You skip that gym session, or decide on take out instead of cooking. Is this a conscious decision or is it more biased than that? The more we make decisions, the less capacity we have to make more decisions. And when this fatigue hits us, we get lazy. Like, really lazy. Here’s what we tend to do and how to avoid making bad decisions in the afternoon.
Decision fatigue is a real thing. There are countless studies showing that people – even really smart people – get over making decisions quite quickly.
The most classic of these studies involves Judges who mediate parole hearings for inmates who are possibly leaving prison early for good behaviour or because they are rehabilitated. This is obviously a massive decision which impacts society and also people’s lives. But if you every find your life in the hands of one of these Judges, then you’d better hope your hearing is in the morning.
You see, the research shows that as these parole sessions wear on, the Judges are less and less likely to let the convicted inmate out early. In terms of cognition and decision-making, we know that ‘analytical thinking’ is one of the jobs of our ‘thinking brain’ (or pre-frontal cortex) – a part of the brain that fatigues easily. After a few hours of this sort of thinking, the brain runs out of energy and power goes to our most energy-efficient brain region – our Auto Pilot.
With this Auto-Pilot switched on, the Judges tend to default to a risk-free, comfortable decision – keep the inmate in jail and tackle the issue again at the next parole hearing.
Now, this phenomenon obviously doesn’t just affect Judges, but also people like you and me, every day. Our late-day problem solving might be suffering this exact same decision-fatige – especially if you’ve had a lot of analytical or abstract thinking happening at work during the day. With a fatigued ‘thinking brain’ we tend to default to our Auto-Pilot, easy behaviours.
So, I might drive straight home instead of going to the gym, or I might elect to stop and order food instead of cooking. I might also tend to procrastinate instead of starting that project or I will choose to look at social media instead of answering those emails.
But aside from just being conscious of what’s happening, here are a couple of things that we can do to help:
- Make sure you’re fuelled. If your fuel tank is empty, the brain will preserve energy by doing easy things and keeping that ‘thinking brain’ shut down. Have some healthy snacks on hand to keep those energy levels up
- Sleep well. Sleep is the single greatest thing we can do to recharge our ‘thinking brain.’ If we start the day tired, that decision-fatigue will start happening even earlier in the day and be more pronounced
- Get some sunlight. The sun is one of our most effective, natural energy generators. When we’re stuck in the office all day, with no direct sunlight, our bodies and brains start to slow down. A little walk outside might be just the thing you need.
Just being conscious of decision-fatigue might be enough to help you make a different decision when it comes to the afternoon and choosing things that help you rather than things that are comfortable. But implementing the things about will add to that ability to make better decisions for longer in the day.
** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.