We pay a biological price for making decision after decision. “Decision fatigue” was coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister to describe part of a phenomenon called ego depletion. He was able to demonstrate that the store of mental energy for exerting self-control is finite, confirming that “willpower” acts like a muscle—it can be fatigued with use and conserved by avoiding temptation.
Kathleen Vohs, a former colleague of Baumeister now at the University of Minnesota, conducted experiments to determine which aspect of decision-making was most fatiguing. Her experiments showed that pondering options or implementing the decisions of others had minimal impact. However, situations where people had to figure out for themselves what they wanted was far and away the most mentally fatiguing.
What’s the practical application of this research at work?
Front-load your key decisions so that you are making them when you are most likely to use your best judgment. If you need to persuade other people to your point of view, schedule your meetings in the morning when they also have a fresh store of mental energy.
Save the tasks you can do without thinking for the end of the day, when habit will help you complete them successfully. Stay away from making decisions later in the day when you might be tempted to take shortcuts. When you’re fatigued, you’re more likely to be impulsive or reckless in your decisions instead of thinking through the consequences, or you may make no decision at all.
Working with your natural processes will help reduce the stressfulness of work and help you get your work done more effectively and efficiently.