Musings from the CU Suite

Jan 06, 2012

Decision Fatigue

My colleague Dan recently asked how my day was going.  The following conversation ensued:

Me. (Anthony forcibly lifts his head from his desk.  With a weary voice, he utters the following): As long as I don't have to make another decision today, I think I'll make it.

Dan. (Laughs out loud. For quite some time.) Brother, if you don't like decisions, you're in the wrong job. 

Me. (Audible thump heard as his head hits his desk again.)

Part of me was kidding with Dan.  But not all of me.

I think all of us have experienced how draining a day full of decisions can be.  And now research backs up what many of us thought: too many decisions in a day can be problematic.  

Researchers recently published a paper (limited access) that tracked Israeli prison parole board decisions. The New York Times highlighted the study here.  The research found that as the day progressed, the parole board's decisions became more erratic.  Lucky prisoners had their case heard early in the morning.  The New York Times article stated the following: 

There was nothing malicious or even unusual about the judges’ behavior... The judges’ erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider.” The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down. This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and C.F.O.’s prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening. It routinely warps the judgment of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, rich and poor — in fact, it can take a special toll on the poor. Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.

We can't stop making decisions.  So, what can we take away from this? 

  1. When possible, big decisions should be scheduled/delayed, so that they can be made early in the morning.  The old saying about "sleeping" on a decision or problem is good advice.  Now that I think about it, old sayings generally are.
  2. Share the load. One of my mentors never let me present a problem unless I also gave him a recommended course of action.  He knew that if I uncovered a problem, chances were good that I had the best data and could craft the best solution.  It was a win-win situation. I became a better manager, and he had help with the decision process.  If you have a colleague ask you for a decision, simply ask him or her the following: What do you recommend, and why?  


The Holidays are now behind us.  Perhaps I have to bulk up the household Holiday training for 2012. Kate thinks Santa Claus sneaks into your house, yells "surprise," and leaves chocolate.  I wonder what she thinks the Easter Bunny does?

Kate Black and White

Here's a recent pic of our little chocolate fan.  Have a great weekend, everyone!