With Martin G. Moore

Episode #80

Decision Fatigue: Is it really a thing?

Decision fatigue has been spoken about over the last several years as a serious problem, a by-product of our fast paced world.

Overcoming his initial reaction (“what a crock of sh!t”), Martin explored the topic, with an open mind, to understand it a little better.

The outcomes of this journey of discovery are intriguing – the brain is an incredible thing, and we don’t understand it enough, even now, to definitively unveil all of its miracles.

This episode will challenge your thinking about the use of labels and, of course, provide some suggestions for how to manage your energy and performance!

We’ve also included a free resource, the ‘6 Tips for Managing Your Mental State and Performance’, which you can download below.


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Episode #80 Decision Fatigue: Is it really a thing?

Hey there, and welcome to Episode #80 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership Podcast. This week’s episode – Decision Fatigue: Is It Really a Thing? I overheard a conversation that my wife was having with one of her friends a couple of weeks ago, in which her friend described what she was going through as a result of decision fatigue. Now, although my first reaction was, “What a crock of shit”, it piqued my interest enough to explore it a little bit and it sent me on a journey of discovery that I found intriguing and ultimately quite beneficial as I thought through all of the angles. This episode captures the outcomes of my deliberations, which I hope you’ll find as interesting and useful as I did. I also know that not everyone would agree with my views on a number of points here. So I expect it to challenge your perspective, as it did mine. So I’m going to start by asking a question that I like to ponder from time to time – “What’s wrong with labels?” I’ll then take on the challenge, and try and answer the question is decision fatigue a thing? And I’ll finish by giving you a few tips for managing your mental state and ultimately your performance effectively. So, let’s get into it!

We tend to want to label almost everything. And, labels do have certain benefits. They give us a common understanding. They enable us to identify with feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to process rationally and consistently. And we have a language that we can speak about things in. But labels also have a downside. We all know that labelling individuals can be dangerous and extremely hurtful, but it can also create prejudice and selection bias at a young age. A number of years ago, a guy by the name of Malcolm Gladwell wrote one of my favourite books, called ‘Outliers’. And one of the stories he tells in that book is particularly relevant to the conversation around labelling people. Gladwell references some research that was undertaken on the top ice hockey players in Canada, which tried to identify trends in what made them successful. To cut a long story short, the unusual finding was there was a significant statistical bias based on birth month – and no, he doesn’t put this down to the star signs – a statistically disproportionate number of top hockey players are born in the first three months of the year.

Why? Well in Canada, hockey is like religion in the same way that rugby is religion in New Zealand. A Lot of kids were on the ice shooting pucks as toddlers. Now by the time they get to age nine or 10 they start getting selected for representative teams. Now at this age, physical maturity is actually a big deal. If you’re born in January, just after the cut off, you may have a full 12 months of physical maturity and development over someone who was born in December and at that age it actually makes a difference. But when you’re 25, not so much. So why don’t the other kids catch up as they develop? Well, it actually becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Once selected at age nine the talented kids are then streamed into the high performance fast track. They get more ice time, they’re exposed to stiffer competition from other kids in the representative sides they face, they get the best coaching and they basically practise two to three times more than if they hadn’t been selected in the first place. So what starts as an advantage due to chronological physical development actually becomes a genuine advantage in skill and capability driven through the high performance label that is placed on them. So on both the upside and the downside, labelling individuals is not just the enemy of tolerance and acceptance, but also of opportunity.

Like decision fatigue, there are also labels that we use to describe our own behaviours and conditions. Again, the objective is to increase understanding and the ability to identify and communicate, but often this goes awry. I just want to talk about a couple of these labels to demonstrate a point. First of all, you probably know that for some time we’ve had a label for infidelity called sex addiction. Now I find this super interesting and I make this observation with absolutely no moral judgement and with deep compassion in my heart for those who are afflicted. We’ve seen some very high profile cases over the past decade or so, like Michael Douglas, Tiger Woods, Charlie Sheen – but for me it’s like, well okay, you’ve been having sex all over the shop. It could simply be that you’re making a choice to behave and live in a certain way, which is everyone’s inalienable right.

But once we put the label of ‘sex addiction’, it tends to dilute the element of choice and control. It subtly enables us to push the accountability for our actions to an external source, or perhaps an uncontrollable force rather, than just accepting responsibility for our choices. It’s almost a case of saying, I am actually a victim. Sex addiction is a scourge and I have little choice in the matter, although I’m doing everything I can to overcome this condition. It somehow ameliorates responsibility for behaviours. Now I’m not being judgemental here. I have a trickily addictive personality myself, but not compulsively so. Having discovered this about myself in my early adult years, I’ve learned to manage this reasonably well so that it doesn’t really negatively impact my life. So yes, I gave up smoking cigarettes, the two packet a day habit I had during the 80s, and I learnt that it’s actually more fun to drink in moderation than it is to drink to excess.

