May 6, 2015

Four Remedies for Decision Fatigue

By Nicole M. Coomber

SMITH BRAIN TRUST -- People make decisions every day. Hundreds of them. Some decisions are small, such as where to eat lunch or which elevator to use at work. Other decisions are large, such as where to attend college or which house to buy. People like to have choices. But research shows that human brains have limits, and making too many decisions over the course of a day can wear down a person’s self-control. That’s a big deal because self-control has been tied to everything from earning a high GPA in college to forming better relationships with others to avoiding depression, anxiety and anger.

Running out of self-control is known as ego depletion or decision fatigue. People’s brains react to this condition in two ways. First, they might behave more recklessly. (Hey! There’s a sale at your favorite store! There goes this month’s budget.) Or they might do nothing. Their brains simply refuse to make a choice. This delays the inevitable, but also gives people some respite in the moment.

Typically, what this looks like is sticking with the status quo. In a study where judges were deciding on parole for prisoners, the judges were more likely to leave inmates in prison as the day wore on — due to the number of decisions they already had made. As decision fatigue set in, the judges opted to stick with the status quo. This means that making a trivial decision in the morning, such as sorting through hundreds of coffee options, can impair a person’s ability to make important decisions later in the day, such as recommending a course of action for a client or deciding between two job candidates.

How can people avoid this derailing of their important decisions? The parole study suggests one small remedy. When the judges were given a high-glucose snack, their decision making ability improved. So a quick snack break can help. Another remedy is to make mental adjustments. I’ve created a simple framework that can help people guard against decision fatigue. I call it VARI — for VARI important people like you. You must consider values, automation, rationality and intuition.

Values: The process starts with values, or what’s important to an individual. Since different people have different values, the best decision might not be the same for everyone. It generally helps to think about values in two buckets. Terminal values reflect the end results we want to achieve — such as happiness in our families, financial security, or social justice. Instrumental values describe the methods we use to achieve the end results. Instrumental values describe how we want to conduct ourselves — such as with honesty, fairness, authenticity, or kindness.

Automation: After identifying core values, people need to think about which decisions they can automate — or which aspects of their life they can make “self-moving.” Less important decisions can be delegated or outsourced. But even some of the most important decisions can be automated — especially decisions that are so important that a person can’t afford not to make them. For example, employees can automatically have 10 percent of their paychecks go to their retirement savings before they see it. Or they can set an alarm for when they need to leave work to have dinner with their families. They also can develop diet and exercise habits, so they don’t have to actually make decisions every time to eat certain foods or go to the gym. This is a secret of the most successful people. They spend less time worrying about choices because they’ve developed habits. They commit to a particular activity and stick to it — deciding in advance rather than exercising self-control every time.

Rationality: Not all decisions can be automated, of course. People also face complex decisions that require a more systematic approach. These include which job to take, which house to buy, which candidate to hire, and which recommendation to make to the client. This is where rational decision making comes in. After considering their values, people should list their options, establish criteria for evaluating these options, and start gathering facts. When I’m making an important decision, I like to assign weights to my criteria to make sure they reflect my values. For a new hire, the most important attribute might be that the person fits with the current team — if you really care about your employees. Or it might be that the winning candidate must have a missing skill that your organization requires to meet the needs of customers. So you weight that attribute with the highest percentage. You can enter in the attributes and the weights in a spreadsheet to capture your thought process. Other attributes follow suit. Just make sure that your weights add up to 100 percent. Then list your options. In this case, it would be the candidates you’d like to hire. Score each one based on the weighted attributes. Then do a little math using your spreadsheet. The candidate with the best score is the most rational choice.

Intuition: Unfortunately, some decisions require more than just plugging data into a spreadsheet. What happens when your gut tells you that the most rational decision is not the best? This is where intuition enters the framework. Don’t throw out your rational conclusions, but broaden your thinking to consider holistic associations, patterns, emotions, and assumptions. In a complex world, feelings and facts belong in the mix.
Nicole M. Coomber, PhD, is a lecturer in management and organization, and associate director for the QUEST Honors Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.


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The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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