Is decision fatigue a thing? I’ve heard the expression used quite a bit over the last few years.
The theory is that, during the course of every day, our brains are forced to make thousands of decisions, big and small. The cumulative effect of all these decisions is mental fatigue, which can then result in poor judgment and irrational decision making, even when faced with relatively simple decisions.
My immediate reaction is that simply labeling the phenomenon in this manner provides you with the perfect excuse to procrastinate on, or even completely avoid your decisions. It also offers a convenient rationale for any decline in motivation, performance, or mental function.
We hear popular stories of people like Steve Jobs, who was said to only wear the same outfit because it meant he needed to make one less decision each day, reserving his huge brain for more important decisions.
Yeah, look that may be true – but the cynic inside me says this was just very clever branding and image management… keeping his personal brand aligned with the simplicity and elegance of Apple’s product range. Dunno!
Most of us will never have to deal with a fraction of the complexity that Steve Jobs’ did in his average day, but it may be useful to consider the relative complexity of our decisions.
I can quite happily decide what to wear each day and even though these decisions are processed in my prefrontal cortex – the same part of the brain that’s used for much more complex decisions – I can do it with virtually no impact to my mental endurance and capacity.
There’s no doubt that the effects of fatigue on both the body and mind are real, and this can be particularly relevant when it comes to safety.
Whether you’re driving a car or working on heavy equipment in high risk environments, fatigue can cause impaired judgment, slower reaction times, and reduced ability to recognize and process both visual and auditory inputs.
This is why, in asset intensive industries, there are rules and systems in place to ensure that fatigue can be measured and monitored. These assessments enable us to manage the mental fatigue that leads to incidents, so that people and assets aren’t put at risk.
But using the decision fatigue label provides an excuse for not dealing with something that we should actually deal with. Making decisions is part of life, it’s part of business, and in any senior career you need to be adept at making decisions when they need to be made.
You don’t always get to make your decisions when you feel you’re at your mental peak. That’s why managing your personal capacity is key to leadership performance. Blaming decision fatigue for poor decisions doesn’t really cut it. It’s just another version of “the dog ate my homework”.