How to overcome decision fatigue
Updated: February 18, 2022
It’s funny, not funny, but even now that I am retired, I still suffer from decision fatigue.
When I was a CEO, I surely had it every day. I would be wiped out just from thinking, and from trying to make the right decisions big and small for an entire organization.
I went from not being able to sleep at night, to falling asleep the minute my head hit the pillow, because I was so exhausted.
And this was the decision fatigue from someone who only worked 40 hours a week or less. So if I was suffering from decision fatigue, then certainly others are too.
It’s not just decision fatigue at work that is problematic. At home, there are many, if not more decisions that you have to make on a daily, weekly, yearly basis:
- Where should my kids go to school?
- Should we live in a big house or a small house?
- My car needs an oil change, when do I take it into the shop?
- My in-laws and parents, both want to come visit, which weekend is best for everyone?
- What should I have for breakfast today?
- The list goes on and on!
So life is essentially a constant churn of decisions. Being fatigued by them, cannot possibly be a solid long-term solution.
Side note: maybe this is what the whole early retirement thing is all about -- the ability to make less decisions and free your mind from the mental stress and inevitable suffering?
So how we do we reduce decisions, so that we can live a happier and less fatigued life?
The answer is in finding the right balance between making too few decisions thus being stagnant, and making too many decisions and feeling overwhelmed.
The 10 things you can do to reduce decision fatigue (and fatigue in general):
- Focus on The ONE Thing (see The ONE Thing by Gary Keller)
- Be Healthy: Eat & Sleep Better
- Create Systems to keep you on the rails
- Use lists to help manage the load
- Stay active: Physical activity leads to mental stability.
- Take Mental Breaks: Meditation, Journaling, Reading fiction, Video Games, etc.
- Track time and make adjustments
- Take a day off work to focus on personal decisions, to reflect, and eliminate the nonessentials
- Delegate: Know when to back down and commit to others decisions.
- Let the rest go
Confused now are you? Let me dive in a bit deeper here.
1. Focus on the ONE Thing
The best thing that you can do to rid yourself of decision fatigue, is to figure out “the ONE Thing I can do / such that by doing it / everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
It is the simplest phrase, that one can use to boil down to the essential. This is straight from Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing (highly recommend BTW).
And it is the phrase that helped Gary to build Keller Williams, the largest real estate company in the world “by agent count, closed sales volume, and units sold.” (according to Wikipedia)
If you try to do everything, you could wind up with nothing. If you try to do just ONE Thing, the right ONE Thing, you could wind up with everything you ever wanted.”Gary Keller – The ONE Thing
So what is The ONE thing? That is unique to you, but it is a question you should try to master.
If you can figure out the most important thing that you can do that day and do it, it will help you to set aside most all of your other smaller and more insignificant decisions.
2. Be healthy: Eat and Sleep Better
This might seem counterintuitive, but if you are healthier, the amount of decisions you likely will make will go down. You will have less ailments and less overall stress.
The real life benefits of a good night’s sleep (7-9 hours) are numerous. WebMD outlines the Surprising Reasons to Get More Sleep:
- “Sharper Brain”
- “Mood Boost”
- “Healthier Heart”
- “Athletic Achievement”
- “Steadier Blood Sugar”
- “Germ Fighting”
- “Weight Control”
It goes to show that getting a good night’s sleep alone will help you to make better daily decisions and provide you with more focus on The ONE thing.
But your eating habits also go hand in hand here. I’m not going to make any specific recommendations, but eating healthier will help you to also have all of the above benefits of sleep and more:
- “Heart health”
- “Reduced cancer risk”
- “Better mood”
- “Improved gut health”
- “Improved memory”
- “Weight loss”
- “Diabetes management”
- “Strong bones and teeth”
- “Getting a good night’s sleep”
- “The health of the next generation”
3. Create Systems to keep you on the rails
I have said it before, but creating systems will help you to be more creative, productive, and eventually lead to more wealth!
A system really should be something simple that gets you to do something repeatedly over time:
- Blocking out time on your calendar to focus on The ONE Thing
- Putting the phone downstairs and away from your nightstand, so that you can sleep better
- Waking up 10 minutes early to journal or meditate
All of the above are simple systems to reinforce good habits over time.
A system could be as simple as setting a self imposed deadline to make a decision, or it could be a brainstorm session to navigate the pros and cons of each decision.
A simple system could be to say “no” to any nonessential activities. Or it could be grade decisions on a 0-100 scale and if it gets less than a 90, you don’t do it.
No matter what you do, if you have a system and stick to it, it will pay dividends along the way.
4. Use lists to help manage the load
Creating lists on a variety of topics from bucket lists to to-do lists has helped me to improve my productivity and my happiness.
In this case, utilizing lists to help sort through decisions will be a big help.
In fact, what I would do, is make a list of anything and everything that is stressing you out, or that you need to make a decision one way or the other on.
This list could be 100 items long, or 10. Write it down.
Now circle any that you have enough information to act now on.
Make your decision. Act.
5. Stay active. Physical activity leads to mental stability.
This ties into being healthy, but is more than just eating and sleeping. This is being active. I am not talking about working out necessarily, though that could be what you do.
Stay active. Go for a walk or play basketball (if that is your thing).
Go hit golf balls, or take a hike. Tennis maybe?
Do something that you get enjoyment out of, and use that physical activity (not workout, just activity), to be in the moment and forget about your decisions.
When you come back to it, you will be that much stronger and mentally well rested.
