I once read about a study that examined the variables of a judge granting parole to prisoners who had committed a wide variety of crimes. While there were a number of factors that contributed to the overall judgment on whether or not to grant parole, there was one overwhelming variable that predicted the outcome:
If the hearing was held in the morning, the prisoners were granted parole 65% of the time, as opposed to later in the day where parole was granted only 10% of the time.
The time of day at which the hearing was held had a greater influence on its outcome than any other factor. When I read this I almost fell out of my chair. How could the decision of whether or not to let a potentially dangerous person out of jail be mostly dependent on “time of day”? The answer: decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue affects every single one of us. Essentially, the law of decision fatigue states that as the number of decisions a person makes goes up, the quality of those decisions diminishes.
We all wake up with a certain amount of fuel in our “decision tank”. Each decision we make uses up the fuel, and as the fuel in our decision tank diminishes so does the quality of our decisions. We go to sleep for the night or take a break to recharge, and return with a full tank. This explains why our will power is weakest at the end of the day and can result in a bad decision to, say, snack late at night.
In the case of the parole hearings, every one of the judges’ decisions was absolutely critical – a wrong decision could have serious consequences. But no matter how rational and fair they tried to be, hearing case after case took its toll. Judges were more likely to decide to grant parole early in the day when they still had decision hit points left.
So why does this matter to those of us who aren’t judges (or criminals seeking parole)? Because we all make hundreds, maybe even thousands of decisions each day, and the decisions we make affect the outcome of everything – our days, our relationships, our lives, our businesses – everything.
Let’s look at how decision fatigue affects success in business. At Ameego, we work closely with brands in the hospitality space, so I’ll use a restaurant brand as an example. The success of a particular brand is influenced most by it’s leaders. And for a restaurant brand this includes everyone from ownership, to V- and C-level execs, on through to management. How do leaders influence the success of a restaurant? Pause for effect… decisions.
Decision-making is the ability inherited by leaders to effect change in the business. The path a business is on can change in an instant - all it takes is a decision. Leaders decide their company’s vision, whether they should hire on culture or skill set, whether they want to deliver the best product or the best price. Leaders make decisions that affect every single variable of a restaurant. The quality of a leader’s decisions day-in and day-out will determine the success of the restaurant and it’s brand.
If you’re a leader in a company, you need to pay attention to your decision tank and set your life up in a way that helps you avoid decision fatigue.
The concept I use to combat decision fatigue is called the “DRY” principle. It stands for “Don’t Repeat Yourself”, and it’s a cardinal rule for software developers. The idea is that a good software developer will program solutions (called “functions” or “routines”) in a way that can be reused to solve similar problems in the future - this way you’re not solving the same problem more than once. The same concept can be applied to your personal and professional life.
Resolving problems (or “challenges”) is a huge drain on our decision tank - everything from “How can I motivate my staff to improve our guest check average?” to “What am I going to eat for breakfast?”. The trick is to identify those challenges that repeat themselves, and to build a routine to resolve. Building reusable routines to solve recurring problems will drain your decision tank far less, because your decisions become automatic.
I want to give you an idea of how you can apply the “DRY” principle in your own life, and for that I’ll focus on a recurrence that affects us all - “The Morning Routine”.
The first 90 minutes of my morning are set in stone because I believe that in order to win the day, you need to win the morning [insert cheesiness here]. When I wake up in the morning I don’t want to spend one ounce of energy on “problems” - there will be plenty of time for that later in the day. I know that the quality of my frame of mind in the morning will determine the quality of my decisions for the rest of the day.
Here are some thoughts and strategies you should consider when building your morning routine:
1. Don’t check emails first thing in the morning
Checking your email inbox is about the worst thing you can do in the morning to focus and prime yourself for a great day.
Your inbox is a place where everyone you know can send you their own todos. They should call it a todo box. The inbox is a listing of spam, newsletters, client emails, staff emails, friend emails with no rhyme or reason to it’s order - it’s complete chaos and immediately inserts hundreds of decisions to your day. If you want to have a stressful day, start by reading your emails first. If you want to start your day off right, review your email later in the day after “eat the frog” (see below)
2. Get in the right frame of mind
If you’re in a leadership position, there is no doubt a consistent flow of stressors that cross your path on a daily basis. Stressors add up and can soon become one of the biggest drains on your ability to make great decisions. The reason for this is because a lot of us replay aspects of these stressors over and over in our heads - like a bad song on repeat.
One of the ways to combat this infinite stressor loop is to break the pattern each morning. There are many ways to break this stressor pattern such as meditation for instance, but whatever you choose remember that consistency is the key. I take 30 minutes each morning before the family wakes up, usually during a walk, to get in the right frame of mind.
The purpose of my walk is to gain perspective. I know that my day will consist of at least one event that will impose a certain level of stress on me. So on my walk I remind myself what reasons I have to feel grateful, because it’s impossible to feel stressed and grateful at the same time. This routine helps to put my life in perspective and sets me up to handle stressful situations with far more composure. I keep track of how this part of my morning routine impacts my overall level of stress versus happiness too. After all, what gets measured gets managed.
There’s a really great tool used by many top performers in business created by Dr. Shirzad Chamine that measures your “Happiness vs. Stress” levels. This test is a great barometer to indicate whether you’re trending in the right direction. Here’s a link to a 2 minute test, if you’re interested to see your score.
3. Eat the Frog: Tackle the hardest thing first
Make sure to plan your top results the night before, and always set aside the first 60-90 minutes of your workday to focus on achieving your top result.
Mark Twain once said “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.” The term “eat that frog” refers to tackling the hardest thing first.
The reason you want to tackle the hardest thing first is because it’s only natural that the most important activity tends to occupy our thoughts most often. In our minds, we ask ourselves things like “Well, what if I handle the situation this way?” or “Should I send an email or make a phone call?” Every internal question is a little mini-decision that we make in our mind, which is a drain on our decision tank. When we tackle the hardest thing first, we eliminate the repetitive mini-decisions that would be affecting us throughout the day.
Outside of the fact that you want to address the most important result while your decision tank is fullest, you feel a huge sense of accomplishment by overcoming the most daunting obstacle early in the day.
As for how I incorporate this into my week, each day I have 3 results that I’m after which are usually made up of 5-7 actions. Thinking about my day in terms of results reduces the number of repetitive thoughts in my head around what I need to achieve. Instead of thinking about 25 things, I only have to think about 3. I prioritize my 3 results and always set aside 60-90 minutes in the morning to tackle my “top 1” result for the day.
So if you want to improve your productivity and avoid decision fatigue, apply the “Don’t Repeat Yourself” principle to the problems you have to solve more than once, and start by building an exceptional morning routine.