Designing around decision fatigue

September 14, 2021

This is the Too Many Trees newsletter, where I share what I’ve been writing and reading in the realm of leadership and personal development. My coaching practice is centered around the idea that we are more effective in moving towards our goals when we become more conscious and intentional in focusing our time and attention, and learn how our unconscious patterns are holding us back. If you know somebody that could benefit from my perspective, please forward this to them or let them know they can set up a free intro chat with me.

I read Indy Neogy’s newsletter this week on decision fatigue and had some thoughts in response, and figured I would share them here as well.

For those that don’t know, there’s a lot of evidence that making decisions is draining. The specific physical mechanism for decision fatigue isn’t clear, but there’s strong evidence that as our resources get depleted (through being hungry or tired), we make poorer decisions. The example I often refer to is a study of parole judges which showed that judges were more likely to let prisoners out on parole early in the day when they were fresh, and immediately after lunch, when they had taken a break and eaten. As they got more tired, they more often fell back to the default of “stay in prison”.

The way I think about it is in terms of Daniel Kahneman’s Systems 1 (quick intuitive emotional response) and 2 (slower effortful conscious rational thinking) from his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman claims that we will default to using System 1 unless we consciously slow down and engage System 2’s conscious rationality. But since System 2 is effortful and requires energy, the more we are depleted, the more we default to our immediate instinctive response from System 1. With the parole judges, the default is "bad person, go back to prison", so only the first couple cases in the morning, and after lunch, were likely to get paroled, because only then did the judges have the energy and resources to engage System 2. 

I applied this idea to my business in that I typically do my coaching calls in the morning, because that's when I'm at my best and most rested. I also try to have a snack between calls to keep myself resourced and able to engage in System 2 thinking to offer the most value to my clients.

The other way to limit decision fatigue is to not make decisions, by wiring decisions into System 1 e.g. by building Tiny Habits as described by BJ Fogg or training the intuition as described in Gary Klein’s Sources of Power. When we are able to recognize a situation and unconsciously react from our stored experience (Klein’s Recognition-Primed Decision Model), we don’t have to engage System 2 to make good decisions, because System 1 has been well-trained. Similarly, when we have developed good habits, we don’t have to consciously decide or engage System 2 to exercise or eat right; we just do it because we’ve made it easy to do as part of System 1.

From a leadership perspective, one way to reduce decision fatigue is to distill decisions into principles that can be shared. When leaders do that well, they aren't needed for as many decisions because their team knows the principles they will use to make the decisions, and can therefore make those decisions without asking them. This is also the idea behind Ben Horowitz's book What You Do is Who You Are; when an organization’s culture has been well designed and reinforced, people can use their System 1 to make decisions quickly because the “right” decisions have been wired into their unconscious.

So my strategy to deal with decision fatigue is to make fewer decisions, through intuition, habits and principles, and resource myself well to make the important decisions that remain. What are your strategies?


And now for the normal personal development content:

LinkedInThese are ideas or questions that help my clients (or myself), and that I share via LinkedIn to help a wider audience.

  • What are your actual constraints? We often treat things as constraints that are more a reflection of our unwillingness to change e.g. for my clients, I often translate "I can't do X" into "X is not important enough for me to give up my other current commitments".

  • We lead better from a place of conscious thought than from an instinctual fight-or-fight survival mode. And yet it’s so easy to limit oneself to fight-or-flight-or-freeze responses when our livelihood and status are at stake. Take a few deep breaths when you notice yourself in that mode to reset yourself; once you calm down, ask yourself what kind of leader you want to be, and act as that leader.

  • Passive or active? In school and in our early careers, we are rewarded for passive obedience and deferring to authority. But to become a leader means leading the way and doing something different than what others are doing. So training for leadership means practicing choosing a future, and moving yourself (and others) towards that future.

Articles and resources I’ve found interesting:

  • I haven’t been trying to stay on top of all the Covid details, but I appreciated reading this article which makes the case that “not only is the pandemic already on its way out, but the virus will be relatively harmless after it has become endemic. … because what made the virus so dangerous was that nobody had immunity against it, so once it has become endemic it will infect fewer people and even those who end up infected will be much less at risk.” The science matches what little I know, so it seems convincing, but would love to hear from anybody who actually knows stuff to critique it.

  • I appreciated this edition of Matt Stoller’s newsletter on monopoly and “Counterfeit Capitalism” in summarizing his thesis that the push for cost efficiency and towards profit taking from “capitalists” left many critical supply chains with no resiliency, which was then exposed by the Covid crisis. I’m not enough of an economist or historian to critically analyze his arguments, but I find them compelling and he is changing my perspective on the importance of market regulations being enforced by government for the benefit of society.

  • Continuing my mini book reviews, I enjoyed reading Ted Chiang’s collection of short stories, Exhalation. Even though the story material may seem depressing (e.g. the inevitable death of a world, or the nonexistence of free will), I found the collection hopeful in offering that the way we frame our own story matters e.g. the title story closes with "Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so."

Thanks for reading! See you in a couple weeks.

Speaking of constraints (first LinkedIn post above), one of the advantages of being self-employed is being able to work from other locations, like, say, the Champagne region of France, as I did a couple weeks ago.