Bad choices: 13 things to know about decision fatigue

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The process of deciding what to wear in the morning may influence the quality of decisions executives make in the boardroom late in the afternoon.

Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions an individual makes after a long period of continuous decision making. In other words, the mental work of being a "decider" wears down an individual's capacity to make sound judgments through mental exhaustion.

Here are 13 things to know about decision fatigue among leaders.

Decision fatigue

1. A person age 18 years and older makes approximately 35,000 remotely conscious decisions a day, according to research from Roberts Wesleyan College.

2. Decision fatigue is the biological effect of continuously flexing one's decision-making muscles. The more choices a person makes throughout the day, the more challenging each one becomes for the brain. Eventually, the brain begins to look for shortcuts.

3. One mental shortcut is to act impulsively rather than expend the energy to first think through a decision's consequences. Another shortcut is to do nothing. Deflection, or avoiding making any decision, saves a person from expending mental energy agonizing over the choice.

4. Other decision-making strategies include:

  • Compliance — choosing the most pleasing or popular option as it pertains to those impacted.
  • Delegating — putting decisions to capable and trusted colleagues.
  • Balancing — weighing the factors involved, then using cost-benefit analyses to determine the "best" decision.
  • Prioritizing and reflecting — ranking decisions according to degree of significance, and putting the most energy, thought and effort into those with the greatest impact.

5. Lab experiments have suggested mental disciplines — self-discipline, willpower, decision making — are mental muscles that can be exhausted through overuse. In a series of experiments by social psychologist Roy Baumeister, people who fended off chocolate-chip cookies were less able to resist other temptations offered at a later period. Similarly, shoppers who made the greatest number of decisions in department stores showed the least mental stamina and were the quickest to give up when presented with a set of math problems.

6. Decisions of varying significance do not deplete a corresponding amount of mental energy. This means deciding what to wear to work requires the same mental exertion as deciding whether to quit a job or take out a loan.

Decision fatigue in hospitals

7. Some studies have measured the effect of decision fatigue in physicians. Physicians become increasingly more likely to prescribe antibiotics as their workday progresses, even when antibiotics are not an indicated treatment, according to a 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine. Compared to the first hour of work, the probability of assigning a prescription for antibiotics increased by 1 percent in the second hour, 14 percent in the third hour and 26 percent in the fourth hour.

8. Decision fatigue plays an important role in treatment for patients suffering from chronic illnesses. The chronically ill facea daily barrage of healthcare decisions over an extended period of time, from scheduling provider appointments to making medication choices. Several studies have linked chronic illness to major life decisions affecting a patient's quality of life.

Defending against decision fatigue

9. If mental fatigue results from an accumulation of decisions, then reducing the overall number of decisions an individual makes each day will help preserve mental energy. The individual then has more energy to devote to the decisions he or she does address, hopefully producing better quality decisions.  

10. Well-known leaders such as former President Barack Obama and former Apple CEO Steve Jobs advocated for reducing menial decisions as a way to focus decision-making energy for more profound tasks. Both men applied this principle to their daily wardrobe, for instance. "You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits," Mr. Obama told Vanity Fair. "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."  

11. Senior leadership and other executives who hold positions of authority may try to defend against decision fatigue by employing subordinates to manage low-priority tasks for them. Delegating responsibilities to lower level management can be a useful way to preserve mental energy for the decisions only senior leadership can make.

12. On the other hand, executives who over-delegate may become isolated from situational realities on the operational level, according to an article in Harvard Business Review. Support staff surrounding executive leadership may filter the information they pass along and give leaders a limited understanding of organizational problems, processes and data. Leaders who lack a comprehensive understanding of a situation have a lesser chance of making effective business decisions.

13. One strategy to ward against both decision fatigue and over-delegation is to develop a think tank of opinionated, trusted subject matter experts with proven track records of quality decision making. It is more effective if advisors have contradictory and diverse perspectives. This ensures executive leaders are exposed to the gamut of options in the decision-making process and have the essential facts to make appropriate business choices.

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