note: first appeared in March 2015
So I came home, walked in the door, plopped down on the couch, turned on the TV and started watching a show. I have no idea what show it was, no idea who the cast was or even if it was in color or black and white. Then my wife walked in about 15 minutes later. I was quiet and barely said “hello.”
The dogs greeted her, she set her bag down, walked over and kissed me on the cheek. So far so good; then it went downhill real quickly, she started to talk to me. Oh boy, wrong move.
First she asked me how my day went, did I stop and get milk on the way home, and did I remember we had a meeting that night with some friends. Before I could really get much out of my mouth she then asked me if we would be able to do… That is when I asked her if we could talk about it later, for now I just wanted to relax. She then started asking why I needed to relax, did I have a bad day? Oh boy, wrong move…
I finally just told her in my day-job command voice that I just wanted to relax and we could talk about all those things later. And that was a wrong move on my part. Fifteen minutes later she was still asking me questions and I was still telling her I just wanted to relax. Sound familiar?
I was suffering from “decision fatigue” in a big way and I had no idea that I was…suffering from it. I had never even heard of such a thing then, now I have.
Decision fatigue is a psychological phenomenon that has only been in the research and discovery phase for about four years now. However, its effects have been felt for many thousands of years.
Decision fatigue manifests itself in:
- Poor quality decisions
- Impulsive decisions
- Paralysis in decision making
- Reduced self-regulation
Decision fatigue is caused by making decisions. Yes, you read that right. If you were doing hard physical work all day, far beyond what you were used to doing, there would come a point where you would become physically exhausted and unable to continue the work. The very same thing happens in your mind when living one of those days where you find yourself having to make continuous decisions all day long. And the more stressful the decisions are, the more wear and tear on your brain. Eventually your brain starts having real problems making good-quality decisions and will ultimately completely shut down your ability to make decisions at all.
Yes, all decisions take energy whether they be simple decisions or complex decisions. Stressful decisions take more energy than easy decisions. “Do you drink the white milk or the chocolate milk with breakfast?” is an easier decision. “Do we take a chance on this firefighting tactic and increase the risk of life safety?” is a much tougher and more stressful decision and thus takes far more energy.
Making a decision at breakfast will come easier than one in the evening. Why? Because you’ve been working your brain all day making decisions and you brain is more tired in the evening. If those decisions you’ve been making all day are stressful then you will be mentally exhausted and the decision you make will make in the evening be of lesser quality. Alternatively, you may become paralyzed and unable to make any decision at all.
“What would you like for dinner sweetheart?”
“I don’t care.”
“No sweetie, really, what would you like to eat tonight?”
“I don’t care at all. Whatever sounds good to you is fine with me.”
“Well, it sounds like you had a rough day. I would like to fix you whatever you would like to make you happy.”
“I don’t a crap what you fix or even if we eat tonight!”
Ah yes, marital bliss. I would never admit that this conversation ever took place in my home or vehicle. But maybe you know of someone that has had this experience – decision fatigue.
So how does that affect us during an incident? Every day, all day and in ways you may not have thought about it. We find ourselves having to constantly make decisions throughout the day. Some decisions are significant, other more trivial, but all are important in one way or another. Understanding the physiological issues is the first step to reduce decision fatigue.
Here are the ways to reduce decisions fatigue:
- Understand and accept that it is real.
- Reduce the number of decisions you make. You can do that in a number of ways –
- Make leader’s intent clear and use subordinates, allowing them to make decisions for their area of responsibility.
- Make it clear that if someone brings you a problem, they are also responsible for bringing you a solution (or at least an idea).
- Have “habits” that make a decision for you rather than going through an entire decision making process.
- Move important decisions to earlier in the day.
- Make decisions a head of time and use predetermined trigger points to implement those decisions.
- Water, stay hydrated, and that also includes electrolytes.
- Eat and keep your glucose levels up but not spiked.
- Rest; get good quality sleep and take breaks. Any sleep and any breaks are better than none.
- Don’t over analyze a problem before making a decision. Use the minimal amount of high-quality information and then choose the first “right” decision. Notice I didn’t say choose the “best” option or the “ultimate” option. Over analyzing doesn’t do anyone any good and just adds to the stress of making a decision.
- Know that decision fatigue happens to everyone and that includes you. You are not immune to decision fatigue so take the necessary steps to avoid it.
Failure to mitigate decision fatigue can manifest itself as:
- Making a costly decision based on impulse vs. logic and reason. You might just not want to “deal with it” so you make a decision quickly, too quickly, to get the decision over with and out of the way. Few of us like inducing pain on ourselves, especially mental pain and anguish. When suffering from decision fatigue we are more likely to make any decision, even it if it is a bad decision, just to relieve ourselves from the pain associated with the decision making process.
- A serious manifestation of decision fatigue can occur as decision paralysis. This is where a person just won’t make a decision. The amount of incoming information is overwhelming and the decision process just becomes too much to handle. At that point a person can shut down and become incapable of making any decision at all. The ramifications of decision paralysis can be fatal if taken to the extreme; costly at a minimum.
- Lastly there is the “self-regulation” side effect to decision fatigue. This can be very ugly and personally costly. Researchers have found a direct correlation between decision fatigue and poor decision making in a person’s life. Examples would be; substance abuse (including alcohol abuse) and sex-based dalliances. In some circles individuals who were considered “high speed – low drag” leaders were at particular risk at suffering from self-regulation problems.
Stressful environments where decision making is demanded of you can be mentally costly to you. Understanding decision fatigue and appropriate mitigation options can go a long way towards keeping you in the game and performing at acceptable levels. And “acceptable” means safe and productive in the field where your people depend on you.
Don’t neglect (i.e. ignore) decision fatigue…it cost you too much.
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