What is decision fatigue?
In one of my previous posts, I talked about energy and how it affects your motivation and willpower. Specifically, I talked about things you can do to maximize your energy level (both physical and mental), thereby increasing the baseline starting level of willpower you have each day. If you want to check out that post, I’ve included a link to it here.
My earlier post dealt with situations that are clearly willpower challenges, like resisting the urge to eat unhealthy foods or motivating yourself to go to the gym, and how improving both your physical and mental energy improves your motivation to do those things. Today, however, I’m going to extend that idea even further and talk about how you can effectively manage whatever amount of willpower you have, preserving it for the things that matter most to you, by managing decision fatigue.
In today’s hyper-connected world, every email, text message, Facebook post, voicemail or Slack message is a request for your time and attention. You probably don’t think about it in this way, but every one of those requests requires two decisions. The first is a small decision; whether to even look at it or listen to it. Once you have checked the notification and you now have the details of the request in your mind, you then have a larger, usually more difficult decision to make; what to do about it.
Why is decision fatigue a problem?
When you think about your life in this way, you quickly realize that your brain processes thousands of decisions every single day! Compare this to the number of daily decisions that a person had to make just a hundred years ago and the difference is startling. It’s easy to see why decision fatigue is becoming a problem. What’s concerning is that this situation is getting worse, not better. The rate of change of technology is accelerating how interconnected our world is, adding to the ways we can communicate with each other, which increases the number of decisions you have to make every day. You are, quite literally, drowning in information.
This change has been gradual, slowly invading more and more of the empty space in our days, to the point where there is very little left. It’s like when you see a friend’s kids after being apart for a couple years. They look dramatically different to you because they have changed so much compared to the most recent mental picture you have of them. And while your friend is obviously aware that they have grown, the change is much less pronounced to them, because they have lived it every day. If you could go back 15 or 20 years and spend a day in that world, you would be stunned at how simple and uncluttered the days were compared to today.
Your willpower is a finite resource that behaves much like a muscle, which means it gets fatigued and needs rest to recharge. Most people don’t realize it, but every decision you make, even the “micro” decisions like whether to look at that new text message or keep writing the email you are typing, drains a little bit of your willpower. Those little decisions silently chip away at your capacity to bring your best self to your really important decisions, the decisions where you can make positive changes in your life.
That’s the reason Steve Jobs wore the same outfit to work every day and why many high performers eat the same meal for breakfast or lunch every day. You don’t have to go to that extreme, but managing decision fatigue will help you preserve your precious, limited willpower for the areas of your life where you know you need to change but need a little help.
When your willpower is low, your default mode for all decisions will be whatever your pre-programmed routine is, because that is what requires the least amount of energy. This is a physiological process that you can’t brute force your way through. So, what can you do about decision fatigue?
Procrastinate on Purpose
In his book Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time, author Rory Vaden lays out a framework that helps you deal with decision fatigue by processing decisions efficiently, minimizing the number of times you handle them, and also minimizing the number of tasks that you ultimately take on. The way the process works is, every time you are faced with a decision, you ask yourself a series of up to four questions to determine what to do with the request.
Question#1: Can it be ignored or eliminated?
Essentially, in this step, you are asking yourself whether this is something that needs to be done at all. When answering this first question, don’t concern yourself with who should do the task, just whether it matters that it gets done by someone, or if it can just be ignored.
Yes → Ignore it
No → Move on to Question #2
Question#2: Can it be automated?
In this question, you need to think about whether there is a way to have this task performed automatically. The automation would usually be some kind of software, but not always. This question is especially valuable for repetitive tasks because, once you have the automation set up, it eliminates the time you (or someone) have to spend manually processing this task, forever!
At face value, this seems like a fairly simple question, but it could involve some work to research automation options that exist, because you may not be intimately familiar with the topic. The level of effort you put into thinking about this question should be comparable to the benefit you would receive for having the process automated. If you are considering whether you can automate a task that takes you two hours to complete every day, it is worth spending much more time and energy researching this question than for a task that only takes you ten minutes each week.
Yes → Assign someone the task of automating the process. That someone could be you, but doesn’t need to be.
No → Move on to Question #3
Question#3: Can it be delegated?
If you reach this question, it means you have determined that the task does actually need to be done by someone, and that you can’t automate it (or at least it’s not worth the effort to research and implement an automated solution). So,the next logical question is, does it need to be done by you, or can someone else do it just as well, or at least good enough that it does not sacrifice quality?
Yes → Delegate it to someone you trust. Note that you could also train someone to do it, even if you don’t currently have someone who is capable.
No → Move on to Question #4
Question #4: Does it need to be done now?
So, if you’ve made it to this point it means you’ve determined that the task needs to be done by someone, the process can’t be automated, and it can’t be delegated either. That means it has to be done by you. Once you have arrived at that conclusion, the only question left is, does it need to be done right now?
Yes → Just do it!
No → Procrastinate on Purpose (hence the title of the book)
If the task does not need to be done right now, you can schedule it for a later, more appropriate time. It is important to note that this does not automatically mean you should schedule it for a later time. Just that you can do so without the emotional “baggage” that comes along with typical procrastination.
Procrastinating on purpose gives you peace of mind because you know that you have thought through the request, and the decision to procrastinate is helping you to maximize your productivity and personal effectiveness.
Is it really worth the effort?
If this framework seems complicated, or more work than it is worth, don’t give up on it just yet. The first comment I’ll make is that you do not need to use it for every decision you make. As I mentioned earlier, it is not really intended for the “micro” decisions you make every day (e.g. “should I wear the blue or the green shirt today” or “should I stop for gas on the way to or home from work today”). Use your best judgement on when you think it could be helpful and try it out.
Also, even though there are a lot of words above explaining how to use the questions in this framework, in reality, once you start using it, you can actually run through them in just a few seconds. If you try it and find the process too cumbersome or not helpful, drop it and move on. What do you have to lose?
Reducing the number of items on your to-do list, by definition, reduces your daily decision load, which in turn will reduce your decision fatigue. If your goal is to be more effective in life and increase your motivation to develop positive habits, reducing low-value decisions will preserve some of your limited willpower, making it available to use on the things that support your long-term goals.
I have found this framework to be a very simple yet effective tool for processing my decisions. If you haven’t heard of it before and think it could help you, I encourage you to give it a try.