How to combat decision fatigue

Without having to dress like Steve Jobs.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 30 Oct 2019

Steve Jobs' wardrobe didn't hold 200 versions of the same black jumper for no reason.* 

The logic was simple. On the basis that the average person makes around 35,000 decisions daily, he knew that by choosing the same turtleneck, jeans and trainers everyday he reduced the number of unimportant decisions he had to make, leaving more room for those that really mattered. In other words, he wanted to combat decision fatigue. 

Being rather fond of our eclectic wardrobe of woolly knits, pink shirts and oversized corduroy overcoats, we asked neuroscientist and author Jack Lewis for ways to beat cognitive fatigue without sacrificing style. 

Prioritise the most important decisions

"Schedule meetings with the greatest potential consequences at the beginning of the day, not the end," says Lewis. "We've got a finite capacity to inhibit the urge for immediate gratification in favour of the best long-term decisions. This reduces throughout the day."

Clearly this isn’t always possible (think all-day board meetings), but there are some things you can do to keep your little grey cells firing.

Eat, drink and be decisive

It may be possible to replenish your mental resources with a good break. Lewis refers to the study by Danziger et al from 2011 into the legal rulings of Isreali parole judges. After examining the outcomes of randomised parole hearings, the researchers found that the probability of a prisoner receiving a favourable decision dropped from over 65 per cent to nearly zero as each session progressed. The probability returned to 65 per cent after a food break. 

Although the research couldn’t identify whether it was the rest or the food itself that changed the outcomes (or indeed whether granting parole or not granting it represented the "better" decision), it does speak to the powerful effect extraneous factors can have on your decision making.

"The part of the brain that enables you to resist the temptation to do quick, easy tasks in favour of long-term, strategic thinking consumes glucose at a crazy rate," says Lewis, who recommends stocking up on Haribos (and water) if important meetings are scheduled for the end of the day.

"Older leaders need to realise that our sense of thirst gets less sensitive the older we are. So you have to be more proactive in topping up your water levels in your 50s then you would have in your 40s because your sense of thirst kicks in much later." 

Go to sleep

Sleep is the most important thing for your brain function, and every adult needs an adequate amount (most advice is for seven to nine hours a night) in order to maintain full functionality.

It’s when your brain does its repair and maintenance, when your memories are actively processed and when metabolic toxins that build up every day are removed.

"A lot of people think they’re too busy, so they end up compressing the time they spend sleeping. They feel like they’re being very clever because they’re maximising the amount of time they work, but they’d get more done more efficiently if they got a full eight hours," says Lewis.

*Management Today doesn't actually know how exactly how many outfits Jobs had.

Image credit: Justin Sullivan / Stringer via Getty

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