sprawled facedown on the carpet of my new apartment,” writes Jane C. Hu at Slate. “I needed to buy a couch, to finish writing assignments from my last job, to walk the dog — but after deciding which route to take between home and work, choosing a health insurance plan, and setting up a dozen new account passwords, I was totally useless. My husband asked me what I wanted to eat for dinner, and I didn’t care, as long as I didn’t have to think up a menu.”

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The explanation for Hu’s paralysis? Choice overload, a term coined by researchers at Stanford and Columbia to describe what happens when too many options result in demotivation, followed by decision fatigue, which is the deteriorating quality of decisions made over a long period of making choices.

Modern life is lousy with choice: do you want this smartphone or that one? Will this health plan better serve your family’s needs, or would this other one be a better bet? Should you stay at your job, or go back to school, or combine the two? When is the right time in your career to have a family, take a sabbatical, change tracks, angle for promotion? We’re fortunate to have choices, of course, but too many of them can cancel out the benefits of having so many options.

To fight the fatigue, try the following:

1. Understand that decision fatigue is a real thing.

Successful people have a habit of assuming that internal limitations can be overcome by hard work. Not so in this case. As much as possible, try to arrange things so that all your major choices don’t happen in the same day. If you’re a manager, for example, don’t review all candidates for a job right in a row — know that your assessment of their skills will deteriorate over the course of the day.

2. Narrow your options.

What do you do when faced with a gigantic menu? If you’re like most of us, you pick a section, and narrow it down from there. (Or you spend an hour gazing at horror at your seemingly ever-expanding choices. But then you’re never invited to brunch again, so one way or another, that sorts itself out.)

Business decisions can sometimes be made the same way. While you don’t want to arbitrarily cut yourself off from options, there’s something to be said for winnowing down the less important choices — e.g., which pens to order for yourself during the next office supply shipment — using the menu method.

3. Do the important stuff first.

“[G]et the important things out of the way early on in the day, before you’ve reached your frustration threshold or gotten distracted by break-room crullers,” suggests Chu. “Checking off your to-do list when your cognitive resources are fresh is a good strategy for avoiding rash decisions.”

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What’s your solution for decision fatigue? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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