Monday Mornings with Madison

How to Decrease Decision Fatigue

Word Count: 1,382
Estimated Read Time: 6 1/2 min.

Daily Decision Overload

General consensus is that the average adult makes about 35,000 decisions in a day.  That’s a LOT of decisions!  If it sounds dubious, consider the myriad of decisions big and small we confront daily.   Decisions about what to eat and wear….  And what to read and believe.  Decisions about career and tasks at work.  Decisions about where to shop, what to buy, how to spend money and how much to save.  Political decisions about who to elect.  Incessant decisions about dating, marriage, having kids, naming kids and then parenting them.  Scads of decisions about healthcare and grooming.  Decisions about where to go on vacation and the best travel arrangements.  And decisions about how to spend time and the best way to communicate something.

For example, in writing this article, there are hundreds of decisions on what to say, how to say it, what sources to consult and cite, how long it should be and what approach to use in making the information interesting and compelling.  Each word choice is a decision.  A typo requires going back to correct, which involves a series of decisions.  Backspace or use the cursor keys to move there, or the mouse.  Or should it even be fixed?   In just this example, there is more than one decision per second, some of which run in tandem like spelling, word choice, and sentence structure. Many tasks require a multitude of decisions.

Just the decision of what to eat and drink in a day is actually comprised of many tiny decisions. A research study conducted by Dr. Brian Wansink, Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and a professor in Cornell’s Applied Economics and Management Department, and Dr. Jeffery Sobal, professor in Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, found that an average adult makes an estimated 221 decisions about food and beverages per day.[1] While their focus was on how unaware people are about the number of food and beverage choices they make (participants estimated they made only 14 decisions about food/beverage choices daily), it points to a larger issue.  We make many decisions just on what we eat and drink daily.

Decision Auto-Pilot

There are 86,400 seconds in a day and we spend roughly 28,800 of those second sleeping (8 hours of sleep).  That leaves 57,600 seconds.  That means a person is making a decision about every 1.5 seconds.  So how are we able to make so many decisions so fast? The answer lies in the speed of our Intuitive minds.

Based on studies by Daniel Kahneman, a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and Nobel Laureate  in Economics, and his late colleague Amos Tversky, who worked at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Stanford University, th determined that the brain has two systems of thinking going on simultaneously. [2]

  1. System One:  The ‘Intuitive Mind’ is fast, powerful, automatic but totally hidden.  It handles instincts, innate skills and learned associations.  It works behind-the-scenes.  It is actually responsible for most of what we say, do and believe.  It is the intuitive mind that handles most of the thousands of decisions we make each day absent-mindedly.
  2. System Two:  Then there is the ‘Attentive Mind’, which is the deliberate, logical part of the mind.  It analyzes a problem and develops a rational answer.  We are aware of this part of our minds, but it is relatively slow, lazy and consumes a lot of energy.  In fact, the attentive mind is so slow and energy-consuming, most people can’t walk and solve a complex problem at the same time.  They usually need to stop moving to solve a problem.

The problem comes when our fast, intuitive mind makes decisions that really should have been handled by the slow, logical system.  This is where the mistakes creep in.  And the more decisions made, the more the mind switches over from attentive to intuitive.  The problem with the intuitive mind is that it suffers from a host of hidden biases.  It trades slow rational, logical decisions for fast but often irrational decisions.

The more decisions made by the attentive mind in a day, the less able it is to keep functioning at the same level.  The mind’s ability to make decisions is like a battery that runs out of juice over time and needs recharging daily.  That begs the question:  how effective can any person be if their decision-making ability decreases and malfunctions as the day wears on with each new decision?

Seeing Choices in a New Light

The load of decisions a person makes daily eats up limited mental resources.  This typically has several negative effects.  It can disable a person’s self-control, making it harder to stick to a diet, finish a big project or even complete simple daily tasks.  It also causes poor or irrational decision-making.  And, if a person realizes their decision-making ability is impaired, it can then cause analysis paralysis… a desire to procrastinate decisions in the hopes of making a decision when the mind is less fatigued.

Paradoxically, people like having more choices which requires decisions, but the mind can be easily overloaded by too many decisions.  For instance, making a multitude of choices and decisions just to order coffee at Starbucks can actually drain mental resources even as the caffeine revs the body’s engine.  Latte or Cappuccino? Flavored or plain? Cream and sugar? Tall, Grande, Venti or Trenta? Iced or hot?  Gift card, credit card or cash?  The list goes on.  With each decision, the mind’s rational decision-making ability decreases.

A person is more likely to make bad or hasty management decisions after a day full of hundreds of trivial judgments.   Since decision-making power is a resource that depletes, it is important to consider the impact this has on business and find ways to mitigate this issue.

Reducing Decision Fatigue

1. Reduce critical decisions by fully delegating and trusting others to do the job.  By reducing non-critical decisions as much as possible, the brain is freed-up for high-order thinking. Limiting decisions has more effect on ROI than limiting the expenditure of time or financial resources. Fully delegating technical decisions to the CTO and marketing decisions to the CMO can save an hour’s worth of mental resources even if it only saved 10 minutes of actual time. The mental energy it takes to switch between various high-level tasks and then make those decisions can be huge.  According to Entrepreneur contributing writer Andrew Cohen, “If time is money, then management’s mental bandwidth is money squared.” [3]

2. Reduce as many trivial decisions as possible in order to preserve mental stamina.  Limiting daily decisions is important not just for major critical decisions.  It is equally if not more important to avoid or eliminate small decisions throughout the day.  It is the cumulative effect of decision-making which drains the battery.  So it is important to stop draining the battery on trivial things that don’t really matter.  Wearing black slacks and a white shirt daily eliminates the need to think about what to wear to work.  Drinking coffee the same way daily and even delegating the task of ordering the coffee minimizes trivial decisions.  Automate or eliminate all routine decisions.  According to Cohen, “President Barack Obama limits his low-priority email responses to “Agree,” “Disagree” or “Discuss” to simplify the mental burden of his small decisions.”  Hire staff to make it possible to delegate more of the minor decisions.[4]

3. Ensure that any major or important decision-making is handled in the morning, when the mind is fresh and the battery is recharged.   Meetings that require important decisions should be held very early in the day, before too many decisions have already been made.

4.  Narrow options and choices to three for anything being considered.  As choices are eliminated, remove them from any further consideration.  Otherwise, this can lead to more decisions or analysis paralysis, where no decision can be made because there is too many variables being considered.

5.  Allow the habit part of the brain, which exists independent of the memory part of the brain, to contribute and control automated tasks as much as possible.  Habits help avoid spending energy on a decision that has to be made repeatedly.  The more that is made into a routine, the less taxing it is on the mind.

By eliminating, reducing and prioritizing decisions, a person can become more effective in making sound decisions throughout the day.

Quote of the Week

“Inability to make good decisions is one of the principal reasons executives fail. Deficiency in decision-making ranks much higher than lack of specific knowledge or technical know-how as an indicator of leadership failure.” John C. Maxwell

[1] January 1, 2007, Dr. Brian Wansink and Dr. Jeffery Sobal, Mindless Eating, Environment and Behavior Journal, Sage Journals,

[2] Daniel Kahneman, and Amos Tversky, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011

[3] May 15, 2015, Andrew Cohen, Why You Should Limit Your Number of Daily Decisions, Entrepreneur,

[4] Ibid


© 2018, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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