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Ever wonder why Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama wear a “work uniform” every day? To stave off decision fatigue!

If you’re not yet familiar with the concept, “decision fatigue” refers to the deteriorating quality of our decisions as we make decision after decision throughout the day. The more decisions we have to make each day, the more our internal batteries, and willpower, deplete. The more decisions we make, the worse those decisions tend to be.

Man looking stressed and struggling with decision fatigue.

In fact, Obama told Vanity Fair: “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.”

If we want to make better decisions, decisions that will impact our lives and work positively, then we really want to think about what decisions we are making, and how often we are making them and when we are making them.

But making higher quality decisions isn’t the only reason to limit decision fatigue; it’s also incredibly stressful to be making decisions constantly. Stress reduction is a key driver behind the trend towards being aware of, and striving to reduce, decision fatigue.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, I don’t really make that many decisions. But, I bet that’s not true; I bet you’re making all sorts of decisions throughout the day without even being aware of it.

For decision fatigue to kick in, it really doesn't matter the size of those decisions. We are actually making tons of decisions throughout the day, big and small, such as:

  • Asking yourself, “what should I work on next?”, 20 times a day
  • Deciding what to wear in the morning
  • Public transit or Uber/Lyft?
  • Deciding what to eat for lunch every day (and breakfast, and dinner)
  • Deciding which emails to respond to, and in which order
  • Should I turn left now, or wait a few blocks?
  • Deciding what meetings to accept or reject
  • Budgeting for next quarter
  • Approving vacation requests

The list goes on..

So, what can we do to reduce decision fatigue and set ourselves up for success? In my experience, it comes down to 2 strategies, delegation and planning.

Delegate

Why you aren’t delegating as effectively as you could be?

In my work with clients I find that often managers have a tendency not to delegate as much as they could or should. The 2 reasons that come up most frequently are

  1. Not wanting to overburden their teams and
  2. Thinking that they can do “it” better or faster themselves.

If you are not delegating because you don’t want to overburden your team, then I want you to remember that delegation provides growth. When we give something to our employees that causes them to step outside their comfort zone we are helping them to grow. When people are learning and experiencing growth, they report higher levels of engagement. Seen that way, you can actually think of delegation as a gift. We are often so focused on protecting our employees that we fail to realize that the work that isn’t necessarily our highest priority is sometimes exactly the opportunity they were looking for.

And if you’re not delegating because you think you can do it better or faster yourself, then I want you to think long and hard about your relationship with decision fatigue. And then I want you to remember that your reports are capable. You hired them for a reason; because they are good at their jobs. Let them show that to you.

 

What can you delegate?

Often when I work with leaders they are not quite sure what they should delegate, or how they should think about delegation.

If you fall into that boat, try asking yourself the following, self-reflective questions:

  • Am I the only one who can do this? Does it require knowledge only I have?
    • Often the answer is no.
  • Is there someone who’s better at this than me?
    • The most effective leaders have the self-awareness to know their own growth areas. And if you are paying attention to your employees, you will see where their special gifts are.
    • Often you CAN do something yourself, but you might have an employee who is a whiz at presentations, or data analysis, or scheduling or travel planning, and they can do it in ½ the time it would take you.
  • Where am I the bottleneck? Who’s waiting on me? Is it possible I can delegate the whole process to someone else so I’m not the blocker?
    • Do you have an employee whose judgement you trust implicitly? Let them handle it.
  • Are there things taking up valuable time that you could teach someone once, and then they could do on an ongoing basis?

 

How to Delegate

  • Review your own workload while asking yourself the questions above.
  • Codify your decision-making process around certain tasks or projects and provide those processes to your direct reports or assistant so that they can follow your decision-making process and arrive at the same decision that you would have.
  • Choose which decisions you can delegate altogether.
    • The Farnam Street blog has a fantastic post on the “Decision Matrix”, a simple framework for knowing which decisions you can reasonably delegate.
    • TLDR: Delegate all inconsequential decisions; save the consequential decisions for yourself.
  • Use the metric of “if someone else would do 70% as good of a job as me, then delegate”
  • Set up parameters, but delegate the specifics
    • Let your assistant know your preferences and hard lines around scheduling, but pass all the decisions of when and where to fit things in to him/her.
    • Let your team which types of decisions you want them to make on their own, and ask that they only come to you for input on items that fall outside these parameters

 

Plan

Next, we come to another strategy for alleviating decision fatigue: planning. Not only have recent studies shown that planning is an effective stress prevention technique, but planning also allows us to batch our decision making so that we’re not constantly ping-ponging and context switching throughout the day.

Here are some tips for using planning to stave off decision fatigue:

  • Separate the planning from the doing
    • Spend 15 minutes at the end of the day planning for tomorrow. Decide what you’ll do, and when. That way, when you get into the office, you can simply execute your plan.
    • Will you have to make a few decisions along the way? Yes, we live in the real world. But instead of thinking to yourself “what should I do next?” each time you finish something, you’ll instead only need to decide if those shiny objects coming your way are more important or urgent than anything on your plan.
    • On Friday, spend 30 minutes planning out next week for the same reason.
  • Batch process decisions
    • On Sunday night spend 10 minutes picking out all your outfits for the week.
      • You’ll streamline your mornings and you will limit the decisions you have to make before you even get to work.
    • Put your kids laundry away in outfit form (top, bottom, underwear and socks) so they can just pull out an entire outfit instead of asking you to help them pick an outfit in the morning.
    • Spend 20 minutes on the weekend meal planning so that you don’t have to open the fridge and think “ugh, what should I cook tonight?” every night next week.
    • Approve expense reports all at once
  • Theme your days
    • Excessive context switching is a key component in decision fatigue. Try theming your days (finance on fridays, content creation on Tuesdays, etc.) so that you keep your brain focused on a particular type of decision on certain days.

Summary

If you want to limit decision fatigue so you can make better decisions and reduce stress, consider the two part strategy of delegating the decisions that aren’t essential for you to make or where you can easily translate your decision making process for others and spend some time planning so that you can limit the number of daily decisions you are making on the fly.

 

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