These days, I even manage to keep my focus on the upside of healthy living for the most part, when in the past I would have given into unhealthy choices. Now please understand, I’m not casting any judgement on people who struggle with these addictions and I really feel for them with a deep empathy. I just believe that the labels we place on some conditions give us a backdoor to crawl through that makes our ability and willingness to resolve these issues even more difficult. I just want to give one more example of labels. That’s children who are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or ADD. Now, whereas I’m certain this is a legitimate condition that affects many people, I’m also pretty convinced that the condition is grossly over-diagnosed and many children are unnecessarily medicated. But a colleague of mine who at the time was a doctor in general practice in Sydney, said he was convinced that there was nothing wrong with the children who presented to him as potential ADD cases.

He would even go so far as to make the joke that the acronym ADD really stood for adult discipline disorder, and the problem stemmed from the fact that the children were not being brought up with any semblance of boundaries and parental discipline. But labelling a child with ADD takes some of the responsibility away from the parents and of course the children themselves. I don’t know how helpful it is to have a generation of children with long-term dependency on Ritalin, but let’s face it, it’s really convenient to be able to excuse unruly behaviour with a label. “Don’t worry about Johnny, he has ADD”. And once again, my apologies to any listeners who suffer from these conditions, but I think the point I wanted to make on the relationship between labels and personal accountability is important for where I’m going next.

Is decision fatigue a thing? The concept behind decision fatigue is that during the course of every day, our brains are forced to make thousands of decisions big and small. The cumulative effect of all these decisions is mental fatigue, which can then result in poor judgement and irrational decision making. This label then provides the perfect excuse to procrastinate, to avoid decisions and to make excuses. What’s worse, decision fatigue is said to be cumulative, so if you have extended periods of intense decision making activity over weeks and months, this can cause a huge decline in motivation, performance and mental function. We hear popular stories of people like Steve Jobs, who was said to only wear the same outfit because this was one less decision that he needed to make each day reserving his massive brain for other more important decisions. Yeah, it may be true – or the cynic in me says this was just very clever branding and image management. Keeping in line with the beautiful simplicity and elegance of Apple products. Dunno. Anyhow, look, I’m pretty convinced that my brain will never have to deal with a fraction of the complexity that Steve Jobs could and did every day.

So my first point is, I think it’s important to consider relative complexity in decisions. I can decide what to wear each day and even though these decisions are processed in my prefrontal cortex – the same part of the brain that engages for much more important and complex decisions – I can do it with virtually no impact to my mental endurance and capacity. There’s no doubt that the effects of fatigue on both the body and mind though are absolutely real. This is particularly relevant when it comes to personal safety. Whether you’re driving a car or working on heavy equipment in high risk environments, fatigue can cause impairment of judgement , slower reaction times, and reduced ability to recognise and process both visual and auditory inputs.

This is why in asset intensive industries, at least there are rules and systems in place to ensure that fatigue can be measured and monitored. These assessments enable us to manage the mental fatigue that leads to incidents, putting people in assets at risk. Mental fatigue is pretty much like any other type of fatigue. It doesn’t come just from making decisions, but from all of the functions that the brain has to supervise during a day. The brain really is a marvellous piece of equipment. It processes around 11 million bits of information per second. Although the conscious mind can only process about 50 bits per second, and although the brain isn’t a muscle, the concept of fatigue from continued utilisation is similar. However, using the label of decision fatigue provides us with just one more quasi-legitimate excuse for not dealing with something that we should actually deal with. Making decisions is part of life, it’s part of business, and in any senior career you need to be adept at making decisions when they need to be made.

You don’t always get to choose to make your decisions when your mental faculties are at their peak or you feel the most capable to make them. That’s why managing your mental capacity and endurance is tantamount to successful performance as a leader. Blaming decision fatigue for making poor decisions doesn’t really cut it, nor is it acceptable to use this as an excuse for in decisiveness or inaction. This is just another variant of the dog ate my homework.

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Let’s finish with a few tips for managing your mental state and performance. I’ve covered a lot of ground so far, so just to recap where I think we are. Decision fatigue is probably a real thing, although I broaden it out to call it mental fatigue. Anything that requires concentrated processing in our prefrontal cortex, which manages everything from complex cognitive behaviour to personality expression, decision making and even moderating social behaviour – as just remaining in control in the face of stupidity takes an enormous amount of mental energy, which all eats away at our brain capacity. I’m sure we can all relate to this one. Okay, so let’s just drop the label and work out how to successfully manage our mental fatigue. I have six things here that you’ll be able to pick up as a free downloadable from the Your CEO Mentor website, so that’s www.yourceomentor.com/episode80.

