Decision Fatigue – How to avoid it

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I subscribe to James Adonis's fortnightly email and this week was excellent.  This article is about the best time to make a decision and tips on managing people. James writes here about managing your subordinates but it his points are applicable to peers, consultants, your kids and even your boss.

ImageIf you ever find yourself in prison, here's a handy tip: when you're up for a parole hearing, make sure your lawyer schedules it for early in the morning.

Research released this year by Stanford and Ben-Gurion universities revealed that prisoners who appeared before a parole board in the morning had their parole granted in about 70 per cent of cases.  But those who appeared later in the afternoon weren't so lucky.  Only 10 per cent of them were set free.

The cause of this trend is something called decision fatigue.  As the day progressed, the parole board's mental energy was depleted.  But unlike physical fatigue, which is characterised by tiredness, warning signs aren't so obvious for decision fatigue.  Regardless, it exists, and it exists because our brains are flooded with a huge number of choices every day, and so it becomes exhausting to keep making decisions.

Our bodies respond to this pressure by resorting to two shortcuts.  The first is recklessness, which is when we act impulsively and make irrational decisions.  The second is avoidance, which is when we steer clear of making decisions, or at the very least, we put them off for as long as we can.  It was the second shortcut that infected the parole board.  As the day wore on, the fatigued judges found it easier to delay a prisoner's release.

‘Empowerment' is just a fancy HR buzzword that really means one thing: you trust your employees to make their own decisions.  If that's something you decide to do – and it's a good idea to give it a go – your employees will be impacted by decision fatigue in the same way as the parole board.  And, if your employees are like most people, they'll respond to this fatigue via recklessness or avoidance.  Here are a few ideas on how to tackle each shortcut.


  • Set boundaries so that employees have guidance and structure to work within
  • Ramp up competence by providing enough information, training, and support
  • Increase understanding by discussing the potential consequences of various decisions


  • Rather than having one big goal, set smaller milestones for employees to achieve
  • Put in place realistic checkpoints for staff to report back on their progress
  • Make it safe to fail, by punishing inaction rather than failures and mistakes

Empowerment still requires your influence to some degree in order to be successful.  But the purpose of empowerment is defeated if your influence morphs into micromanagement.  That would be like locking your employees up in an office prison – without any chance of parole.

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