When You’re Just Too Tired to Make the Right Call

4 Ways to Beat Decision Fatigue before It Beats You

When do you make your best decisions, at the end of a day crammed with meetings and calls? Or early in the morning after a day of rest?

My Twitter stream was filled last week with teachers and professors grading papers—and by that I mean teachers and professors complaining about grading papers.

It’s hard work, and I don’t mean to slight anyone, but I feel sorry for the students whose papers were last in the stack. Making call after call is bound to affect the quality of their teachers’ decisions. It’s true for all of us.

Too Depleted to Decide

When our physical energy slumps, so does the quality of our decisions. But here’s what we sometimes forget: Making decisions actually drains our physical energy. It becomes a vicious cycle.

New York Times science writer John Tierney reported on a study of parole board decisions. Prisoners whose cases were first up had a far greater chance of early release than cases heard later in the day.

When researchers examined the data, they found the merits of the individual case were not the main factor in prisoners going free or staying put. The only variable was how tired the board members were after analyzing cases all day.

Decision fatigue is what happens when we’re too drained to do our best thinking and make the best calls. And it doesn’t just affect professors and parole boards. If you push it too far as an executive, an entrepreneur, a parent, a pastor, anything at all, you’ll experience decision fatigue.

4 Ways to Beat Decision Fatigue

Think about the consequences of our decisions, and it’s clear this something we can’t afford to miss. Thankfully, there are ways we can beat it before it beats us. Here are four things that work for me.

  1. Don’t think. Seriously. It’s not the kind of decisions that drain us. It’s the number, whether it’s a decision about what to eat, where to go, when to leave, how to get there, and so on.

    I’ve written before about the power of my morning and evening routines. The truth is that any decisions we can routinize, automate, or turn into habits can help us conserve energy and stay sharp.

  2. Get rest. It’s crucial to get the sleep we need each night and even helpful to nap during the work day.

    It’s also helpful to look at how we structure our days and weeks. When we get bogged down with tiny tasks early in the day, our productivity suffers. I try to lump what busy work I can’t eliminate or delegate into a couple of days each week so I can use the remainder for rest and focusing on big projects—the two most important things for moving the needle in my business.

  3. Hit pause. Powering through the weariness is sometimes necessary, but do you really want to make calls that will affect your month or year when you’re depleted?

    Right after an intense period on the business, my daughter Megan and I were working on our yearly budget. It was early in the afternoon but we were starting to make rash and impulsive decisions. Megan raised a flag. “We’re just to tired to make good decisions,” she said. And she was right. We put the budget on hold and came back to it later when we were recharged.

  4. Eat well and exercise. Our time may be fixed, but our energy is not. Since decision fatigue is just another form of fatigue, we can also combat it by healthy eating and working out.

    Exercise used to be the last thing I thought about. Now it’s one of the first. Not only does it recharge my body, it also allows my mind to shift out of decider mode. It frees me up to randomly sort out ideas, imagine, and dream.

One Decision We Don't Have to Make

There are some very real tendencies working against us. As high-achievers, we’re prone to cram our schedules with a number of decisions guaranteed to wear us out. Add to that our tendency to think we’re responsible for making every decision and pretty soon we’re played out and don’t even realize it.

We can’t always pick optimal conditions, but we can be aware when situations are suboptimal and plan accordingly. Letting decision fatigue beat us is one decision we don’t have to make.

What’s your best strategy for battling decision fatigue?

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