What we're talking about
Decision fatigue occurs when you're required to make lots of choices – often important or complex ones – in a short period of time and your decision-making suffers. For business owners making big and small choices every day, it's a very common psychological phenomenon. It typically manifests in feelings of anxiety, pessimism, paralysis and numbness. You might spend ages vacillating over tiny things or act impulsively, making snap choices that aren't based on logic or rationale.
Why it's important
First things first, this is about supporting your mental health. Beyond this, decision fatigue can lead to some pretty negative business outcomes. One illustrative study from the Royal Society of Open Science showed that if credit officers at a bank could replicate the rate of approvals they had in the morning (when people typically make their best decisions), the bank would have taken in $509,023 extra revenue that month.
For small business owners especially, it's all about making tough calls. Critical thinking will lay the foundations as you establish, grow and differentiate your business. Without a big team to delegate to, or a structured decision protocol like some big corporations have, the survival and growth of your business depends on your ability to make logical and quick decisions.
Things to note
Acknowledge the toll. You may feel that, as a leader, you shouldn't admit to the emotional highs and lows that your responsibilities carry. It's your job to do them well, and employees, investors and customers might start to worry if they see that you're struggling. But leadership is inherently draining – decision fatigue is likely to rear its head every once in a while. Acknowledging, rather than suppressing, the weight of being a prime decision-maker is key. Identifying the problem early will ultimately prevent more serious burnout.
Get clear on your priorities. One of the risks with decision-making at work is that you spend all of your time putting out fires, and then find yourself too tired to answer the larger, more strategic questions. In other words, you put what's urgent over what's important and tire yourself out in the process. One way you can avoid this – and a philosophy that should underpin your approach to decision fatigue in general – is priority management. Knowing what your priorities are will guide you on which decisions you can ignore, automate or delegate, and which require time and a clear headspace.
You won't fix it without other positive habits. Decision fatigue isn't something that can be tackled in isolation. You'll need to develop a routine built on healthy habits. ‘No matter how hard a person wants to make the right choice,’ says a Washington State University study, ‘sleep loss does something to the brain that simply prevents it from effectively using feedback.’ You shouldn't let sleep – or downtime, nutrition, exercise and fresh air – fall by the wayside.
Constraints can be a good thing. Being ruthless about your priorities and carving out chunks of your day for healthy habits constrains you. And, whether time, money or brief-related, constraints can actually be liberating. Choosing from a couple of options is much less stressful – and requires much less analysis – than choosing from 20. Embracing restrictions could be asking your client to provide you with the most specific brief possible, stating you'll only spend a day on background research for a project or only setting one goal per quarter.
How to fight decision fatigue
1. Clarify your vision. Start by revisiting your business' core principles and aims. If you want to make decisions on what's good for your business, you'll need a very clearly defined picture of what your business is. Every time you make a choice, this should be your north star.
2. Set your priorities. Decide which tasks and associated choices are most critical for your business. That could be anything from finding investors to improving your marketing. One technique to help in this regard is a cost-versus-reward framework, like a prioritization matrix.
3. Cut what you can. Look to deprioritize: a) most decisions in areas that don't matter so much; and, b) most decisions that are low reward. This could mean automating (for example, scheduling repeat orders or booking meetings in for the same time each week), delegating or cutting them out completely.
4. Use your calendar. Consider when and how you'll make the decisions that remain by preparing your schedule. To facilitate good decision-making, block out chunks of your week to think critically about big decisions. The bulk of research suggests these hours should be in the morning. As a general principle, you should do very small tasks as soon as possible to stop them from building up.
5. Set micro deadlines. As new decisions emerge, plan in advance how much time you'll spend making them. Set deadlines for yourself, imposing constraints to make sure you don't waste time mulling over minor differences. You could say, for example, that you'll decide on paths of action for X, Y and Z issues by the end of this week's critical-thinking session.
6. Follow decision-making best practices. When the time comes to make each choice, ensure you have a good and consistent protocol. You could use a decision matrix, listing your criteria and rating each option accordingly, or a decision-making diagram where you map out the results of each course of action. See below for templates. Remember to keep returning to your brand identity as a point of reference.
7. Empower your team. Just because you're a prime decision-maker, it doesn't mean you're the only decision-maker. Educate your team on standards and processes to follow, give them the confidence to make tough calls and don't second-guess them once they have. This way, you can delegate even major decisions, removing a lot of weight from your shoulders. Even in cases where you want to have the final say, discussing with your team and getting out of your own head can be hugely beneficial.
8. Regularly check in on how you're feeling. There's no ‘cure’ to decision fatigue – it's up to you to tune into exactly how it manifests for you, so you can spot it early.
• Business owners are at special risk of decision fatigue, as their work often hinges on making multiple important decisions.
• The foundation of your approach should be setting business goals and personal priorities. Whether, when and how decisions should be made will follow from this.
• You need to know when the scale of possibility is weighing down on you – that's when it's time to delegate to an equally wise but less involved team member, or to set a concrete deadline.
Perspective. Executive coach Charlie Gilkey, who we've interviewed on this topic previously, discusses why you should HALT before making a decision.
Example. In this episode of the Death, Sex & Money podcast, journalist Anna Sale speaks to author Tayari Jones, columnist John Paul Brammer and art director Tara Ilsey who share advice on handling decision fatigue.
Tool. Here are some decision matrix templates and some decision tree diagram templates.
A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.