How to Avoid Decision Fatigue for Better Life Outcomes
What's decision fatigue and how can you avoid it?
Hey folks! 👋🏽 Kavir here. Welcome back to another edition of The Discourse.
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Decision fatigue affects us all. It’s estimated that an average person takes anywhere between 70 major to 35,000 small decisions a day. Think of the little decisions you make per day: what do you eat, what do you wear, what do you work on first, do you answer that call from a recruiter, what temperature do you keep the thermostat on, and so on.
As you make all of those decisions — big or small — your ability to make additional decisions diminishes. Especially when you're in a job that requires making a lot of decisions daily.
I first came across this concept in 2013, when I was prepping for the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test that is a requirement to get into the top business schools). As with any standardized test, the GMAT involves a lot of micro-decisions and by the end, your brain is so frazzled that you can’t even make a simple decision like what to have for lunch
Let me walk you through my GMAT experience
In my first attempt at the GMAT in 2012, I messed up horribly. And I made it more difficult for myself in tiny ways that accumulated:
I didn’t decide what to wear until the day of the exam
I spent valuable mental resources deciding which universities should receive my score
I spent almost all of my effort on the first two sections of the test. By the time I reached the final section of the test, Verbal Reasoning, I blanked out.
Now, this doesn’t apply just to standardized tests. According to this piece in the NYT, court judges are more likely to grant convicts parole in the morning or just after lunch. They tend to default to saying ‘no’ when they’re hungry before lunch or later in the day.
While some of these studies have failed replication — and there’s a larger replication crisis in many prominent psychological studies — we’ve all anecdotally felt that when we go shopping on an empty stomach, we tend to make more impulse purchases and perhaps a few bad decisions for our waistline.
Essentially, there were two main takeaways from the article:
Reduce the number of decisions you need to take daily
Replenish your willpower with glucose and rest
With this updated knowledge, here’s how I set to change the course of my career.
How I overcame decision fatigue for GMAT 2.0
In GMAT 2.0:
I decided what I was going to wear the night before (which made me feel like Mark Zuckerberg, with his infinite supply of identical t-shirts)
I decided on the mode of transport and route to the test center and booked the cab a day before
I didn’t make the same mistake of not knowing the universities I wanted to send my score to
I memorized the list and blindly marked them
For the first two sections, I spent minimal mental resources and proceeded
During the two breaks, I replenished my glucose reserves with a banana, snickers bar, and red bull (I wouldn’t advise this combination for your normal working life).
This served me well: I was able to score a 98th percentile score with a 750 (up from 80th percentile / 640 on my first attempt).
But Kavir, how does this apply to my work?
Beating decision fatigue in your own life
No matter what work you do, you will be making a lot of decisions daily. Let’s take a look at what steps you can take to reduce decision fatigue.
Reduce the number of decisions you have to make
Put parts of your life on auto-pilot.
For example, you can create morning and night routines to kick start and wind down your day.
Then, instead of making decisions every day, try to batch them into weekly decisions. Plan meals weekly so you don’t have mental resources to decide what you have to eat/make every day. Similarly, you can simplify your wardrobe or decide what you're wearing in advance. Doing grocery shopping in bulk (if you can) and not daily would help too!
Switching gears to your work life, here are some recommendations.
Make a to-do list for the next day on the previous night. It’s definitely not easy to be this disciplined. But times when I’ve done this, I’ve found my day to be super productive and efficient. This leaves me time to enjoy the rest of my evening without any so-called productivity guilt.
The next is to create a system by which you can automate or delegate decision-making to others. Create a system that contains a combination of the following documents so that you (or your team) can follow through on tasks without having to make a unique decision each time.
Design Style guides
Standard Operating Plans
Replenish your willpower and glucose reserves
The second part is about replenishing mental resources.
Till very recently I was skipping lunch in order to maintain my overall calorie intake and maintain my weight. I found myself low on energy on the days that I did. And it wasn’t just physical energy, it was limiting my mental energy to do demanding tasks — like writing this newsletter :)
I wrongly attributed the cause to the heat but what I didn’t realize was happening was that my glucose levels were crashing as a result. I only figured this out once I started tracking my glucose levels with Ultrahuman, a continuous glucose monitoring platform.
This also connects back to the research done when court judges were more likely to make tougher decisions (like granting parole) when their bellies were full.
So taking care of metabolic activity by:
Avoid skipping meals
Eating consistently spaced out meals that are packed with fiber, fats, protein, and complex carbs
Exercising to maintain glucose levels
More details in this very detailed piece by Dr. Casey Means, the co-founder of Levels (a continuous glucose monitoring app)
The advice in this piece should not be limited to big events like taking an important test or in preparation for a job interview. It’s the small lifestyle changes that can really elevate the quality of your decisions.
I’ve already started following the nutrition advice here and have seen an improvement in my mental energies to do demanding work that requires a lot of micro-decisions.
I have also set up a habit of reviewing the week and planning for the next week. This batch activity helps me plan goals for the upcoming week, so I don’t spend time during the week rethinking what my goals actually are.
You don’t have to become Mark Zuckerberg and wear the same thing every day, nor do you have to load up on sugar every time you need to make a decision. But being aware of how decision fatigue impacts your ability to make good choices can help you plan ahead for better outcomes.
Thanks to Dhrumi, Jason Nguyen, Nick Drage, Theresa Sam Houghton, and Russell Smith from Foster for providing feedback on early drafts of this piece.
📘 Read of the week: Toys, Secrets, and Cycles: Lessons from the 2000s - Chris Dixon (8 min)
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