Three Strategies for Beating (and Preventing) Decision Fatigue

Imagine stepping out of a bar into the pouring rain and waving goodbye to your friends. You pull up your phone to call an Uber, but it’s dead. It always seems like your phone dies at the worst moments. You now have to hail a taxi or walk home in the rain.

Our ability to make decisions is like a phone battery. It is being drained throughout the day as we make hundreds of decisions. If we are not careful, we can end up with a dead battery and struggling to make even the most basic decisions. 

The concept of decision fatigue is intuitive. I have shared it with my clients, and they all understand what I’m referring to. The next logical question is how to best preserve our metaphorical battery, especially if you’re in a position where making decisions is your job. 

You will learn three tools for preventing decision fatigue: defaults, locking, and the Leadership Decision-Making Matrix (LDMM) framework. Don’t worry, I’ll explain the framework when we get there. These tools will reduce the chance of finding yourself in the pouring rain of indecision—miserable and wet. They will help you make the most out of your environment.

Why the world is exhausting

I’m fascinated by how attracted we are to complexity. My clients come to me with incredibly elaborate plans where simple solutions would do. For example, I recently had a client ask my advice on a radical software project where they would replace all of their existing tools with a new set. They perceived their current options as too limiting. In reality, their current tools weren’t properly set up. Fixing them would be far easier than starting from scratch. 

Our world constantly throws complexity at us, draining our decision battery. Think of a phone where you had unnecessary settings enabled. Bluetooth, WiFi, and energy-hungry apps drain the battery without you even using the phone. That’s how complexity can impact our decisions. When a situation is complex, we have to work harder to make even moderately good decisions.

Look at Gordon Ramsay, the celebrity chef. In one of his shows, he visits other restaurants and offers advice on how to improve them. The show clips go viral for his entertaining reactions to bad food, but we can learn from the fact that he nearly always streamlines the menu. Too many restaurants operate like Denny’s, with ten pages of food options. Gordon narrows it down to ten items, allowing the staff to focus on their specialties. For consumers, a slimmed-down menu is a better experience than trudging through endless pages of chicken variations. What we are paying for as restaurant-goers is for someone else to curate an experience for us: the setting, the menu, the pace of the meal. We are paying for good decision-making.

Complexity is so common that companies like Netflix have now introduced a “Play Something” button where they choose for you. There are so many streaming options that we now need help deciding how to relax. When faced with too many options, we prefer a random choice over thinking through the possibilities. Randomness may be fine when choosing a movie, but you cannot build a business this way. These next three tools will help you avoid random choices and overwhelm. 

Tool #1: Design better defaults

We could all benefit from better defaults. Keeping with our phone analogy, defaults are the settings pre-configured on a new phone. Apple and Google choose what they have learned are the best options for most people, so our initial setup doesn’t take us ten hours. Defaults in decision-making guide us toward making the best choice most of the time. We need to consciously design our defaults instead of letting someone else do it for us.

Within companies, I see defaults being set randomly. Most data dashboards contain too many metrics or widgets, making the dashboard less effective. Worse, the metrics at the top may not be the most important, wasting the few minutes someone might give to a dashboard. It’s not surprising that many people ignore dashboards altogether. A better design on defaults would focus on a handful of metrics, carefully thought out and streamlined for a specific audience.

Another sneaky default within companies is the tendency to start days with meetings. If you find yourself in back-to-back meetings from the moment you arrive at your office, you will find it harder to get your work done. By the time you get a free slot, your decision battery may be drained. Some companies fight against meetings by defaulting to “No Meeting Wednesdays” or similar ideas. 

Tool #2: Lock decisions and move on

One of my favorite phrases is deja vu. I love the phrase, but I hate the feeling. I know someone who is quite indecisive, and every time we talk, I experience deja vu; we go over the same questions and issues. It frustrates me to have the same conversation over and over again, and it has to frustrate him, too.

