5 Ways to Hack “Decision Fatigue”

We are taught from an early age that practice makes perfect. Doing more of something, then, necessarily makes you better at it.

But when it comes to decision making, the opposite is often true, particularly when too many decisions are crammed into one day. Think about it this way: we wake each morning with an ‘energy reserve’ for decision making. And every decision we make, regardless of its size, drains this ‘reserve,’ compromising our ability to make the best choice as the day goes on. Want to become a better decision maker? Start by making fewer decisions.

Psychologists have researched “Decision Fatigue” for quite some time, but the phenomenon is gaining national currency due to a recent article by Michael Lewis on President Obama, as well as a piece by John Tierney in the New York Times Magazine.

Here are five ways I advise clients, friends, and family to hack decision fatigue to put them in the best possible position to make the right choice, at any time of the day.

1. Automate the trivial decisions you make on a daily basis.

President Obama speaking to Michael Lewis about only wearing gray or blue suits:

 “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,”…He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” 

While most of us aren’t as busy as the President, we still shouldn’t waste our time distracted by trivial decisions. How can we break this habit? Start by automating as many decisions as you can. For example, I wear the same few outfits to work every week; eat the same breakfast every single morning; automate my bill payments (but also set a monthly calendar reminder to review the purchases); have a structured exercise regimen; and check my personal email just twice a day. Life is already distracting enough. By automating as much as possible, we put ourselves in a better position to succeed.

2. Schedule appointments factoring decision fatigue.

Two professors, Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion Universiy, released a study in 2011 analyzing 1,100 judicial decisions and their results were eye opening. While judicial activism is often cited in terms of parole hearings and sentencing, these two professors discovered that maybe the most important factor in predicting a ruling might have nothing to do with politics, bias, or their previous rulings in comparable cases. They found that the most important factor might only be what time of the day the hearing takes place.

From John Tierney:

There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions…the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. 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.

Wow! Read that last sentence again. It is not that judges become more callous as the day goes on, but that the decision to parole an inmate – to take someone out of prison before their sentence technically ends – is one where a judge, erring on the side of caution, would rather decide upon at a later date. So, after a day of making one difficult decision after another they’re worn out but are still required to make a choice – and later in the day, the choice they make over 90% of the time is indecisiveness.

How do we use this information to our advantage? By consciously factoring decision fatigue before scheduling important meetings and appointments. I schedule important meetings early in the morning. The way I’m wired, this works best for me. If I can’t meet in the morning, or have an exam where the timing is out of my control, then that’s okay. Structure your day differently by pacing it in order to be at your peak for the meeting or exam. This will also help you against your adversaries – whether it’s negotiating with a salesman for a lower price or outperforming your classmates who were taking practice tests up until the exam. Consider yourself using their decision fatigue against them. By just knowing that they’ve had a long day automatically puts you in a position of strength, whether in maximizing negotiations or beating the curve.

Also try and schedule job interviews for the morning. These are generally scheduled by an assistant and not the person conducting the interview. If they offer you an afternoon time then just request a time change. It won’t hurt to ask.

If it’s not an emergency, schedule every doctor or dentist appointment in the morning. If you’re in an emergency room, ask the physician how long they’ve been on their shift. If they’re at the tail-end, ask them to ensure a colleague reviews and agrees with their diagnosis. I’ve personally been in a position dealing with a tired ER doc and I believe this affected his treatment recommendation. How? Because I called my friend, who happened to be working at the same hospital at the same time. Upon inspection, he reviewed the recommendation and appropriately overruled the doc who saw me. Now this wasn’t a life or death situation by any means, but if it wasn’t for my friend, I would have ended up wasting a lot of my time going to the wrong specialist.

3. Make your important decisions early in the day.

For the same reason you want the people treating you to be at the top of their game, you need to consciously front load the most difficult decisions early on. If you have an important assignment at work, or school, don’t put if off until the end of the day. If you do, then try not to turn it in until after you have a chance to review it with fresh eyes the following morning.

Also, some other decisions that can have a long lasting impact on your life should be made prior to decision fatigue setting in. Some examples that come to mind are – banking decisions, major purchases, selecting a plan with a recurring charge (healthcare, dental, even a cellphone) should all be made when your mind is at peak performance.

4. Understand that your willpower is directly linked to being able to make the right decisions.

Again from Tierney’s article, highlighting Professor Roy Baumeister’s findings about willpower:

These experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations…The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation. 

Intuitively this makes sense. If I’m around junk food all the time then I will eventually eat way too much of it. Or if you’re the type of person who loves to window shop, whether at actual stores or online, you will make that unnecessary purchase you end up regretting. There is a reason why people in treatment for something toxic to their lives are directed to abstain at all costs. You can only control your willpower for so long. Be conscious of this fact and remove the things from your home, and life, that are bad for you. Don’t buy junk food when you go to the grocery store. You’ll see that it’s a whole lot harder to act on that late night craving if you don’t have any laying around.

5. Make a to-do list every night before you go to bed.

The last way to hack decision fatigue is to make a to-do list every night before you go to bed. Prioritize what will need to be done the next day. Rank it factoring importance of task and amount of mental energy it will take to complete. The next day, systematically go through the list one by one. Not wasting energy thinking about what you should be doing and just executing what needs to be done will increase the quality of your work while decreasing the amount of time you spend working.

These are the five ways I hack decision fatigue. Please feel free to email me at adam@paretosway.com to provide some of your thoughts or tips.