Are You Suffering From Decision-Making Fatigue?

I recently heard a story that shocked me. Three judges sat on a parole board, where they got to decide which prisoners would be granted parole. On this one specific day, three different prisoners came in to have their cases reviewed. All three had served two-thirds of their sentence, but only one was released. Why?

It turned out that the determining factor had little to do with crimes or rehabilitation, but rather the time in the day that their case was heard. One case was heard in the morning at 8:50, the other two in the afternoon at 3:10 and 4:25 respectively. Which prisoner was released? The one whose case was heard first thing in the morning. A further study of 11,000 parole decisions revealed that 70% of prisoners who had a morning appearance were granted parole, compared with just 10% whose case was heard in the afternoon.

When people become tired and fatigued, they switch to a quicker, more efficient, and less energy-consuming form of decision-making.

The challenge is that this is more fallible. When leaders are fatigued they struggle to communicate effectively, collaborate, and compromise. Often they actually avoid making decisions and revert to established patterns of thinking.

This phenomenon is known as decision fatigue. and helps explain why leaders can sometimes become emotional and irrational in their decision-making. Leaders simply can’t make decisions all day every day without experiencing this kind of mental fatigue. The problem is that many leaders are unconsciously aware of this fact. They blindly continue, thinking that the decisions they make in the afternoon are as well-thought-out as those they made in the morning.

As decision-making fatigue kicks in, leaders respond in one of two ways.

  1. Their decisions become reckless, as they act impulsively instead of expending the energy to think through the consequences. (Just think about how many times you have purchased something you really didn’t need -- I bet you often made those decisions in the afternoon!)
  2. They do nothing, and so avoid making a decision to mitigate any risks. By doing nothing, leaders exhibit the ultimate form of energy conservation. However, avoiding making decisions now often creates more problems in the long-term.

For the prisoners attending the parole board review in the afternoon, decision-making fatigue meant the judges were less inclined to grant release for fear of making a bad decision. So, effectively, they made none at all and maintained the status quo.

So what can leaders do minimize the effects of decision fatigue impacting their performance?

  1. Ensure that all meetings that require critical thinking are held first thing in the morning when you are more alert.
  2. Schedule creative activities in the morning. I know, when writing my second book, I was always more creative and productive between 5am and 7am.
  3. Use early mornings for planning and scheduling.
  4. Plan difficult conversations, for example with team members, for the morning when you are more alert and can have the energy and ability to pivot and be flexible in your approach.
  5. Use the afternoon for repetitive tasks, that don’t require so much mental power, or for tasks where you don’t need to make lots of critical decisions.
  6. If you need to get buy-in from the board for a decision, and the rational for the decision is compelling, then try scheduling a meeting in the afternoon. The board  may feel less inclined to challenge your well-thought-out logic because of decision fatigue.
  7. In the afternoon, people can be reckless with their decisions; so if you want to implement a process that could help the other person, try promoting it later in the day when they are seeking to sedate their fatigue

Understanding the concept of decision-making fatigue can help explain why sometimes a proposal gets accepted and other times rejected. It’s not because of the quality of the proposal or idea, but rather with the mental state of the recipient. How will you restructure your leadership activities to leverage the power of decision-making fatigue?