Number one, choose when to do the heavy lifting. As much as you can, choose your timing for meetings and complex thinking tasks. There’s a great book by Daniel Pink published just a couple of years ago called ‘When’, and this uncovers the optimum times for dealing with both logical and creative problems. You can get the cliff notes on Blinkist if you don’t have time to read it. Now there’s a reason why anaesthetists are more likely to administer a fatal dose to a patient, or CEOs of listed companies are more likely to say dumb sh!t In an investor analyst briefing, between the hours of 2:00 PM and 4:00 PM. We all go through peaks and troughs, so what we need to do is understand what that means to us. Around 75% of people are best in the morning, whereas 25% are night owls. Now, I’m a morning person, so 80% of the time I’m out of bed between 4:15 and 4:45am, and other days I sleep in as late as 5:30am but I know that my best work happens between then and lunchtime.

This is when I do any complex work that I need to do. If possible, I’ll take a quick nap – 15 to 20 minutes at most – which rebuilds my mental capacity for the afternoon. Give me another three to four hours of razor sharp capacity – well I guess as razor sharp as I can be, it’s in the eye of the beholder of course – but know yourself, understand when you perform best and build your schedule around that to the greatest extent possible.

Number two, simplify your mental processing. I can’t begin to tell you how much valuable mental energy I see people wasting on sh!t that is completely irrelevant. Why burn precious cycles agonising over things that absolutely can’t be changed, things that in all likelihood wouldn’t ever happen, or things that are of little importance. We all tend to get so caught up in the stuff that means nothing in the overall scheme of things. Many decisions I simply don’t care enough about to make. So when my beautiful wife, Kathy asked me what I’d like for dinner, my answer is always the same. Everything you cook is sensational, so I’m happy with whatever you feel like putting together. There you go. Another decision I just didn’t have to make. Now for context on the food, I did spend six years in an all boys boarding school, so every single piece of food that’s passed my lips since 1979 has tasted absolutely sensational. But when it comes to a decision about what to wear each day, I’m happy to make that one – sorry, Mr. Jobs.

Number three, work at the right level. Now, so many leaders I see over-function for their people. They get into people’s work, they guide their decisions, they handle detail that is inappropriate for the level of pay to operate it. Spending time and mental energy on this is counterproductive for so many important reasons. It’s bad for the culture of the organisation. It’s a poor use of resources. It drives complacency in the people. It dilutes the accountability model. There’s so many things wrong with it, and this is why we dedicate a whole module of our Leadership Beyond the Theory programme to working at level. But the point here is that as long as you’re doing the work of your people at lower levels, you’re robbing yourself of precious brain cycles that enabled you to function and perform at the level you’re supposed to be performing at.

Number four, stretch your people. The more you stretch your own people, the more they’ll be able to contribute and the more you’ll be able to fill a void that’s likely to be left, once you learn to step out of your people’s accountabilities and just manage your own. Challenging your people to perform at a higher level will unlock their innate energy and creativity and your own. So if you haven’t listened to it, it’s worth listening to our episode on Challenge, Coach, Confront. When I talk about the challenge piece, there’s a basic overview of how to stretch your people and why this is just as important to them as it is to you.

Number five, don’t mistake mental fatigue for avoidance. If you have a tendency to procrastinate on decisions or critical actions, you need to be hyper aware of this. Use your daily reflections to keep yourself honest. If you do need to put off a decision due to mental fatigue, you need to deal with it in the next available up cycle. So for me, that’s in the same 24 hour period. If you don’t, I’d suggest you’re not experiencing decision fatigue, but rather it’s plain old fashioned avoidance.

Finally, number six, know when raise the white flag. Self awareness and self management are key to performance. So you need to become adept at reading the signs for yourself, when are you starting to struggle with your mental capacity. I would often say to my people, certainly in the last 10 years of my corporate career, sorry guys, but my brain’s full – let’s pick this up tomorrow. There’s absolutely no harm or shaming this as long as you recover quickly and address it without hesitation when you’re next in a better space. As I said before, you’ve got to get back to it within a 24 hour period, otherwise, you’re just avoiding. And there are many things we need to do as a leader to manage ourselves and our performance. So I’d encourage you to lose the crutches – that is the dilution of accountability that comes with the label of decision fatigue – and grab control of your capacity and energy so that you operate at your peak.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of episode 80. Thanks so much for joining us, and remember, at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few moments to rate and review the podcast, as this enables us to reach even more leaders. I look forward to next week’s episode, “Being right isn’t everything”. Until then, I know you take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.

But seriously, guys, if you haven’t forwarded this episode onto anyone yet or rated or subscribed, now is the time! Have an awesome day.


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