When it comes to decisions, you need to reach a point where you can lock in and move on. I’m reminded of the Deal or No Deal show where contestants lock in their answers before opening the briefcase. Once you lock a decision, that’s it. No going back and debating if you considered all the possibilities. There’s no re-running of your Monte Carlo analysis to see if the numbers shake out differently. Move on.

It may sound harsh, but there are diminishing returns in decisions. You will never have all the answers or 100% certainty. All you can do is do your best and make the decisions. I worked with a tourism agency during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that was paralyzed by the situation. They saw a 90% drop in tourists and weren’t sure what to do. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get them to move or make any decisions. They would have been better off moving and then readjusting course than waiting for things to blow over. Waiting took two years and countless wasted opportunities. Worse, they wasted time that could be spent on other things. Indecision tends to consume more time as we vacillate mentally.

Tool #3: The Leadership Decision-Making Matrix 

When I wrote my second book, Bulletproof Decisions, I knew I wanted to include a model to help executives stop micromanaging their employees. I had seen it often and knew how damaging it was to everyone involved. I couldn’t tell an executive to stop it (regardless of how much I loved the SNL skit on a therapist who only does five-minute sessions).

I needed a model that could make it easier for an executive to know when to make a decision alone, when to make it with a group, and when to delegate it to others. That’s the basis for the Leadership Decision-Making Matrix (LDMM). 

Leadership Decision-Making Matrix (LDMM)
Leadership Decision-Making Matrix (LDMM)

The LDMM has three outcomes: you make the decision yourself, involve others, or delegate it. To determine the outcome, there are four factors to consider: speed, conflicts of interest, empowerment, and information. The model takes the ambiguous situation of micro-managing and converts it into something tangible and orderly. Let’s look at each factor in more detail.

Individual decisions have a high speed while Group decisions are slower, and Delegate decisions are the slowest. If you need to make a fast decision, you might be better off doing it yourself. Watch out for tricky situations, though. I once worked with an executive who intuitively understood the speed criterion, but he defaulted too much to speed. As a result, he made too many decisions, preventing his team from growing and being more accountable. Speed is important, but you often have to sacrifice empowerment to gain speed.

The second aspect to consider is empowerment, which is how encouraged your team or colleagues feel take ownership of their work. The CEO, in my example, did not score well on the empowerment scale. Individual decisions have low empowerment, Group has higher, and Delegate has the highest value. There are decisions where it is worth sacrificing speed to achieve higher empowerment. 

The third aspect is a conflict of interest. If you’re thinking of making personnel changes, letting your team make these decisions will be difficult. Their conflict of interest is too high, and you will need to rely on a more Individual decision model. On the other hand, a decision to determine the next round of marketing campaigns might have a low conflict of interest, which can easily fit into the Delegate model. 

The fourth and final aspect is information. You can’t ask a manager to determine the strategy for the company because he or she will likely lack information. They will not know all the intricacies of what the company is doing and how it needs to be positioned in the future. In this case, their information is low, and you will need to rely on a Group decision model or make the decision yourself. Some companies, like Netflix, share everything among employees. In their world, information isn’t an issue, allowing them to rely more on Delegation to make even the critical decisions like buying a series.

The LDMM model is meant to help you reduce your decision burden by involving others when needed or excluding them when they are the ones adding to the burden without significant benefit. I once worked with a marketing executive who lamented that his team could not deal with highly political decisions. His organization often interacted with the government, and none of his people performed well in these situations. The LDMM model would have helped him see that he needed to involve others more in these decisions to build their skills. After all, he wasn’t born knowing how to deal with the government. He learned it when someone else involved him in the decisions. 

You’re an energy manager

Whether you like it or not, you’re an energy manager. For yourself, your team, and others. Protecting their decision battery is important to minimize errors and failure. Unlike machines, humans can’t just perform consistently regardless of their environment. Some make better decisions in the morning while others make them in the afternoon. It’s your job to help your team make better decisions

Featured image b Christian Erfurt

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