Monday, June 18, 2012

Decision fatigue

I'm having a busier year than usual, and that on top of being a juggle-lots-of-stuff kind of a person. The details aren't important, everybody's got too much to handle at some point or other in their lives, it just happens to be that sort of time for me right now.

The last couple of weeks have been especially amped up, what with grant proposal deadlines at work and my determination to take some time off in this latter part of the month. By Friday morning I was punch-drunk with about half a dozen simultaneous threads of attention-demanding activity, from configuring some non-trivial apps on unix servers to running a meeting to answering urgent e-mails to booking tickets for a family vacation later this summer ... and so on. I finished up the morning's business in time to welcome houseguests, which was the point of the packed morning in the first place; then I went for a swim and headed out for an evening at the opera (Verdi's Attila, a rousing score and the silliest ending of any opera I've ever seen).

By Saturday morning I couldn't string two thoughts together. I was ready to sleep for two or three days solid, just to keep from having to think about anything.

This reminded me of a magazine-length article that a colleague pointed out a bit under a year ago: Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? in the NY Times, 17 Aug 2011.

The article's author, John Tierney, makes a fascinating case for the hypothesis that making decisions take energy, that it's an exhausting activity. If a person makes a series of decisions without taking time to recover the expended focus and energy, later decisions will be less fully-considered, one way or another. Maybe they'll be reckless; maybe they'll take a defensive path of least risk and resistance.

Some of the experiments psychologists devised to measure this phenomenon were pretty clever. Have you ever bought a car? See if this seems familiar:
[...] the other [experiment] was conducted at German car dealerships, where customers ordered options for their new sedans. The car buyers — and these were real customers spending their own money — had to choose, for instance, among 4 styles of gearshift knobs, 13 kinds of wheel rims, 25 configurations of the engine and gearbox and a palette of 56 colors for the interior.

As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in, they would start settling for whatever the default option was. And the more tough choices they encountered early in the process — like going through those 56 colors to choose the precise shade of gray or brown — the quicker people became fatigued and settled for the path of least resistance by taking the default option. By manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2,000 at the time). Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy wheel rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered and how much willpower was left in the customer.

Though I hadn't articulated and tested ideas about decision fatigue before I saw this article, over time I've developed habits that insulate me from the worst effects of the phenomenon. I make decisions about writing fiction most mornings, then make decisions about technology most afternoons (I work a putatively half-time job). The alternate modes of thinking provide a respite, one from the other. I swim after work to clear my head. I practice Tai Chi to keep my balance. I generally believe the best way to make a good decision is to decide, then sleep on it before making the choice final. I'm big on walking away from a problem for a while before considering it again afresh.

Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist quoted and cited in the Tierney article, thinks it makes sense to make decisions in a manner that acknowledges and accounts for the fact that people are subject to decision fatigue.
"Even the wisest people won't make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low," Baumeister points out. That's why the truly wise don't restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don't make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. "The best decision makers," Baumeister says, "are the ones who know when not to trust themselves."
I've definitely reached that time when I shouldn't trust myself. It's time for a change of pace.

How do you avoid decision fatigue?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Mental Floss
I see, you see, wee see

Thanks to Rude Cactus, Man of Science for the Slurpee Testing Unit image.

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