As a sales manager, professional networker, or otherwise busy professional, “decision fatigue” may be your biggest stealth career obstacle. It’s an affliction we all have, and one that is getting worse with the advent of new technology channels. The issue gained notoriety with a comprehensive New York Times article last fall.
Your time is short, so here’s a quick review.
What is Decision Fatigue?
Exactly what it sounds like: the more decisions you make, the more tired your brain gets, which leads to lack of willpower and the tendency to make bad decisions. As the N.Y. Times points out, this is why grocery stores put candy and soda near the register. It also explains why many people make poor life choices at the end of long days.
Here’s an illustrative quote from Moneyball author Michael Lewis’s recent interview with President Obama, who describes what advice he’d give to a future president:
You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people . . . I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.
President Obama is not the only one who gets decision fatigue, though. The same physiological forces are in play for a busy professional.
But you can fight it. Here’s how:
1. Reverse Your Daily Routine
Evidence shows people make better decisions when they are energetic and rested. Yet many of us spend our first few hours of the day cleaning our inbox rather than tackling strategic issues. Reverse the order of your daily tasks and tackle important strategic issues early in the day, or right after breaks. If you can, sleep on major decisions for a night or two.
2. Prioritize to the Point of Exclusion
Make a list of your top five professional priorities. If you’re faced with a decision that doesn’t fall on that list, ignore it or delegate. As one of my friends used to tell her kids when they came to her with disputes: “If there’s no blood or fire, I don’t want to hear about it.” You can take the same mentality. Just choose your priorities carefully – the welfare of your colleagues and direct reports should be one.
3. Outsource . . . Like a Boss
We’ve said it before: just because you aren’t a rich CEO, doesn’t mean you can’t afford the freedom to worry about only big issues. Don’t spend valuable time and energy during the workday making little personal decisions. The Internet has created affordable opportunities to outsource. One example is FancyHands, which allows you to outsource remedial tasks like finding a repairman, sending flowers, or making a doctor’s appointment.
If you hate shopping at the end of the day, try Amazon’s Subscribe and Save, where you can set up recurring bulk shipments. The same goes for hiring a handyman and cleaning service. Less chores equals more energy and less scheduling – less decisions.
4. Kill Meetings
For extroverts, meetings are enjoyable. You get to interact with people and build relationships. Some managers feel like their day needs to be full with meetings or they aren’t doing their job. Also, managers often feel the need to drive discussion, which means lots of decisions about who should talk and what should be said.
Ask yourself, is there any real meaningful discussion going on here? Are there any major decisions to be made? Do you need more facetime with your colleagues? If not, cancel it. Few people will miss it anyway.
5. More Signal, Less Noise
How often do you get pulled into a debate at work just by being in the room? How often does an overheard conversation prompt you to think about your own worries? Distraction means more decisions: Do I chime in with my opinion? What joke should I tell to make everyone laugh? Should I change my life to be more like Johnny Awesome in the next cubicle who taught himself German and haggles for great deals at the farmers market?
Buy a pair of good headphones and tune out more noise. Less stimuli means less deciding.
6. Get Over Your Email . . . You’re Not That Important
Somewhere along the way, professionals got the idea that inbound and outbound email volume equates with productivity (or status). Emails, however, produce non-critical decisions. Do I respond to this sales pitch? Do I cc my boss? Should I do something about this automated report I just received?
Divorce yourself from the illusion of productivity that email creates and start using email filters to avoid the less-than-critical decisions. If you are an outbound salesman, check out Yesware or a marketing automation system to send emails at scale. There are exceptions–mostly in the case of CEOs, VCs, or other “connectors”–but make sure that’s your true value added before you give up your life to email.
7. Stop Managing Your Contacts
One of the big reasons work here at FullContact is obsessively managing and updating contacts is a waste of society’s time. Back in the old days, you could just pick up a phone book. Now, you have to continually watch several different social networks and other places just to make sure you know what your network is up to. Apps like Rapportive are a decent start, but someone needs to build an address book that makes managing and updating your contacts painless . . . oh yeah, we’re doing that.
8. Eat Like Brad Pitt’s Character in Ocean’s Eleven – All Day Long
When we’re tired and lack willpower, the quickest way to boost mental energy is with a shot of glucose. This is why your body craves candy and soda instead of doritos when you’re worn out. In moderation, it works; however, the smart approach is to get an even flow of glucose from small portions eaten periodically. Eating three large meals a day is a recipe for food comas, not productivity. Spread out five or six small meals throughout the day.
9. Sleep More, Work Less
Some people can work long hours and don’t need much sleep. Most of us can’t, and it’s harmful to try (unless you work in warzones or other traumatic environments where you don’t get the luxury – in which case there are ways to manage fatigue). Even Lyndon Johnson, who was famous for his low need for sleep, took afternoon naps in the Oval Office to compensate. Sleep is a weapon that improves your willpower. Try a Fitbit or other device that will help you monitor your sleep patterns and see whether you are getting enough.
When I write “work less,” I don’t mean act like a Greek government bureaucrat and work a 25 hour week. After a certain threshold–probably 8 to 10 hours for most people–quality is more important than quantity. For example, how many people did you know in college that regularly spent 18 hour days in the library but weren’t really learning much, as contrasted with well rested colleagues who studied in focused chunks and actually remembered the material on the test – because they weren’t exhausted or hopped up on caffeine? At some point around hour 10, go home.
Those are the basics. What would you add to the list?