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Too exhausted to choose: how avoiding decision fatigue can make you more persuasive

Making decisions can be exhausting. The more decisions someone makes, and the more intensely they think about them, the more quickly they'll suffer from decision fatigue. So when you're trying to be persuasive, pay attention to your audience's decision-making profile, know when exhaustion may be setting in, and adjust accordingly.

I was reminiscing with a friend the other day about back when music wasn’t digital. We’d carry a Walkman or Discman with us wherever we went - bulky and obtrusive, but it did the job.

In college, I remember leaving my dorm room every morning to head to class with one cassette in my tape player and none in my backpack. I’d choose my tape for the day once, that morning, and all day long I would listen to only it, over and over.

I hear people talk about those days like we lived in the dark ages. How unfortunate we were to be so limited. How lucky we are today, having the entire musical world at our fingertips, no matter where we are.

But there’s a drawback to too many choices: the paradox of choice. More options increases appeal of the option set but makes selection less likely.

When it comes to music, I’m not sure this applies to me. When I want to listen to music, I want to listen to music, and a million options won’t change my mind about it. Research supports the fact that more options can increase the chance of choice deferral (putting off of making a decision), but in many cases, a decision must and will be made no matter how many options there are.

This is true in business. Decisions must be made, and there are deadlines. A large number options will make decision-making harder, and it might lead to a bit of procrastination, but it won’t make most choices go away. Some, but not most.

The real downside of too many options, in my opinion, is decision fatigue. Too much decision-making can get tiring, and when you’re fatigued, you’re likely to make poorer decisions. Making one or two choices before lunch isn’t too big of a deal, but if you’re forced to make multiple decisions at work over the course of a few hours, some complex, after also deciding what to wear in the morning, what to grab for breakfast, or what music or podcast to listen to during your commute, you can start to wear down pretty quickly. And research shows that once you’re worn down, your decision-making suffers. This is why you’ll hear advice to save your most important business decisions for earlier parts of the day. It’s why it’s important to sleep on every major decision.

But what about the decision fatigue of others? At work, so much of what we do is persuading others: we persuade employees to buy in to our projects, managers to support our preferred initiatives, consumers to buy our products and services. Do we think about whether they’re too tired to think? Not often. Does it matter? Yes – if we want them to carefully weigh their options and seriously consider our points of view.

Here are some tips on how to leverage what we know about decision fatigue to influence the decisions of others:

1. Be aware that it’s happening. When we try to persuade others, we anticipate their responses. But we don’t always get it right. I’ve heard many people tell me that it’s hard to gauge how their boss will react to their persuasive arguments. I’ve heard salespeople tell me about clients who are eager to learn more about their service one week, then be lukewarm the next. A lot could explain these inconsistencies, but consider decision fatigue as a possible culprit. Variations in peoples’ decision-making could be due to brain exhaustion. If you’re aware that it’s there, you can adjust for it.

2. Know the decision-making profile of the person you’re trying to persuade. Different people in different roles with different tasks have different decision-making profiles. People differ according to how many decisions they’re willing to take on or how much brain power they’ll throw into each decision. These differences can be due to psychology, culture, context, or past experiences. Whatever the cause, people are different. The more you know about how many decisions a particular person makes in a day, how intense those decisions are, and how much they work on them, the better equipped you are to work around their fatigue.

3. Be persuasive when they’re less tired. For some, fatigue is likely to set in early. For others, it won’t come on until later. Moms make more tough decisions before noon than women without kids. If your product or service targets women, keep this in mind when considering the timing of your social media or advertising campaigns. Don’t schedule a meeting with a colleague, manager, or employee whom you want to persuade when they’re likely to be fatigued. At a minimum, pose the decision but ask for them to sleep on it. Don’t force decisions when you know people may have already made a ton: they’re more likely to defer to the status quo than consider what you’re suggesting.

A final note to market researchers, or people who work with them: launch surveys in the morning and consider deploying most invites in earlier hours of the day. As the day wears on, survey respondents are less likely to be thoughtful due to fatigue, and if you want quality data, you want respondents to be thoughtful.

And in the meantime, try cutting down the number of minor decisions you make in a day; you might become happier with the more major choices you make.


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