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.
- Figure out your highest bandwidth, highest payoff activities
- Schedule them earlier in the day, preferably after a good breakfast so your brain is well fueled.
- 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.
- 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.