Hack Your Brain: Combating Decision Fatigue

Apparently I’ve become something of a neurology buff. I guess breaking something and then figuring out how to fix it  gives one a lot of hands on experience.

So have you heard of this thing called decision fatigue?

Basically, it’s the concept that you’ve got a certain number of decisions available to you to use in a day. Once you’ve used them up, it’s like draining the battery on your phone — you’re SOL until it’s had time to recharge.

This is actually related to the concept of having limited willpower — and for similar reasons.

A Brain Is An Expensive Piece of Equipment — to Own, Run, and Maintain

To understand why, we have to look at the way the brain uses up energy. Some scientists think that the reason we developed our forebrains (the source of conscious cognition)  is because we started eating starchy foods like grain and rice as opposed to the less calorically dense foods like vegetables.

Whatever the cause, certain parts of our brain are more expensive to run than others. It’s like the difference between running your air conditioner and running your microwave.

The forebrain is a fuel guzzling pig. AND it has a tendency to overheat. The forebrain is in charge of everything you and I would call “thinking” but that scientists would call “executive function.”

Executive function includes learning, planning, comparing, and deciding. Willpower is the conscious decision to countermand your habits. That’s why willpower is so hard, and why attempting to change too many habits at once fail.

Your brain runs on glucose — sugar, essentially, but converted fat, ideally— but its easier to think of it like a smart phone.

You have one battery, a battery that putatively lasts 8 hours. But if you use it for high-bandwidth activity, it might only last 6 hours. Or four. Or two.

It’s not about the NUMBER of decisions, per se, but about the amount of thinking each decision requires.

How One Major Executive Manages the Limitations of Decision

One of America’s most famous executives has taken this research to heart. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name is Barack Obama.

In the Vanity Fair profile of Obama, he reveals that he does as much as possible to streamline the decisions he has to make, because even small decisions add up, and he can’t afford it. So he only has two colors of suits, blue or brown. Someone else decides his meals for him, someone else plans his calendar.

It seems a bit ridiculous at first glance, like going to bed fully clothed to save time getting dressed in the morning, but when you think about the sheer weight of the types of decisions he has to make, you sorta see his point.

Very few people will go to the extent of creating an outfit for each day of the week, or a set of meals they never deviate from. But when it comes to your business, there are lots of places where it would not only be perfectly acceptable to reduce decision loads once and for all, but actually advantageous to do so.

You know how they say that children “like” structure?  Well, like might be a strong word. They appreciate it. It gives them a sense of security. It makes them feel safe. It will work the same way on you.

How to Use the Science to Your Advantage

Think about it– how many worthwhile things do you put off doing because they’re too high-bandwidth? Everything from getting Evernote set up so that it can be your external brain, to really being able to harness some of the ideas you have, to just having enough juice at the end of the day to read a good book. What are you doing that’s the equivalent of filling out TPS reports? How can you get rid of it? Because it’s slaughtering both your ability and your motivation to do more with your time.

  1. Figure out your highest bandwidth, highest payoff activities
  2. Schedule them earlier in the day, preferably after a good breakfast so your brain is well fueled.
  3. Assess whether you are actually making decisions or if you defaulting on the decision to preserve brain power (your brain will do this automatically if at all possible, it’s called ‘cognitive miser-hood.’) If you’re defaulting as a general rule, why not go ahead and codify this default decision, because your brain is still draining its battery by thinking about whether or not you’re going to go with the default.
  4. Notice when your brain is low on fuel, and give it something to eat. If you don’t, it will shut down. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism! But don’t just feed it cola. Plan your diet so you have lots of high quality fats and proteins to burn throughout the day.


25 thoughts on “Hack Your Brain: Combating Decision Fatigue”

  1. Did not know about #3, very interesting! Also, besides hunger, inadequate amount of sleep is another thing that will make your brain shut down whether you like it or not.. I learned this when I fell asleep at the wheel years ago.. I don’t even remember dosing off.. it’s like my brain just powered off and went to sleep, no warning. So, now I never drive tired.

    1. @deniseurena I added a link so you can research it more if you like. Wow, that’s scary, eh? When you think you have more control over your body than you do? On Friday I sat in DMV for two hours and was fine until 11:45 when I got hungry, and it was like flipping the rage switch. 🙂

  2. Overall, another brilliant Shanna Mann piece. But you don’t want to see me write, “I think you’re awesome!” yet again. So I’ll split hairs for a moment.
    You have two contradictory things in this article. The first is your link to Mark’s Daily Apple (here comes an “awesome!” for that one) and the second is your statement about fueling the brain on food. Mark Sisson, Leo Babauta, scientists, academics, and many others will tell you what our brains often need most isn’t physical caloric fuel. It’s fuel from silence. Fuel from meditation. Fuel from spiritual, mental, and emotional sources that are often much more powerful than any physical fuel we can give our brains to do our bidding.
    So if you ever write a follow up to this article, I’d love to see you comment on the non-mechanical, non-physical aspects of decision fatigue and what we could do about them.
    P.S. I think you’re awesome.

  3. This, I love to read about.  It reminds me why I feel so exhausted in unfamiliar places even if I am on vacation.  Everything is a decision from where to put my toothbrush to where to eat.  At home all the mundane items are part of some system or other so I do not have to deliberate over these trifles.

