Soup or salad? Paper or plastic? Arial or Times New Roman? Each of these decisions – as insignificant as they may seem – takes a certain amount of mental energy to make. The more decisions you make in a day, the more mentally fatigued you become.
Think about what it’s like to come home after a long, stressful day at work and be faced with the question, “What do you want for dinner?” It’s a simple question that should have a simple answer, but when you’re feeling the weight of decision fatigue, it can feel like the most frustrating question in the world.
Or consider research done on 1,100 decisions made by the same parole board. The judges on the board were ostensibly qualified legal minds with solid experience and judgment. But the main factor that affected their parole decisions turned out to be time of day. 70% of prisoners who appeared before the board in the morning were given parole compared to only 10% who appeared before the board late in the day.
One of the most frustrating parts of decision fatigue is that you may not recognize it in yourself. As the day wears on, you’ll start either making impulsive decisions or putting off decisions entirely without realizing that you’re doing so because you are mentally drained.
Self-awareness is the first step in fighting work decision fatigue. Here are three more practical ways that you can help yourself ward off mental exhaustion from work.
Take Time Off
While decision fatigue is often discussed in terms of day-to-day ups and downs, decision fatigue can also have a cumulative effect. One of the best ways to restore both your physical and mental energy is to take a vacation. Ideally you should completely unplug from work and enjoy time doing the things you like best, whether that’s relaxing at a spa or cross-country skiing. Getting a change of scenery and clearing your mind will help you feel more energized and inspired. It’s also a key way to improve employee productivity, so encourage the people you manage to take vacations, too.
Routines are a bit of a double-edged sword. Doing the same thing day in and day out can have a demoralizing effect. But routines can also be energizing and freeing. Routines help our minds take a break, because we already know what’s ahead. Routines help limit the decisions we make in a day so that we have more energy for the important decisions. Plus, when you have a routine, there’s no rule that you can’t deviate from it or that the routine has to be exactly the same every day. You could have a slightly different routine for each day of the week. The point is that you set expectations for yourself in advance, which helps you focus and minimize wasted mental energy and wasted time.
Practice Clear Communication
Just as routines help you set expectations for yourself, clear communication makes it easier for you to set clear expectations for the people who work for you, reducing both your and their decision fatigue. If an employee has to ask herself, “Did she mean this or that?” or “Should I show this to her now or wait until it’s done?” that confusion will damage their confidence, their morale, and their motivation. Setting clear goals and deadlines through emotionally intelligent conversations is essential for keeping everyone on the same page, which greatly reduces decision fatigue for everyone involved.