How to Beat Decision Fatigue Before it Beats You

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Decision fatigue always takes it toll. Here's how to prevent it.

Regardless of your politics, there’s no arguing that commander in chief is probably one of the most difficult jobs on Earth. Endless decisions — some of which actually involve life and death — take their toll on whoever is in office. That’s part of the reason why presidents seem to age so rapidly while in office. The rigors of decision fatigue put a biological toll on bodies and minds.

Everyone has a finite amount of willpower that gets drained with just about every decision they make. By the end of the day, decision-making abilities are drastically reduced thanks to all the previous decisions that were made earlier. Making a decision is like flexing a muscle — after a while people just can’t do it anymore. Decisions exhaust us and prevent us from thinking clearly. People get sloppy and make bad decisions.

That drained feeling of fatigue is especially dangerous if you’re a head of state.

President Barack Obama knows firsthand what the rigors of office look like. Eight years after his inauguration, the President looks aged beyond his 55 years. Decision fatigue is a hell of a thing, but Obama has at least one way to keep it at bay.

His first choice of the day — what to wear — is the easiest choice he makes. He intentionally wears only gray or blue suits. “I’m trying to pare down decisions,” Obama told Vanity Fair. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

The dangers of decision fatigue aren’t exclusive to the commander in chief. Even those of us with far less responsibility have to cope with this problem. Shoppers experience decision fatigue at grocery stores. Parents suffer greatly from it. Professionals are also at risk. Just about everyone, from the top of the corporate ladder to the bottom, deals with decision fatigue at some level.

Fortunately, there are strategies to keep decision fatigue at bay that don’t require a closet full of blue or dark suits.

  1. Think big in the morning

As the day wears on, our decision-making ability worsens. A decision that would have been obvious earlier in the day becomes more questionable later in the day when we’re tired from a day of decision making. With that in mind, the best thing you can possibly due to try to make all the necessary decisions as early in the day as you can.

Our brains are sharpest in the first two hours after waking up. After 3 p.m., productivity takes a big hit and we’re less likely to make a wise decision. Later in the day, try to get all the mindless grunt work done. Our brains aren’t good for much else after that time anyways, so why not make those hours as productive as possible?

  1. Eliminating Choice

The notion of Barack Obama having a closet full of identical suits sounds like something out of a cartoon. However, eliminating the need to make unimportant decisions is a great way to focus on the decisions that really matter.

Turning aspects of the day into a routine keeps you on track and saves your energy for later decisions. That routine can be as simple traveling the same route to work or setting aside chunks of the day for certain tasks.

When shopping, following a list helps remove the need to make choices. Similarly, following a set workout routine in the gym helps focus your energy on the task of pumping iron.

  1. Recharge With Some Breaks

So much to do and so little time to do it all. That’s the curse we all suffer from. Due to that dilemma, it’s common to skip breaks in an effort to get as much done as possible. That’s a bad idea, and the evidence proving that isn’t merely anecdotal.

A 2011 Columbia Business School study looked at the decisions of more than 1,000 Israeli judges serving on parole boards. The researchers found that an inmate’s history wasn’t enough to tilt a judge’s favor. Instead, decisions were more likely to be made in favor of the inmate after the judge had a food break.

A short break, whether it’s to grab some good or watch a funny video, helps us recharge our decision-making ability. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with a decision, take a break and them circle back to the choices with a clearer mind.

  1. Plan Ahead

When the sun sets at the end of the day, the last thing most of us want to do is continue working. Taking a break and getting enough sleep is essential, but an evening routine can help out greatly with the next day of work. Obama, who tends to work late, starts tackling the next day’s work before going to bed. When he wakes up early the next day, he already has a handle on the decisions he’s going to make.

Beating decision fatigue

In a perfect world, we’d get all the breaks we need and hold off on decisions when we’re exhausted. That world doesn’t exist (although one can dream), so it’s important to remain flexible and well rested. Getting enough rest, whether it’s a night’s sleep or a satisfying lunch break, is a big help in preventing stupid decisions from being made.

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