How to prevent decision fatigue from hurting your productivity

Thilo Huellmann

What is decision fatigue and why is it bad?

Some of the most successful business people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg are known for wearing the same clothes every day. Why is that? Because they try to reduce the number of decisions they have to make every day in order to be at the top of their mind when it comes to very important decisions.

The phenomenon these people are trying to address is called decision fatigue. Even if you have not heard of it yet you have probably suffered from decision fatigue in the past: When you start procrastinating and feeling stressed about making some important decision –  with the ultimate result being a poor decision or no decision at all – that was probably decision fatigue.

Studies have shown that the mere act of making decisions leads to a deterioration of decision-making ability (i.e. decision quality) or the complete inability to make decisions.

What causes decision fatigue?

In short, too many decisions in a short amount of time are the cause of decision fatigue.

Contrary to the belief of some, the ability to make decisions is thus not a function of intelligence. This is also highlighted by examples of people who are widely regarded as highly intelligent, e.g. Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, and who publicly address this phenomenon as a problem of theirs.

Strikingly, it is also true that many decisions which are not even recognized due to being too small and circumstantial also add to the problem. It starts as soon as you wake up:

  • Should I hit snooze for 10 minutes or get up now?
  • Should I do some workout before going to the office?
  • What about breakfast?
  • What to wear today?
  • Should I take the bike or the bus?
  • Coffee or tea?

Life seems like a never ending series of small decisions but most of us don't notice the effect that those decisions have on the really important decisions. As soon as you are in the office decision making continues:

  • Where should that document go?
  • Is this an urgent customer request?
  • Should we move forward with this applicant?
  • Which sales lead should I call next?
  • ... and so on.

Those decisions are obviously more important than "coffee vs tea" but they are still minor compared to big strategic business decisions or how to make the next life changing career move.

The problem: Decision fatigue doesn't care about the importance of a decision just the amount of decisions. The more you make, the poorer they become.

To visualize it, suppose you can only make 100 good decisions per day but with each decision you make the quality of your decision-making depletes. If the first 80 of them are about mindless things, you are missing out on a lot of your potential.

As a result, many business leaders tackle their most important decisions and meetings first thing in the morning. The probability of making a poor decision is a lot higher than in the morning when your biggest concern was around what outfit to wear. Do you still want to schedule your strategy meeting in the evening after fighting countless battles throughout the day?

What do do against decision fatigue?

Many lifestyle and business guides give you tips on how to avoid decision fatigue. Often it is about cutting away the mundane:

  • Wear the same things every day like Steve Jobs.
  • Plan your meals ahead or do meal-prep.
  • Try to delegate more of your work.
  • Try and live more minimalistic.
  • Change the order of your decisions: Important decisions in the morning unimportant in the evening.

However, many of those tips will require a lot of willpower and some radical changes to your lifestyle. Some also require others to play by your rules and you know best how well that works. Making all important decisions in the morning and avoiding low-stake decisions until the the evening is just not possible in many cases.

So, what if software could help you take certain decisions off the table altogether?

How decision automation software can help

The rise of productivity tools shows that individuals and organizations deeply care about enhancing their productivity and workflows – constantly. Many of those tools help you to reduce the amount of decisions you have to make on your own (through automation) or give you some kind of guidance to improve or speed up decision making.

For salespeople, it might be a smart CRM system that tells which opportunity is most likely to close. For recruiters, there is software that helps with filtering for the most promising candidates. The list is endless and shows how software can take simple decisions off your shoulders and allow you to focus on more critical, value-adding decisions – those where you can have a true impact. Besides extending our brain capacity to a large extent, these tools also avoid decision fatigue.

Adding a brain to decision automation

Still, many tasks remain that need your attention and decision making. What's more, many decisions are regarded as impossible to automate by many people. And many – the truly strategic ones that require creativity and human-level knowledge transfer – cannot be automated yet.

One area where that belief remains sticky is when working with unstructured data: Inspecting Documents, analyzing images, making sense of text – all these appear to fall into the human domain but this is no longer true: Recent developments in AI research have shown that machines are in fact becoming more potent than humans in some of these areas and it seems that all we need to do is set the machine to the right task.

Sure, using this technology may not come intuitive to us. But how "natural" did it feel when you were using a computer for the first time?

At colabel, we made it our mission to provide people with these new tools. We want to give everyone the opportunity to automate daily decisions that go well beyond picking customers and setting reminders.

One of the most recent applications we built dealt with the problem you may have experienced multiple times today: "where should I put this email attachment?" We thought that this was overdue, so we built something for it. Read more about our use cases here.

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