Every time I am invited to grab a quick bite, this question usually follows, “Where would you like to eat?” Unless I had particular cravings at that time, my answer would almost always be, “It’s up to you.”
Some people might consider this as indecisiveness, but there are just some decisions that I abstain from making, especially those that I consider inconsequential. I find no point in using up my energy on something that does not have much impact on my long-term satisfaction. I eat anything and everything anyway.
All of us are faced with having to make a number of decisions every day. From the moment we wake up, we get bombarded with choices such as what to wear and what to have for breakfast. At work, we receive countless e-mail messages, and decide which ones to open first, what action to take, which ones to forward, and to whom. Studies have shown that adults make an average of about 35,000 conscious decisions each day, and at least 220 of them are on food alone!
One might agree that having to decide on a lot of things can become arduous and counterproductive. At a certain point, our judgment suffers. This is what psychologists refer to as decision fatigue — the worsening of the quality of decisions made by an individual after a long period of making decisions.
Roy Baumeister, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, asserts that willpower is critical in making sound decisions. Rendering decisions, as well as exerting self-control, erodes willpower. Since our willpower for the day is finite, decision fatigue sets in once our mental energy is depleted. Baumeister writes, “Your ability to make the right investment or hiring decision may be reduced simply because you expended some of your willpower earlier when you held your tongue in response to someone’s offensive remark or when you exerted yourself to get to the meeting on time.”
We all experience decision fatigue, whether we realize it or not.
No matter how rational we try to be, making decision after decision takes a toll on our mental energy. The more choices we make throughout the day, the more difficult it becomes for us to process things logically. Our brain compensates by choosing the option that offers short-term gratification, or by doing nothing. Decision fatigue erodes our self-control, so we choose to act impulsively rather than spend time and energy to think through the possible consequences of our decisions. When we are mentally drained, we tend to have that “whatever happens, happens” attitude; hence, we go on shopping sprees, browse Facebook during meetings, get angry at colleagues, or opt not to act at all. These behaviors, though giving us temporary relief from mental distress, often lead to problems.
Decisions, whether big or small, drain our willpower.
Important decisions become compromised by decision fatigue brought about by the mundane and trivial decisions we make. This is why some leaders and decision makers scale down when it comes to making decisions. Albert Einstein did so by wearing gray suits; Steve Jobs, black turtlenecks. President Obama, during his interview with Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair, explained why he wears only gray or blue suits: “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.” He also emphasized the need to “focus your decision making energy.”
What is the implication of this? Decision fatigue illustrates that good judgment is grounded on our state of mind. Sound decision making fluctuates. Productivity-wise, we should best be equipped to handle complex issues and difficult problems at the beginning of the day. As willpower rises and falls throughout the day, it is therefore wise for us to catch ourselves when we are not at our finest to make sound decisions, especially if the decision that we are about to make is important. A burst of glucose has been found to restore willpower, so the next time you feel like you’re mentally depleted, go for that quick bite. Just don’t spend too much time deciding on where to get it.
Donna Aura Lumbo is an Assistant Professorial Lecturerat the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. She is also a Human Resource Consultant and specializes in Organization Development, Talent Management, and Executive Coaching.