Take a moment to think about the decisions you’ve made today. Some may have felt automatic, like getting out bed or which freeway to take for your commute. Others may have required more complex thinking such as which vendor to work with, which candidate to hire for an open position, or which job offer to take. Regardless of the complexity, we are faced with making a ton of decisions each day. Even reading this article was a decision, and while many of these decisions seem automatic, the fact that our brains perform this magnificent function is awe-inspiring. Our brain is like a muscle and every decision we make serves as an exercise for the executive function of the brain.
Having choices seems wonderful. The freedom to choose is what we strive for in our personal and professional lives. But what do we do when we have too much of a good thing? As we progress through our days and exercise the executive function to make various decisions, our brains fatigue just like your muscles would after an intense workout. Unfortunately, this fatigue impacts our decision-making abilities. As we make decisions throughout the course of the day, regardless of whether they are big or small, our brains tire. And a tired brain is more likely to make a bad decision.
Tasks can be Taxing
So what causes this fatigue? Task switching and distractions brought on by technology, for one. In a typical work day, you will be faced with a multitude of tasks and decisions to make. You think you’ve mastered the art of switching between tabs and tasks, but did you know there is a cost associated with task switching? In a previous blog post we looked at the cost of task switching and found it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back on task once distracted.
As technology evolves and more networks, applications, and websites appear online, we are bombarded with daily distractions: more ways to network online, more ways to communicate, and even more ways to be efficient. We become drawn to the idea “more is better” and what begins as a simple scroll through your LinkedIn feed or a TED talk on how to be more productive has now officially made you less productive.
While many believe multitasking is an actual art, it’s actually a hinderance to your mental performance which can then affect your output. Dr. Daniel Levitin, the professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University, provided insight to decision fatigue and ultimately found that while switching between tasks can give the illusion that you are being productive, you are left feeling as though you haven’t accomplished much. Why is this the case? When this occurs, no matter the decision, big or small, the same amount of brain power is required.
Let’s say you’re getting ready to pitch a new marketing campaign to senior management. While preparing for the meeting, you’ve got to make a decision about what campaign idea you’re going to lead with. The concepts you’ve worked on are all solid, but each one goes in a different direction. Unfortunately, you’ve been bombarded with taxing tasks all day, and the pros and cons of each campaign idea are starting to get muddled in your mind. When the stakes are this high, can you afford to choose the wrong one? Of course not.
Brain fatigue can affect some very important decisions. While that might seem obvious, what is far less obvious is the realization all those small decisions are a contributing factor. Even those small decisions that seem easy begin to pile up. And when it comes to making those high stakes decisions, your brain is too tired to make them. When our cognitive resources are depleted, we have very little brain power left to properly think through your decisions – big or small.
Even your to-do list is causing brain fatigue. According to research, when we make a list, heterogeneous complexity occurs. We naturally go to the easiest task to get that instant dopamine release. So how do we improve our everyday decision making abilities and put our brain power to it’s best use?
We can keep our brain power at optimum levels by making fewer decisions. Fewer decisions are better for our mental well-being because when there are fewer decisions, we experience less fatigue. So let’s take a look at a few simple tricks to improve your everyday decision-making. Following these will help in having to make fewer decisions and keep your mental “decision tank” at an optimum level.
Eliminate distractions-Time to cut the noise
- Avoid digital overload by blocking out time for work and other tasks like checking emails. This can be tough, especially if you are waiting for feedback on a project, but learn to designate times for emails and specify those times to colleagues and coworkers. This informs them that you aren’t simply ignoring them but have a designated time for responding.
- Take back control of your time! Turn off online networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. And if that sounds like too much of a leap, start by turning off instant notifications.
Manage your Time Wisely
- Effective task management is a precursor to good decision-making. And there’s no shortage of online tools to help improve your task management. But if you’re overwhelmed by the prospect of having to choose between Trello, Jira, Basecamp, Asana, Smartsheets, and others, you can start by using a simple time management system like Toggl to establish a better routine.
- Start by allocating a specific amount of time to a particular task and track the time it actually took you. It only takes a second or two to track, so it’s easy to capture this information. The data you compile will demonstrate how effective you are at estimating time and effort. Over time, this will help you identify mismatches between your estimates and your reality and will put you in a position to recalibrate your expectations going forward.
Get organized and stay that way-Streamline
- Utilize systems like Shelf that make it easy to locate the information you need for your projects on an ongoing basis and declutter your online space in the process.
- Organize your digital work space by adding your content to a well-thought-through folder structure.
Automation–Let programs make the decision for you
- Automation helps many professionals by helping them make fewer unnecessary decisions. Take Buffer as an example. It’s a publishing platform that let’s you schedule content to go out at specific times. The system even allows you to schedule in bulk, and can also determine the best time for it go out; eliminating the need to make the decision yourself.
Making decisions daily is inevitable. Brain fatigue doesn’t have to be. The more we work to simplify things and create fewer choices to have to decide from, the more likely we are to help stop brain fatigue.