It’s not even 10 am. You’re just getting settled at your desk, but your brain feels fried already. You can’t decide which pile of papers to tackle first, you’re hesitant to commit to a lunch meeting, and the thought of leading that brainstorming session in the afternoon makes you nauseous. You’ve been awake for just three hours, so how could you be so dysfunctional already? You try diagnosing yourself: Gluten intolerance? You did have that muffin on your way to work. Didn’t get enough sleep? You wonder if seven hours wasn’t enough.
Actually, what you might be suffering from is decision fatigue. “No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price,” John Tierney wrote in The New York Times, just before the release of his book with psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” Unlike physical fatigue, you’re not aware that your brain is tired. But the more choices you make, the more difficult your subsequent choices become, Tierney explains.
By the time you get to your desk, you have probably made dozens of decisions: Whether to jump out of bed or press the snooze button; what to wear to work; what to eat for breakfast; whether to allow your daughter to bring a friend home from school; whether to drive or take the bus into the office; whether to greet the doorman or pretend to be busy on your phone; whether to pack a lunch or go out with a colleague; what to defrost for dinner; and dozens of other seemingly small but cumulative and brain-draining choices.
Baumeister and other behavioral psychologists have proven their point again and again in a variety of research studies. From judges to casual shoppers, the consequence of having to make decisions is that you will likely become reckless in your choices or stumped in your decision-making, paralyzed and unable to take any action at all, Tierney and Baumeister explain in their book.
In a study at a Utah mall that was described in the Los Angeles Times, people who made lots of choices while shopping subsequently performed worse on simple math problems than those who had made fewer choices. Moreover, the fact that we’re bombarded with so many alternatives as we navigate life makes each individual act particularly exhausting. In a study staged at a grocery store, outlined in this Slate article, way more customers bought jam when they had just six choices than when they had 30 choices.
The punch line? “Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister told The New York Times. “It’s a state that fluctuates.”
So how can you make sure your brain isn’t depleted by the time you get to work in the morning? Establish habits that take the thinking out of making choices, Baumeister would suggest. In other words, set yourself on auto-pilot.
Here is your 4-step plan to reduce decision fatigue:
- Make a list of every single step in your morning routine, from the time your alarm goes off (or your child or cat climbs into your bed), to the time you arrive at your desk.
- Put a star next to items that involve a decision. For example, “take a shower,” if that’s something you’ve already done every morning for the last 20 years, doesn’t need a star. But “decide what to make for breakfast” gets a star.
- Create a rule for every “starred” item on your list. On Sunday afternoon, decide what you’re going to make for breakfast every morning that week. If you’re packing lunch, make sure there are leftovers from dinner, or ingredients for that sandwich. Decide ahead of time what your commuting strategy will be: “If it’s raining, take the R train. If it’s not, go with the F.” Make sure your kids know the rules, too, so you’re not making their decisions. For example, you might create an ongoing rule that if it’s less than 60 degrees, no one can wear shorts to school.
- Practice, practice, practice: And then refine. Once you have your “morning rules,” put them into effect and give it time. Observe whether your mornings are getting easier and seamless. Revise any rules that aren’t helpful, and make new ones as needed.
To boost your productivity, choose a time of day when you’re feeling particularly alert and ready to make some decisions, and establish a routine for when you arrive at the office every day. Having a mental checklist of the first two or three things you will tackle will reduce the time you waste figuring out how to start your day. And if you need a support group, take heart: Even President Obama reportedly limits decision fatigue by setting routines.