Decision fatigue is real, but putting off decisions because you're tired has a downside. This week I explain why it's important to practice making decisions while fatigued, and how to do it: pace yourself, push yourself, and double-check yourself.
Last week I wrote about decision fatigue: after making a large number of decisions over the course of a day, people can get tired, at which point their decision-making starts to suffer. If, at work, you make most of your mistakes after 3pm, it’s likely because you’re tired from all the day’s decisions and can’t make another good one to save your life. If you work hard all day to stick to your diet, and then eat your kids’ leftover pizza for dinner, it’s probably because your decision-making muscles are too tired to decide on something healthy to eat.
If you want to optimize your decision-making, know when you’ve hit fatigue, and try to save the most important decisions for the morning.
But there’s a drawback to this advice, and that’s putting off too many decisions. Some business contexts require that you make a hundred rapid-fire decisions in a day, and you just can’t get around it. But in other contexts, you might have the luxury of taking your time, which means you may put off decision-making until you feel rested, or until you feel like dealing with it. Sometimes you can take a whole week, maybe a few, to make a decision. Some choices you might never make.
If you save your decisions for when you feel up for it, important choices – and opportunities – could fall through the cracks. But also, the more you put off decision-making, the more you risk being bad at it. Practice makes perfect, specifically if it’s deliberate practice. The more decisions you make with deliberate practice, while focusing on improving your decision-making process, the better at decision-making you can become. Here’s how to not let fatigue get in your way.
1. Create pace. Many of us (myself included) tend to tackle the workday without paying attention to pace. We’ll look at what’s on our plate first thing in the morning, and start tackling our to-do list with fervor, going from 0 to 100 within the first hour at work, and pushing a hard pace until we wear ourselves out. Then when the afternoon comes, we’re stuck. If you assume you can just go-go-go once the gun fires, you’ll have nothing left for the finish line – and sometimes it’s in the homestretch of your day when important decisions appear, decisions that require a quick turnaround. Try spreading out your important decisions throughout the day so they’re not back-to-back, and intersperse them with more mindless tasks. That way you can save some energy for the last stretch of the race.
2. Practice fatigued decision-making. I used to train and compete in Muay Thai kickboxing, and an essential part of that training was sparring while fatigued. Like with decision-making, one’s sparring gets worse the more tired you get. Your body gets tired, but so does your mind, because in sparring, you’re making what feels like hundreds of micro-decisions a minute – and quite a few bigger ones. If you only spar while rested and fresh, you’re not training realistically, because in a real fight, against a tough opponent, there’s a good chance you’re going to feel fatigued, so you better learn how to handle it. So you train yourself. You learn that, when fatigued, you need to focus on different things. You need to put more energy into your footwork, for example, and to condition your mind to keep working combinations rather than hunt for that one big knockout punch that will likely not happen but that you want so badly because it could be your ticket home. Decision-making in business isn't too different. When tired, your mind is looking for that big reward, the easy out. It’s avoiding the details that matter. And it lets go of tried-and-true process. Train yourself to be aware of this and override the urge to decide impulsively. Focus on tradeoffs you know adhere to your brand values, because your brand gives you guardrails when your brain isn’t working (and if you don’t have a strong brand, get one!).
3. Decide, then revisit. Train yourself to decide while fatigued. But then sleep on it – and revisit your decision in the morning. Whether or not you not stick with the decision you made the day before, you’ve set inertia in motion. The decision-making process is already underway, which means you're more likely to reach a resolution than if you waited to get started. Plus, even though your final choice is up for reconsideration, a lot of the work you might do while tired is incredibly useful, such as listing out trade-offs, considering consequences, and weighing outcomes. This gets you much further along than doing nothing, and less likely to let the decision go altogether.
I’m not encouraging you to make critical decisions while you’re exhausted out of your mind. There’s a point where you need to quit, and some decisions deserve your energy. But in fatigue, there’s opportunity to grow. Learn to tell the difference between some fatigue and too much, and take advantage of the growth opportunities that come with deliberately practicing to decide while tired. You never know when you’ll find yourself in a race or in the ring, forced to choose and unable to wait. When that happens, you want to be ready.
Thank you, Eric Mammano, CEO of DashBento, for inspiring the post this week!