There is a reason that many great leaders past and present wear the same outfit every day – and that is to reduce the affliction known as decision fatigue. Roy Baumeister, the social psychologist who coined the term describes the phenomenon as the mental and emotional strain resulting from the burden of making choices. Maybe you’ve noticed this in practice. You’re mentally wiped after a day filled with making decisions, even if the day didn’t feel particularly busy. While this can be true for anyone, it is especially true for business leaders and people in management positions. As any manager will know, not only are you responsible for helping to make the best decisions for the company and your team, but you’re also responsible for helping your team members make better decisions. Combine all of this with having to make important decisions in your personal life – think moving and buying a new house, choosing a daycare for your child, deciding to change careers – and you’re left with no energy at all by the end of the day. And while decision fatigue can sometimes be unavoidable, there are some tips you can use to help you make better decisions when dealing with important choices…at the office and at home.
Be ok with making the wrong decision.
First and foremost, you need to be ok with making the wrong decision. No matter how much research you do, how many people you poll, and how long you spend on the decision-making process, there is no guarantee that you will make “the right decision” – or that there even is a “right” decision. Making important decisions in management positions is that much harder when you also carry the fear of failure. Successful business leaders know that to move forward means to make decisions – and they are willing to assume the risk and take responsibility for success or failure. They are confident in their ability to take calculated risks and deal with uncertainty. And they know that making a decision, even if it’s the wrong one, is a step forward, as a bad decision is better than no decision at all. As Voltaire said, “the best is the enemy of the good” and managers need to feel empowered that effective work is about moving toward the desired goal, and not necessarily about ensuring that mistakes aren’t made in the process.
Try fear setting.
I’m sure you’ve participated in goal setting before, whether informal or formal, to help you strategically and thoughtfully plan for the future. But what about fear setting? While goal setting can be helpful in planning and anticipating what decisions you will need to make, fear setting can help you actually make those important decisions. While I won’t try to fully explain the idea behind fear setting (as this TED talk by Tim Ferris will do a much better job), in its simplicity, it is the process of defining the worst possible outcomes of any given decision, and then consciously planning on how to mitigate those worst possible outcomes. Not only will this give you peace of mind if you do make the “wrong decision” (see point above), but it will also help you realize that your worst possible outcome is probably not actually that bad. It will also help you define ways in which you can fix any negative impacts should the worst-case scenario happen. To get started with fear setting, and to help you make better decisions, consider the following:
- What doubts, fears and what-ifs, are associated with making a decision? What is the worst-case scenario? What would be the permanent impact (if any) on a scale of 1-10 and how likely is it that any of these would actually happen?
- What steps could you take to repair any damage caused by a worst-case scenario? Think both temporarily and long-term.
- What are the results and benefits of the more probable outcomes (and not the worst-case scenario)? What would be the impact of these on a scale of 1-10?
- What is it costing you (financially, emotionally, timewise) to postpone action? Making no decision is still a decision and so it’s important to evaluate the costs of inaction too.
Get help from a team.
While getting input from multiple colleagues can sometimes be detrimental (if those colleagues only have their best interests at heart), there are times when it can aid in making better decisions. Instead of asking for help on what to do, instead, ask for help in making the decision. You might be surprised that you get a different perspective. Your team might also have some other benefits to add to your list and ideas to combat any worst-case scenario.
Sleep on it.
You’ve heard this one time and time again. And there is a good reason. It’s also why you should consider not making important decisions at the end of the day. Just like decision fatigue can impair your decision-making abilities, so too can your mood and experiences from throughout the day. Maybe you’ve had a particularly tough conversation with a subordinate, or maybe things are extra hectic in your personal life. Whatever the reason, consider how you’re feeling before you jump into making an important decision. Then, even when you think you’ve decided, give it an extra couple of hours (or hopefully a solid 8!), to see how you feel in the morning with a clear head.
Set a deadline.
While some decisions must be made quickly, most important decisions are not as time-sensitive, allowing you to perform adequate research and due diligence. However, this can sometimes lead to procrastination which will ultimately hurt the decision-making process. Therefore, make sure you set a deadline and schedule for making an important decision. When will you start evaluating options? When will you involve other key stakeholders from your team? And ultimately, when will you make the final decision?
Trust your gut.
It’s so important to not discount your gut feeling to make better decisions. And, while you might have an initial gut reaction, following the steps above (especially sleeping on it), can help make sure you’re listening to your gut AND taking into consideration all the facts. When the decision you’re making involves forming new relationships, trusting your gut can also help you make sure the relationship is a positive one. This way, if something does go wrong, you have a good foundation for getting the help you need to address the issues.
Remember, as a manager, most of your day will involve making decisions. It’s an inevitable part of the job. But it doesn’t have to cause unnecessary stress or lead to decision fatigue. Instead, follow the tips above to help make better decisions for you and your team.