Are You Overwrought with Thought? It’s Not Always a Good Time to Make a Decision

August 26, 2011

Recently, I came across an article by New York Times science columnist, John Tierney, entitled “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” My first thought was, “Should I read this article or not?”  Then I went on, “Should I leave it for later, after I go to the market? Maybe later tonight after I’ve signed up my daughter for after-school ballet? Or should I try to convince her to stick with diving?” This all after my daughter got off the school bus and asked, “What are we having for dinner?” and then, “Can I have a sleepover on Saturday?” The answers came out rapid-fire, however I was able to respond. Then my husband came home and the decision-making continued, “Where should we go on our Christmas vacation?” “Should I leave for my business trip Saturday or Sunday?”

Now these may seem like minor, inconsequential decisions, but all added up, they left me exhausted.  The thought of making one more decision was like a Geneva Conference. I began to shut down. I became more reckless. I had no more willpower and just wanted immediate gratification… that chocolate ganache cupcake was looking really good….

In his “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue” article, Tierney discusses “Ego Depletion” – a term coined by social psychologist, Roy F. Baumeister. Baumeister conducted a series of experiments that demonstrate that making choices saps willpower, a form of mental energy used to exert self-control. This energy can be drained. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain.  Eventually, it looks for shortcuts, either by acting impulsively, or simply avoiding them altogether.

We experience this kind of ego depletion or mental drain even more so today as modern technology places at our fingertips volumes of information and choices. Take for example my husband’s question about where to go for Christmas vacation. Researching the Internet I am confronted with so many choices that I am tempted to make it a Christmas “staycation” just to avoid making more choices and keep it simple. The information overload we sustain from modern technology can cause the brain to freeze when making decisions. It seems likely that our ancestors, who faced fewer choices, had less decision fatigue.





So when is it NOT good to make decisions?

–       Don’t make decisions after back-to-back meetings. Avoid scheduling meetings this way.

–       Don’t make decisions late in the day; and if it can’t be avoided, make sure you don’t make them on an empty stomach (a dose of glucose has been proven to restore willpower and energy to the brain).

–       Don’t make decisions after having spent considerable time focusing on a particular task, or after exercising self-control, or after having made lots of minor choices.

…And speaking of information overload, there are many great resources on the Internet that provide good advice on how to make decisions. Here is a general summary of the process:

  1. List all of your options and alternatives.
  2. Narrow them down to the ones that seem especially promising.
  3. For every option, list all of the possible outcomes and label them as positive or negative and with a percentage probability of occurrence.
  4. Use your intuition to visualize the outcomes and engage all your senses to determine how they make you feel (remember our Inner Voice blog post?)
  5. Step away, take a break, sleep on it; let your unconscious mind work on it as well.
  6. Commit – make a choice and move forward wholeheartedly. Your decision was not careless but a conscious one.
  7. And finally, evaluate and learn from it.

Our New York Times science columnist, John Tierney, and our social psychologist, Roy F. Baumeister, collaborated in a book on this topic, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, which comes out next month. Maybe I will buy it, maybe not. The good thing is I don’t have to decide until next month!

If you have any tips, we would love to hear them! “Make a decision” to comment so we can share them with the other Decision Fatigued readers.

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