How many times a day do you open a new browser tab just to Google something quickly. Or mindlessly check your email or IM? What about hopping on Reddit or social media just for a minute?
10 times? 20? 100?
After analyzing over 225 million hours of working time in 2017, we found the average user switches between tasks more than 300 times per day (and this was only during working hours!)
Not only does this level of context switching pick apart our focus, but each of those decisions to switch tasks eats into our willpower a little bit. Eventually, we hit what’s called decision fatigue: Where our lack of energy and focus leads to making poor decisions. This is a problem.
More and more our careers depend on making good choices. And by understanding decision fatigue and how we can counter it, we can make sure we’re operating at 100% all day long.
What is decision fatigue?
Simply put, decision fatigue is the deterioration of our ability to make good decisions after a long session of decision making.
In other words, the more decisions you need to make, the worse you’re going to be at weighing all the options and making an educated, research-backed choice.
Here’s an example: In one study, researchers looked at more than 1,100 parole hearing decisions made by judges in the US. What they discovered, was that the most influential factor in whether or not someone was granted parole wasn’t their crime, background, or sentences. But what time their case was heard.
“Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.”
No matter how rational or sensible you are, you simply can’t make decision after decision without paying a mental price. And unlike physical fatigue—which we are consciously aware of—decision fatigue often happens without us knowing.
We’re just tired. Or burnt out. We don’t care anymore. Just give us whatever.
Or, as Standford’s Jonathan Levav explains:
“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people…can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car.”
Decision fatigue doesn’t just come from too many choices
Decision fatigue is part of what social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister called “ego depletion.” Or, the idea that:
- You have limited willpower, so when you use it up you’ll make poor choices
- Working for an extended period of time or being forced to make multiple complex decisions uses up your stores even faster
I’m sure you’ve felt those moments when your energy levels are low and it’s nearly impossible to make smart choices. At that point, it seems obvious to think that we’ve run out of some limited cognitive resource. However, it’s not that simple.
There have been plenty of studies unable to verify the effects of decision fatigue. One recent study by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, in particular, even found that simply believing you have more willpower can improve your ability to make good choices, even when you’re fatigued.
“We’re not saying people don’t need fuel for strenuous work, they just don’t need it constantly,” Dweck explained. “People have many more resources at hand than they might think.”
So, if decision fatigue is something we can actively counteract, how does that work?
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How to protect yourself from decision fatigue and make better choices
If your job means making constant decisions and complex trade-offs, you’re bound to get burnt out and start making poor choices at some point.
It’s not enough to just say, “just stop believing that you’re tired” and make it all better.
Instead, we need to look at ways to counteract all the factors that go into decision fatigue—from protecting our focus and willpower, to making sure our energy levels are high throughout the day.
1. Simplify the choices you need to make throughout the day
Former president Obama wore only blue or gray suits for his entire 8-year stint in the oval office. Steve Jobs was famous for his turtleneck and blue jeans uniform.
The idea behind their limited wardrobe was simple: With so many important decisions throughout the day, why start with deciding what to wear?
Like a soldier’s uniform, Obama and Jobs decided to simplify some of their most basic decisions on a daily basis.
For others, this might mean working from the same place every single day, following a strict routine, or having a set weekly meal plan. By reducing the amount of decisions you make every day, you free up space for the ones that matter.
James Clear calls this the Four Burners Theory. Imagine your life as a standard stovetop. Each burner represents a different facet of it: Your family, friends, health, and work. As James explains:
“In order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”
What this boils down to is pick your battles. If your fashion and appearance are important daily decisions to you, then spend energy on that. If you want to eat healthy throughout the day, get rid of that decision and eat the same thing weekly.
Pick what decisions you want to put your energy towards and simplify or automate the rest.
2. Set honest priorities for earlier in the day
Just like the judges who were more likely to grant parole earlier in the day, your best time to make hard decisions is when you first start.
Schedule your most important things for first thing in the day—whether that’s working on a personal project, getting a hard work task done, or dealing with something you’ve been putting off.
One technique I’ve found especially helpful is to limit my daily to-do list to only 5 items and writing the list the night before.
Limiting my to-do list to 5 items a day has been one of the most enlightening (and infuriating) experiments I've ever done.
— Jory MacKay (@JoryMacKay) November 14, 2017
This way, I’m forced to prioritize what needs my attention and energy most. Complex tasks go in the top 3 spots, with more “mindless” ones filling out the rest of the day.
3. Focus on momentum, not willpower
Decision fatigue makes us feel out of control. And building momentum around tasks is one of the fastest ways to get that feeling of control back. If you can chain similar tasks together, there’s less chance you’ll be faced with having to “make the decision to get started.”
Psychologists call this the Zeigarnik effect. Once we start a task, our brain becomes obsessed with finishing it.
The most simple example is how Ernest Hemingway would always finish his writing day mid-sentence:
“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck …
“That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”
Find ways to build your own momentum throughout the day. Either by following Hemingway’s example, or scheduling similar tasks together and then using the 5-minute rule to push through the friction of getting started.
4. Lock in big decisions when your motivation and willpower are high
Rather than being susceptible to your changing energy levels, lock in key decisions when your energy is highest.
For example, you could do meal prep on Sundays to ensure you’re not making poor food decisions throughout the week. Or, you can use RescueTime’s FocusTime to set scheduled work sessions that automatically block distracting sites like social media or news.
One thing I’ve found particularly impactful is setting a daily FocusTime session for first thing in the morning. This way, I get at least 1.5 hours of work done without being distracted by social media or bouncing all over sites and apps getting my morning news fix.
The best part? By scheduling it in advance, I don’t have to make a decision in the moment.
5. Use the power of the afternoon nap
Research has found that naps are like a Zamboni for our brain—clearing away the gunk that builds up.
This is thanks to what researchers call the “Housekeeping Theory.” When we sleep, our brain prunes away some of the connections between neurons, making room for whatever new information we’ll come across when we wake up.
If you’re feeling the effects of decision fatigue, a quick nap can help reset your mental space. You won’t be back at full capacity. But you’ll be more likely to make better decisions, at least for a little bit.
If the number of times we switch between websites and apps throughout the day says anything, it’s that our lives have become increasingly filled with tiny decisions.
That busyness has a price. The more choices we’re faced with, the more likely we are to fall victim to decision fatigue. To make good choices we need to listen to our thoughts, recognize when our energy has dropped, and react accordingly.
A little understanding of how willpower affects our ability to make choices can go a long way in making sure we’re doing the right work, not just whatever is easiest at that time.
Lead photo by Štefan Štefančík
Thanks for the great article, I enjoyed reading it. It’s noteworthy that the Zeigarnik effect has been criticised in studies performed later, so I’m taking the momentum suggestion with a pinch of salt. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeigarnik_effect#Criticism
I will experiment and see which of these ideas works for me.
Great article. Its long and detailed one.