The world is becoming more complex with growing expectations, especially in the working sphere. The impact of the pandemic on work life has made people more uncertain about their decision-making skills. From managing dietary intricacies to balancing meetings alongside household chores to multitasking at work, making informed decisions at every walk of life takes effort leading to exhaustion.
Decision fatigue is a state of cognitive overload and mental exhaustion that results from the volume of choices and decisions we face daily. Even a trip to the grocery store can turn out vexatious if you have difficulties making choices. But when does decision-making at work become backbreaking?
Some sources say we make up to 35,000 remotely conscious decisions daily, from lifting a glass of water for a sip to speaking in a meeting. Dina Denham Smith, the founder and owner of Cognitas, an executive and team coaching firm, says constant decision-making at work can eventually cause cognitive overload.
“The 35,000 decisions per day is a ballpark number, but the point is, consciously or unconsciously, we make choices all day long. Some of these are little choices, and others are much larger. But the key thing is that they add up, and over time, we get fatigued and our ability to make good decisions can get hampered,” she articulates.
The higher you climb the corporate ladder, the more complex the work usually becomes. Therefore, we are more likely to experience cognitive overload and decision fatigue. That’s why those who come to Smith for coaching are senior leaders and decision-makers from large corporations such as Netflix, Google, Unity, and Gap.
When we’re in a state of decision fatigue, we tend to employ shortcuts and resort to suboptimal strategies. We may avoid the decision altogether, procrastinate or swing to the other extreme and make an impulsive choice.
The brain is constantly looking for shortcuts to save energy. However, this can lead to biases and rash decisions. It might sound obvious that one should worry about their ability to make informed choices, but good decision-making requires self-awareness – a skill too often overlooked.
“Each time we make a choice, we need to employ just a little willpower – we’re choosing this over something else. When we draw upon that willpower, it wanes, and when that source runs out, we’re in a state of decision fatigue,” explains Smith.
We know what it feels like to be very tired, wanting to get things over with and rest up. When there’s pressure, deadlines and several obligations to fill, the risk of making unwise decisions rises drastically.
“When we’re in a state of decision fatigue, we tend to employ shortcuts and resort to suboptimal strategies. We may avoid the decision altogether, procrastinate or swing to the other extreme and make an impulsive choice,” Smith continues.
“Another common decision-making style is to pick a singular criterion, like price, for example, which may be correct or not, and over-rotate on that until we decide. This method works fine with everyday matters, but you could be overlooking essential information when a decision is more important.”
How can we then avoid cognitive overload and become good decision-makers? The first place to start is understanding how important the decision is and ensuring you’re in the right mental state when deciding.
“Rating the decision on a scale of one to ten is what I recommend. Attaching a number to the importance of something can help us sort out its size in our minds. If you find it unimportant, do not spend much time on it,” Smith advises.
Having too much work while carrying many responsibilities is a recipe for stress and worse decisions. Professionals and leaders today are facing demands never seen before, such as handling multiple stakeholder relations, the implications of political unrest, disruptions with supply chains and the fight against climate change.
We make choices all day long. Some of these are little choices, and others are much larger. But the key thing is that they add up, and over time, we get fatigued and our ability to make good decisions can get hampered.
Taking a step back and instilling the discipline to take breaks from your busy schedule is one way to ease the load. Another is the ability to delegate tasks.
“Consider what tasks others should be owning and farm out some of the decision-making responsibilities. For leaders, it's essential to develop a team they can trust with those decisions. Otherwise, they’re effectively capping their capacity and that of their team.”
Smith believes it is more complicated to be a leader today. The pace of change is much quicker, and the emotional load needed to bear at work is higher.
“How you need to show up as a leader is constantly evolving. And there’s a lot on leaders right now. That’s why prioritising self-care and compassion is more important than ever.”