  4. Oooh, I love the neurology-backed posts of Shanna Mann!  I think this is why CJ and I had the equivalent of a computer crash last Friday.  We packed our days – writing, going after companies about bills, and then work.  We’re completely balls-to-the wall (can I say that?  if not, delete!) about the book revisions these days which takes up a great deal of decision-making megabytes.  Pair that with a few corporations who decided to up our rates, and you have the equivalent of what you may have experienced in DMV on Friday.  We decided to have lots of fun this past weekend, and now we’re like fresh new squirrels ready for the week.

  5. I find this topic fascinating, Shanna. Thanks for a great “primer”! I totally notice this on Saturday mornings, when it’s time to go grocery shopping. First I have to pick what to make for the week (which, since I’m trying to build up my Erin-safe recipe collection, often means tracking down new recipes that I can safely eat). Then I have to decide whether we need more of x, y, and z or if we can get by on what we have. Then I have to decide which stores we have to go to to get everything we need. And then there are the decisions about whether to get this brand or that brand, what to do because this store is out of what I’d intended to buy, blah blah blah. My brain shuts down after that. Battery is DEAD. I keep meaning to at least make the plan and list the day before so at least a little of the deciding is done!
    I’m sure it’s happening to me in less obvious contexts too. Hmm…

    1. @remadebyhand My default (from years of only monthly trips for groceries) is that if there isn’t at least one unopened container of [whatever], we need to get more. Now that I live 3 miles from the grocery store, I do way more thinking about this stuff than I ever did before. 🙂

  6. Great! Great! Great post, Shanna ~
    As @Joel D Canfield wrote (a while back): “Make the *right* thing, the *easy* thing to do, and you’ll get the right thing done more often!” This goes to your “Why Systems are So Good For You” articles, too – it’s all interconnected!

  7. I *just* experienced this today. I was shopping for hard wood flooring for the tiny house with Ann at this amazing place called Planet Hardwoods. It’s a freaking warehouse full of flooring with really cool displays so you get to walk on the floors and see how they look on the.. well.. floor. And about an hour into it I just crashed. I couldn’t look at more samples… lost my will to continue deciding. I must have had decision fatigue! 
    My favorite decision fatigue killing food is bananas. Mmmmm bananas.

  8. I’ve read a million pages on this stuff, and your comments on Mr. Obama still had a revelation for me. I’ve often chided myself for eating the same (well balanced) lunch every day for a week or more; for wanting 6 identical shirts so I didn’t have to choose, etc. 
    Talking to Best Beloved about this just now, I realized that I keep looking for “variety” to “broaden my horizons.” Hello?!? Horizons = way broad, pal.
    I think I’m gonna go buy 7 identical henleys so I never have to choose a shirt again.

    1. @spinhead Do it, man.  I have 4 pairs of shorts and about 6 t-shirts.  They make up my uniform.  And I outsource matching to my wife.  Zero thought goes into dressing in the morn!  Very relaxing indeed.

        1. @Karen J She informs me that she would not have it any other way.  And there seems to be a high payoff for the t-shirt matching the shorts.

        2. @cjrenzi I get it! More power to ya, then.
          (and yeah, there IS a lot to be said for “I’m willing to be seen in public with this person” dressing… 😉 )

  9. michaelwroberts

    I just came across some of these ideas recently for the first time. I was at a conference where a guy was talking about how much the book Paradox of Choice influenced his software design. The whole idea was that creating an extremely powerful tool with too many choices kept users from engaging its full capacity. Once they cut back on what they offered, the software became much more popular.

    1. @michaelwroberts “The Paradox of Choice” is what got me started thinking about eliminating choices in my own life (what to wear, what to eat, stuff like that.)
      One of the most important books I’ve ever read.

  10. I get it, I really do, but when I think about things like creating a blog schedule so I don’t have to decide whether to post, I get all resistant to the rigidity of it and end up eventually defaulting because I find the whole situation so frustrating. If someone gave me the brown suit on a day when I wanted to wear a blue suit, I think my whole day would be ruined. I’ve tried picking out clothes the night before, but I dress according to my mood… some days it’s chic and black and other days it’s bright bursts of color. Maybe I lose out because of this on being able to decide on other things, but the delight I get from it outweighs any desire I have to run the United States. I was on a call the other day with the lovely Martha Beck, and she was saying how she has always had someone else running her business for her, and that frees her up to do what she needs to do. And when I heard that, I was like YES! YES! So I guess what I’m saying is that I think the kinds of things we decide to relinquish are an equally important consideration. Not all are equal. I want someone to do my budget for me and make certain business decisions, but don’t you dare come near my closet. Or my blog post schedule.

    1. @sarahemily Knowing what to delegate is enormously important. I could, for instance, eat whatever Best Beloved fixed for any meal, but if she tried laying out my clothes I’d just laugh. Or cry.
      Some things, we WANT to decide. When I put on some music, it’s minute by minute what I’m in the mood for. What I eat for lunch next Friday? As long as it’s on my list of Stuff I Love to Eat, I don’t care WHICH stuff it is.
      Boy; if only you could find some brilliant virtual assistant to help you build and run your business. And earn your trust so they could make decisions on your behalf, when it made sense. Wouldn’t that be cool?

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