One day, when I was Department Chair the first time, I came home from work after a long day of meetings and lessons and endless emails. My wonderful husband greeted me at the door with a simple, heart-warming question: “What do you want for dinner?”
It triggered me. I lost my sh*t at that question. Even though I was deeply grateful for coming home to an incredibly supportive spouse, I just couldn’t deal. I can’t remember exactly what happened next but I know there was elevated blood pressure and either some silent fuming, or swearing, or both. It wasn’t one of my best moments.
What really bothered me though was why this simple question triggered me so acutely. He was willing to make dinner and he wanted to make something he knew I would like. Why was I being such an ungrateful jerk? I was ashamed of myself and deeply remorseful.
What I really wanted for dinner was not to make the decision about dinner.
If you’d rather watch the video, here you go!
What is Decision Fatigue?
I had never heard about Decision Fatigue before, but since that little hissy fit it has crossed my radar a number of times. When I first heard about it I thought, “Oh! That’s what happened that day!” Much like when I first read about Revenge Bedtime Procrastination it made me feel better to know that’s is so common it has a name. I guess I’m normal after all.
In preparing for this post I came across this superb article first published in the NY Times in 2011: Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? It is lengthy and in-depth, and I highly recommend it for gaining a solid understanding of this phenomenon.
Here is my over-simplified interpretation. Your brain only has a limited daily capacity to make decisions. Once that capacity is used up, that’s it, you’re done.
I’ll be you can think of at least a few times in your life when you have experienced this. That NY Times article mentions how grocery retailers leverage this understanding in their strategic placement of sugary snacks at the checkout. Once you’ve used up all your decision-making brain juice during your grocery shopping, your brain craves a jolt, your decision defences are down, and you grab that bag of Peanut M&M’s before you realize what happened. I’ll bet you eat half of them in the car before you get home (or maybe that’s just me).
Further down that article they discuss some interesting research about the brain’s decision-making capacity and its relationship to glucose. This is a thing, ya’ll. It’s so interesting. I highly recommend checking out that article for all the info.
If you find yourself staring at a complex task (or even a not-so-complex task) and your solution is to play Candy Crush instead, you may be in a decision-fatigued state. Once you’re there it might help to grab a little snack, but let’s talk about how to minimize your time in decision fatigue in the first place.
1. Recognize it when it happens
Try to catch yourself in those moments. For example: you look in the fridge at all the healthy food, and instead of trying to figure out what to do with broccoli and kale and celery instead you order pizza. Solution: figure out earlier in the day what you’ll have for dinner. Even better, meal prep on the weekends (which I personally find overwhelming, but if it works for you, congratulations.)
2. Recognize when you are at your decision-making best
Apparently, we do better in the morning, and/or after a break where we have had some brain fuel. Try to plan your day so the big decisions happen during those times.
3. Automate as much as you can
This might be ridiculously obvious but it can be harder than it seems. Start small. When you catch yourself recognizing a moment of decision fatigue, make a note to plan ahead for next time.
Did you get stuck right there in trying to decide where to place that note? I bet you did. There’s another decision you have to make: where to keep “the notes”. I use Trello, but there are so many other solutions.
Here are some automations I have set up for my morning routine:
- plan my exact sequence of actions for the first few steps of the morning routine
- set out my workout clothes the night before
- decide on my workout the night before
- use the same diffuser blends in the morning, every time
These are just some examples. The more automated I make my morning routine, the more solid it becomes. If I find a moment of decision weakness tripping me up, I revisit that moment later and decide how to pre-plan.
Automations vs Habits
The terms might seem interchangeable but I think they’re a little different. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits says,
…the best way to create a good habit is to automate it so you never have to think about it again.
I now am someone who has a solid morning routine. That is a habit. That habit is a result of the automation of the steps, one to the next, of fulfilling that routine.
There is no need for decision-making in my morning routine. If there were, I wouldn’t do it.
Maximizing your creative time
For my musicians, have you ever found yourself with time to practice and instead you have your nose in social media? You know you’re wasting time, yet there you are. It’s especially bad during lockdown because there are so few gigs, and deadlines, to drive our repertoire decisions.
Maybe you work all day to pay the bills, then after the kids are in bed you sit down to work on building your side job. You stare at your computer, unsure what to do, so you play Candy Crush instead (ask me how I have made it all the way to level 3933 – no joke).
Again, this is all Decision Fatigue rearing its ugly head. To combat this:
- recognize it when it happens
- make some time in a morning to plan ahead exactly what you’ll do in your next chunk of creative time
- write down your plan somewhere
- look at your plan when your next chunk of time becomes available
In this way, you’re automating some of that decision-making. If you know in advance what you’ll do when you have the time, you are more likely to actually do it when you have the time.
I’m always telling my students to decide before they practice what they will do during their practice session. This is partly so they’re maximizing the amount of actual practice time when they’re on the bench, but also so they don’t fart around on social media when they should be memorizing their Beethoven sonata.
One of the most useful tools I have been using this year is something called the Weekly Preview, which is part of the Full Focus Planner system. In this strategy, you take time before your week starts to look ahead and see what needs doing. You prioritize your main goals for the week, see what’s coming, and decide how to fit everything in.
I do this faithfully every weekend and it has made an enormous difference to my ability to get things done efficiently during work time. The result of this is an increased ability to place firm boundaries around my work and non-work time.
Another benefit of doing the Weekly Preview: when you know exactly when things will get done, this frees up your decision-making muscle to work in other productivity categories.
I used to have the hardest time concentrating on practicing when I had an overflowing inbox. Now I know when I will do my inbox management and I’m no longer afraid my email will explode if I’m away from it outside of work time. With that distraction gone, I can work on my blogging or social media strategy without guilt, because I’m no longer pulled into unfinished day-job business.
Use your oils!
I say this again and again, but essential oils are so helpful. I’m not sure exactly which oils are for maximizing decision-making, but you can train your emotional response to associate certain aromas with certain outcomes. I wrote about this in some depth in the post Your diffuser: your work-from-home productivity hero.
You can use oils strategically to anchor a desired behaviour. Essentially (no pun intended), you can automate an emotional reaction by associating an aroma as a trigger to that reaction.
Put more plainly, if you find yourself lacking in decision-making motivation in mid-afternoon, create an aromatic link between a certain oil or blend and your ability to be productive. My favourite is Rosemary, Peppermint, Frankincense and Wild Orange but there are many other options. See my diffuser post above for some recommendations.
Everything works together
We are wonderfully, frustratingly complex creatures. For best results, just as we do when we practice, try to look at a problem from many different angles. Recognize, plan ahead, and automate what you can.
If you find yourself deep in decision fatigue I would encourage you to avoid taking it out on your wonderful spouse who just wants to make a dinner you will enjoy. Instead, have a little snack, throw a pizza in the oven, and plan ahead for tomorrow’s dinner.