Paper or plastic? Skirt or pants? Credit or debit?
The list of daily decisions we make goes on.
It’s estimated that the average adult makes about 35,000 decisions each day. 226.7 of those decisions are made on food alone.
Some of these choices are easy. Others? Not so much.
That’s especially true for those of us working in high-stress jobs, like medicine or journalism.
Or the law.
If you find that the amount of choices you make every day becomes progressively overwhelming, you could be struggling with decision fatigue. Coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumester as “ego depletion,” decision fatigue is the idea that human beings have a limited amount of willpower and mental energy they can expend every day.
But decision fatigue affects us differently than ordinary physical fatigue. While you may not be consciously aware of your exhaustion, you’re low on mental energy. As a result, it becomes more difficult to make decisions as the day goes on.
In perhaps the most compelling, real world study of this phenomenon, researchers found that judges are significantly more likely to grant parole in the morning than in the afternoon. Morning cases were released 70% of the time, while those in the late afternoon saw a release rate of less than 10%, regardless of how similar a case reviewed in the morning may be to one reviewed in the afternoon.
According to researchers, this may be due to the fact that when human beings start running on low mental energy, they tend to resort to the “safer” choice. And working for an extended period of time or being forced to make multiple complex decisions – such as whether or not to grant parole – uses up your mental stores even faster.
Once people reach that point, there are two common strategies they often turn to:
- Impulsivity: Making a decision on a whim without considering the outcome.
- Avoidance: Doing nothing whatsoever.
Both can be harmful. By acting impulsively, you’re prone to making reckless decisions that could weigh heavy with consequences.
By dodging a decision altogether, you are simply prolonging the inevitable and creating more tension in the long run. But in the moment, doing nothing eases mental strain.
It’s likely that you’ve exercised at least one – if not both – of these strategies in the past. As a legal professional, how couldn’t you? Your job requires you to make important, often life changing decisions on a daily basis.
Should you settle or go to trial?
Which witnesses do you call to the stand?
Guilty or not guilty?
The law is an inherently stressful, anxiety-ridden profession. And the stress caused by decision fatigue helps explain why “ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food” and make other impulsive, often harmful decisions, according to The New York Times.
Luckily, there are also strategies to keep decision fatigue at bay:
The Steve Jobs approach. The former CEO and co-founder of Apple was famous for wearing the same black turtleneck, blue jeans and New Balance sneakers every day. Why? Because Jobs understood that he had a finite capacity of brain power to use in making decisions, and he wasn’t going to waste a drop of it on deciding what to wear.
Consider adopting a few routines that could help limit your daily decisions, like eating the same breakfast every day or sticking to a consistent workout schedule.
Make important decisions first thing in the morning. There’s a reason people say they have to “sleep on it” before making a big decision. According to science, our ability to make decisions weakens throughout the day. Try scheduling your most pressing matters first thing in the morning to help ease your mind.
Limit your options. Having too many choices will stress you out. Instead, trying paring down your options. Recognize that in this case, less is more. And if all else fails, go with your gut. It’s almost always right.
Treat yourself. A 2007 study found that self-control requires glucose to function unimpaired. As decision making relies on the same resources, a sugar boost is likely to help in this category as well.
Stop second-guessing yourself. Human beings are perfectionists. We often get trapped in the mindset of having to make the “right” choice, because making the “wrong” choice could be detrimental in some way.
In reality, stressing over whether or not the choice you made was “right” or “wrong” will only enhance your decision fatigue and make it even more difficult to do any other tasks that requires brainpower, i.e. literally everything. Be confident in your decisions and move on.
When all else fails, go to sleep. A quick nap can help reset your mental space. It won’t bring you back to full capacity, but you’ll be more likely to make better decisions for the rest of the day.