I know what you did last night. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be ashamed. It happens to the best of us, honestly. After a challenging day full of reading, research, meetings, and writing, you went to the kitchen, made yourself some dinner, and sat down in front of your TV. You turned on the streaming service of your choice and started browsing.
There are so many movies and shows we want to watch, but instead of selecting a title, we keep scrolling. We keep contemplating shows before adding them to our library while the food in front of us slowly gets cold.
After a while, we start rewatching a movie we’ve seen a thousand times, largely because we know what to expect from it and because we don’t have to worry about being disappointed by a new show.
What we are experiencing in that moment might be a case of “decision fatigue.”
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What is Decision Fatigue and how much does it affect me?
Decision fatigue is a term to describe an incrementally growing impairment of willpower when it comes to making multiple decisions between resting phases, eventually leading to tiredness and exhaustion. It has been most prominently investigated by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and marketing expert Kathleen D. Vohs.
Even if the decisions one is facing throughout the day are not too demanding, they are thought to drain internal resources needed for upcoming activities or decisions.
For some, decision fatigue kicks in sooner than for others and may also come with a bigger mental toll, especially when paired with underlying cognitive challenges such as executive dysfunction. The cognitive resources used for acts of self-regulation vary from person to person and can be refueled by resting phases, or even trained.
Such a challenge to one’s willpower not only affects the choice of what movie we choose to watch in the evening. It can be a burden much earlier in the day, negatively impacting the quality of your work.
Take a moment to think about all the decisions you actively make throughout the day. Try counting them and then think about their individual importance.
Some of them are trivial, such as choosing your outfit in the morning, while others have the potential to change the trajectory of your life, or that of others. Take committee work as an example, where dozens of submissions are being discussed and decided on. Toward the end, motivation is decreasing, attention is drifting away, and verdicts may ultimately be less thought-out. One study finds similar trends in the rulings by judges in parole decisions made throughout a day.
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How can I counter Decision Fatigue?
I want to provide you with tools for diagnosing which day-to-day decisions may be sapping your energy, how to alleviate their mental toll, and how to find routines that do not necessitate decisions, leaving more of those ready for tasks that really need them.
This can help ease your daily schedule, thus passively increasing the mental capacity you have for your cognitive work. It can also be applied to the cognitive work directly, such as for planning and working on your PhD thesis.
1. Reduce Your Choices
Wherever you go, whatever you do: try to minimise the choices you are presented with. This helps you to assess each option more accurately and the decision you make will most likely be of higher quality.
Many of you have probably already adopted some strategies to counter such issues without realising their effect. Restaurants often have long menus, but do you read through all of it every single time? From my experience, I have picked out two or three options at most ready to go, and the one I ultimately choose depends on my mood in that moment.
2. Routinise Your Decisions
There are some decisions you face on a regular basis, e.g. what we want to wear that day, at what time we have to leave to catch the bus, or what to cook throughout the week. There are ways to have all these decisions made beforehand, so you don’t need to worry when the time comes. Even just preparing your outfit before going to bed can help future-you the next morning.
You may also consider a strategy used by some influential politicians and CEOs: they have their one standard outfit which allows them to scrub the first decision of their day and leave it for something more important.
Sadly, there is still a gender issue with this method. Just take the Australian TV anchor who wore the same suit for a year with no one noticing, while his female colleague was criticised by some for wearing the same blouse four months apart.
3. Delegate Your Duties
To help yourself in reducing the number of decisions that need to be made, you may try to find structures in which you can delegate them to someone else. Obviously, depending on the impact a decision may have, you should choose carefully who to task with it. You should probably keep the power to yourself in life or death situations, but there is nothing wrong with ordering the chef’s choice at a restaurant.
4. Prioritise and Schedule
Keeping track of all the tasks you have to worry about is very important. The PhD Knowledge Base has you covered on methods and ideas with which to better organise your work. But keep in mind not to write up a to-do list with dozens of entries. Prioritise tasks and schedule their execution. In doing so you can more easily assess which tasks are important and urgent, and which ones you can worry about later.
5 – Embrace the Simplicity
As an academic, you are already putting your brain through enough trouble during the day. Shift down a gear in the evening. Instead of watching sophisticated documentaries or depressing arthouse dramas, tune in to some undemanding show you’ll probably forget about within a week. But most importantly: don’t scroll and search for one. Just pick one that appears on a recommended list and start to relax while your energy replenishes.
By using these methods, you should be able to counter the effects of decision fatigue. Narrowing down which issues are really worth putting thought into enables you to increase the quality of your decisions, making them more reasoned, logically consistent, and sustainable.
Paul Druschke is an early career academic and PhD researcher at the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany. Aside from his research at the Institute of Geography, he is teaching courses on academic writing, time and stress management, and leadership competencies. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @pauldruschke.