Was Steve Job’s signature outfit of a black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers the secret behind his success? Maybe, or maybe not, but it was likely an indication of a decision-making philosophy that enabled him to become one of the most successful innovators of all time. By getting up every morning and automatically putting on the same clothes, Jobs minimized ”decision fatigue,” or the idea that sequential decisions -- even small ones -- have a deteriorating affect on a person’s willpower over time.
“Simply put, by stressing over things like what to eat or wear every day, people become less efficient at work,” John Haltiwanger wrote in a strategy piece on Elite Daily. “This is precisely why individuals like President Obama, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Albert Einstein decided to make life easier by adopting a monotonous wardrobe.” So by sparing themselves the minute decision of what to wear each day, these influential people saved their energy for more consequential choices later in the day.
Decision fatigue may be particularly detrimental to engineers because of the decision-making patterns they typically find themselves in and the consequences of the trade-offs likely to be made. Decisions that must be made in succession, late in the day or at the end of a project, and with quick turnaround, require the most willpower. The more fatigued a decision maker becomes, the more likely they are to play it safe, which is hardly the way to achieve creative or innovative results.
“In product design and manufacturing environments, we assume decisions are based on facts and technical details,” wrote Heatherly Butcher, senior product marketing manager at Arena Solutions, a provider of product lifecycle management software. “But, perhaps not always. Sometimes, it could be the wrong time of day to make one more good decision.”
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The ill-effects of decision fatigue are avoided in two ways:
- By minimizing the number of non-essential decisions made on any given day
- By preserving decision makers’ willpower
In the 1990s, social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister conducted a series of studies that looked at ”ego depletion,” a phrase he coined in homage to Dr. Sigmund Freud. Baumeister’s studies were based on the idea that one decision, or exertion of will, made it harder to exert a similar level of energy when faced with a subsequent choice. For instance, resisting the temptation to binge on a sugary snack makes it harder to maintain the same level of self-discipline later.
“Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept or a metaphor,” wrote John Tierney in New York Times Magazine. “It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted. The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation.”
Whether the need is to maintain discipline or stay fresh in the face of important decisions, it is important to guard our level of willpower over the course of the day, remembering that personal and professional decisions take an equal toll. But even once we accept the concept and consequences of decision fatigue, we are still left with the need to prevent it.
Although it seems simple, making an important decision in the morning can improve both the clarity and quality of the rationale applied. Whenever possible, delay a choice that arises late in the day until the next morning. When that isn’t possible, maintain an awareness of the role that decision fatigue may be playing by acknowledging the unfortunate timing and discussing why the choice is being made. Be on the lookout for anything that smacks of the status quo without a clear reason to do so. This may prevent overly safe decisions from being made just because the team is too drained to come up with anything better at that moment.
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Better yet, plan ahead for important decisions. If a decision is expected or imminent, make all non-essential decisions the night before. Lay out clothing, make breakfast or lunch, and put other small details in order. Doing so will preserve as much willpower as possible for the decision that must be made the next day.
But before you go out and exchange all of your clothes for black turtlenecks and jeans, remember that it is as much about recognizing the psychology of decision-making. All of our decisions affect our ability to maintain discipline and make subsequent decisions -- personal, professional, small, and large. It is important to put a strategy in place to make sure that the distractions and wear and tear of trivial decisions don’t derail the potential of the consequential ones.
Kelly Barner is the co-owner of Buyers Meeting Point, an online resource for procurement and purchasing professionals. She has been an industry award-winning supply management practitioner and consultant, and is now an independent thought leader and author on procurement, sourcing, and purchasing. Kelly earned her MBA from Babson College.