Overcoming Decision Fatigue

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Every day, the average adult makes more than 35,000 decisions. From what to have for breakfast to how we respond to critical feedback, we have the ability to decide our next action.

Unfortunately, leaders are faced with more than their fair share of decisions each day. Spending too much time on one could mean not taking enough time for another. So, how can leaders find balance and reduce the likelihood of decision fatigue?


Ego depletion + Decision Fatigue

Social psychologist Dr. Roy F. Baumeister coined the term “decision fatigue”, based on the Freudian hypothesis of ego depletion. Ego depletion happens when you use up your available willpower on one task. As a result, you are unable to exert the same level of self-control on subsequent tasks. This is because willpower is a limited resource. 

The idea behind this theory is that willpower is like a muscle. It can be both strengthened and fatigued. Similar to if you exhaust yourself running on a treadmill you will be less likely to successfully complete a cycling class immediately thereafter.

Often, ego depletion can exacerbate decision fatigue. Consider a particularly grueling day at work and monstrous traffic the entire way home. Once you walk through the door someone asks, “What would you like for dinner?” How likely would you be to take a moment, thoughtfully think through the options, and suggest a meal? More often, we respond with a grunt, or a nonchalant, “Whatever sounds good to you.”

So, it stands to reason that a great way to combat decision fatigue and minimize ego depletion (both of which can lead to burnout, by the way) is to reduce the number of decisions you make on any given day. Here are three tips on overcoming decision fatigue that you can implement today.


consider if the decision should be yours

Leaders are often stuck with the role of decision maker because they don’t empower their employees, team leaders, or emerging leaders to make decisions that impact their teams directly. Call it micromanaging, but there’s a difference between knowing what’s going on within a given business unit and requiring they run all decisions by you before moving forward.

Many times, these “rules” are established to help get new leaders or teams up and running, but all too often, leaders don’t ease up and continue to stay involved beyond what is necessary. Not only does this hinder the development of decision making skills for others but it also results in more stress for the leader.

Recommendation: Make a list of the decisions you make while at work during any given day. Review them and consider if someone else could have made the call in your place. What is their role? Perhaps it’s time to let go of those decisions and empower those individuals to own them moving forward. 

Know when to take a break

When you’re busy making decisions all day long, you miss out on important time to think through other strategies or to get creative with new ideas. Knowing when you’ve reached your decision limit is a great way to prioritize focused time for yourself. The key is to 1) recognize when you’re nearing decision fatigue; and 2) communicate it to those who are expecting an answer.

For example, it’s nearing the end of the day and a colleague asks you to approve a new piece of marketing collateral. Internally, you know you have hit a wall and you lack the energy needed to review the piece. So, instead of doing a poor job of reviewing the collateral, you ask if you can get back to the colleague in the morning once you can look at it with fresh eyes.

Recommendation: Block time on your calendar at the end of each day to prevent last minute meetings from popping up (as best as you can) and to make sure all time-sensitive matters for the day are attended to. Even if all you do is check LinkedIn, glance at your inbox, or clean up your workspace, it’s still a break from decision making and can help prevent gunshot reactions.


Create routines to minimize decision making

Did you know that former President Obama wore essentially the same outfit every day during his presidency? As Obama told Vanity Fair in 2012, managing his life as commander in chief required him to remove smaller decisions so he could focus on more important ones.

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.”


Out of the 35,000+ decisions you make each day, which can you simplify or get rid of completely?

Recommendation: Whether it means filling your closet with mostly gray or blue garments, or programming the coffee maker to brew a pot before you even wake up, identify 1-2 small decisions you make each day and create an easy-to-implement workaround to remove the potential for decision fatigue. 


Will making decisions get easier? Can we offload some of the stress or even paralysis decision making can cause not only at work but in our personal lives as well? Yes, but it will take work. In a paper published by Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business Review, author Larina Kase, PsyD, MBA, shares “three qualities great decision makers need to avoid decision paralysis” and potentially decision fatigue: emotional intelligence, the ability to handle uncertainty, and the ability to weigh evidence with intuition.

The more self-aware leaders can become when it comes to their own EQ and decision making stressors or triggers, the more likely they will be to avoid decision fatigue (or greatly reduce it) in the future.

To learn more about emotional intelligence and its impact on business or our upcoming Emotional Intelligence Leadership Series, click here. 




To read more from Lauren Littlefield, check out her previous article “Great Ready for Generation Z”.

And, to learn more about the impact of burnout read “The pitfalls and potential of being feeling creatures who think” by Leadership Consultant Mandy Haskett.