6. Take Mental Breaks: Meditation, Journaling, Reading, Video Games, etc.
This one should be the easiest of all. Take a break. You can’t make it through a whole day without some sort of mental break.
And while it doesn’t have to be meditation, there are very clear benefits to meditation that we are seeing in various studies. Mayo Clinic states that “the emotional benefits of meditation can include:
- Gaining a new perspective on stressful situations
- Building skills to manage your stress
- Increasing self-awareness
- Focusing on the present
- Reducing negative emotions
- Increasing imagination and creativity
- Increasing patience and tolerance”
But it doesn’t have to be meditation. It could be journaling, reading, or playing a video game. I think simply taking breaks for YOU is the most important part.
Meditation has its own unique benefits. If you want to read a great introductory book on Meditation I recommend:
- Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within by Chade-Meng Tan
It is really practical, and offers simple advice for how to begin meditating with just one breath.
7. Track time and make adjustments
As a CEO, I found that one of my biggest problems was managing my own time. Yet, managing your own time, is a simple and effective tool to helping to alleviate stress and tilt the odds towards better decision making.
The most effective among us have the same number of hours as everyone else, yet they deploy them better, often much better than people with far greater raw talent.Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive
I can’t tell you how much time is wasted on nonsense, meetings you don’t need to attend or aren’t contributing value to, etc.
There are so many things that simply do not go towards your ONE thing.
The only way to combat this is to track your time. There are plenty of time tracking tools out there, but I went with an old fashioned excel spreadsheet.
For this, I tracked the Date, Start Time, End Time, Total Time Spent (auto-calculated), Task Description, Category. Then I created queries to sum up the time spent each day, week, month on each category. Then the results were spit out into a nice to look at visual chart that really helped me to get a feel for how I was spending my time:
Over time you can really see patterns emerge.
Not only that, but tracking every minute of every day allows you to make changes on the fly. Ensuring that I split my time on the ONE thing each day, week, month, year, etc.
8. Take a day off work to focus on personal decisions, to reflect, and to weed things down
I think a big part of decision fatigue is simply that if you are focused on work, you do it while allowing your personal decisions pile up to the point that they become unmanageable.
Working 40 hours a week is not easy, let along 50 or 60. There is just no time for personal decisions, because when you are home, you are in the thick of it managing your kids, family or simply trying to decompress.
You schedule your day in advance and you use it to take care of the backlog of personal things that you need to take care of.
Perhaps you schedule the dentist, car servicing, customer service phone calls all for this day.
Or if you have that under control, maybe you simply need to take a day of reflection to ensure that you are focused on The ONE thing for you personally.
9. Delegate Decisions: Know when to back down and commit to others decisions
For this one, we simply go directly to Jeff Bezos. The amount of decisions that I had to make as a CEO of a $15M company, are NOTHING compared to the vast experience of Bezos as he built Amazon from the ground up:
As a senior executive, what do you really get paid to do? You get paid to make a small number of high-quality decisions. Your job is not to make thousands of decisions every day.Jeff Bezos: Here’s how I make Amazon’s highest-stakes decisions – Fast Company
I can attest, as an executive, the best thing you can do is delegate or die. Get as many decisions off your plate as possible. You don’t want to be making this many decisions, and your company and subordinates will be better off by being empowered to make their own decisions.
Bezos’ goes on to explain that once you make a decision, you need to stick with it. And even if you disagree with a decision, you need to embrace it:
And I’ll say, “You know what? I really disagree with this, but you have more ground truth than I do. We’re going to do it your way. And I promise I will never tell you I told you so.”Jeff Bezos: Here’s how I make Amazon’s highest-stakes decisions – Fast Company
For more from Bezos, check out his book Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos, With an Introduction by Walter Isaacson
Even if you are not a senior executive, there are always ways to delegate decisions.
Perhaps you are too bogged down, but your significant other can take on this decision?
If not a significant other, let someone else in your family make that choice. When all else fails, just ask the kids.
10. Let go any decisions that can’t be made
Finally, there are decisions that you just need to let go.
There are things that just don’t matter anymore. If you can’t make a decision, you need to let it go.
If it is not essential, you need to let it go.
If the decision does not support The ONE thing in your life that will make everything else easier, then let it go.
Just let it go. If it becomes important again, let it bubble back up to the surface, but otherwise I find that things you thought were important decisions, turn out to simply be nothing of note.
Work on overcoming your decision fatigue every day.
Focus on The ONE Thing that really matters, and if you are a leader, delegate.
Work on your health and wellness.
Utilize tools at your disposal (lists, systems, meditation, reading, days off) to overcome your decision fatigue and get on with life.
You got this!
I hadn’t realized how significant making decisions were until I read a sentence uttered by Obama or Mark Zuckerberg how they simplify and standardize the most mundane tasks throughout the day so that they can focus on the more important ones down the road.
Making decisions takes so much brainpower, even bad decisions take up so much resources.
I like the physical activity tip. I can’t wait for COVID-19 to be over so that I can feel safe, wiling, and able to go to the gym on a regular basis.
Yeah. I eat the same breakfast every day. I like starting off my day not having to make any decisions, so simply eating the same thing over and over is the best way to get cranking.
I also like some of what Bezos talks about basically having a relaxing morning of taking in the news, being with family, etc. We tend to feel so rushed in our society to get to work by 9 or earlier, that I like that he is showing that it is OK to not take any meetings until 10 or so when you are prepped and ready to take on the day.