The Cure for Decision Fatigue


June 10, 2016 6:15 p.m. ET

Plaid or stripes? Flats or heels? Tall or grande? Latte or drip? Soy milk? Almond milk? Rice milk? Before you’ve taken your first sip of coffee, the decisions have started. By some estimates, the average American adult makes 35,000 decisions a day. No wonder you’re tired. Soul-weary. Sucked dry. The kind of tired 10 hours of sleep can’t fix.

You are suffering from decision fatigue. And there’s only one cure: Stop being the decider of everything. Sounds easy. But it’s not. We are—all of us—always one Google search away from dozens of potentially meaningless decisions.

Last month, I decided it was time to seal my deck. Once, I might have bought whatever deck stain the local hardware store carried. Now there is no local hardware store, so I found myself reading 45 reviews of deck stains, from semitransparent to solid. I compared the ultraviolet-blocking power in latex stains and weighed that against the volatile-organic-compound vapors of oil-based counterparts. I turned one decision into an entire decision tree of trade-offs and comparisons. When I was done, I may or may not have made a better choice, but this was certain: I was too tired to seal my deck. Good thing I didn’t have any stain around.

That’s decision fatigue. Not to be confused with its kissing cousin, the paradox of choice, in which too many options paralyze people from making any decision at all. This is the draining of the will that comes from the act of decision-making.

In a study described in the book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister, judges turn out to have a finite amount of willpower—a limited store of energy for adjudicating. As the day wears on, judges’ decision-making abilities wear down and they revert to the easy answer, which is often no. Researchers analyzed 1,100 decisions by an Israeli parole board. Parole was granted about a third of the time overall. But prisoners whose cases were heard early in the morning received parole about 70% of the time. Prisoners appearing late in the afternoon were granted freedom only 10% of the time.

These judges are deciding a couple dozen cases in a day. You and I are making thousands of decisions each day. We are checking 31 crowdsourced apps to find a place to eat dinner. Zappos can show you more brown casual shoes in size 9D than there are minutes in the day. And because we can now decide on a doctor based on rankings and reviews, we will spend hours on a decision that used to be handled by asking a friend for a recommendation.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Because we overvalue two things that have become abundantly available: data and choices. When everything is measurable, everything seems knowable.

As a creative director at an ad agency, I am a sort of judge. It’s my job to decide which message strategy to pursue, which idea among 40 to take to the pitch, which word to replace in a script. But every day I’m invited to meetings to weigh in on dozens of things that matter much less or fall outside of my expertise. I’m not alone. This is an occupational hazard of any management job—being asked to weigh in on every detail, no matter how minute. You are on the email chain, and you have internet access 24/7, therefore you should answer. You should decide.

And it’s easier to make a series of small decisions than it is to focus on the big problem. Decision-making has the appearance of work. But it can often be distraction disguised as productivity.

So I turn down meetings and either send a one-word email response or none at all. I’m sure I look lazy to many of my colleagues. I may even look uninterested when I say: “You decide—either way is fine with me.” I’m trying to preserve some stamina for the one thing to which I can contribute—finding the right idea.

I also work hard to limit the freedom of the people who work for me. I want to take away their choices. I stop the research department from giving them too much data. I keep them out of the client meeting where they will be exposed to the 131-slide PowerPoint. I want to put them in a box. A very small box.

Give a creative team the world of potato chips to explore, and they’re immobilized. Give them the word “crunchy” and watch them go. People think they hate boxes, but it’s in boxes that the creative process thrives. In a tight box, the will is not drained by too much decision-making. You are free to find the unexpected, to focus on what matters.

Having data feels like power. Having choices feels like freedom. Sometimes having both is having neither.