Decision Fatigue & Why I Do My Most Important Work First

The concept of decision fatigue gained popularity in 2011 with an article in the New York Times Magazine. Essentially, our willpower decreases throughout the day as we make all sorts of large and small decisions. Lifehacker did a good job of summing it up at the time:

Each decision you make and the more choices you make throughout the day, the harder it gets for your brain to continue to make decisions. The result is that towards the end of the day when you’re low on mental energy, you’re more likely to either give in to impulses or avoid making decisions altogether. The worst part is that, often, none of us are aware of how mentally tired we are just from all the little or big choices we make throughout the day.

This 100% applies to me, especially when it comes to work. I do my best work in the morning. From there it tails off pretty linearly: I can usually get a pretty good block of productivity in the afternoon, but by the evening I’m zapped and try not to work unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Once I learned this about myself – and accepted that it was OK to not be able to peak at all hours of the day – I started strategizing my days. After a quick email check to ensure there’s nothing urgent, I tend to dive right into my most important work, typically a programming project. I have a morning routine, but it’s not lengthy: usually I’m working within an hour of waking up, a little longer if I’m commuting in to the warehouse. I’ll save unimportant emails, reading, writing blog posts, and other lighter work for later in the afternoon or early in the evening.

Programming in particular involves a juggling a lot of things in your head at once, so I think it’s especially vulnerable to decision fatigue. Being well-rested and in a clear mental state can result in much better work in much less time.

4 comments on Decision Fatigue & Why I Do My Most Important Work First

  1. Rob says:

    Another way of avoiding decision fatigue is to try and get rid of non-critical decision-making from your own plate.

    Get rid of anything that doesn’t need doing at all.
    Automate what can be automated, whether by software or whether by getting someone else to follow a fixed procedure.
    Get someone else to do it.

    People often quote a hierarchy similar as a good way of freeing up time, but I think it’s just as important to think of it in terms of freeing you up from making decisions too.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Yes, very good points Rob. If we hadn’t done a good job of automating things, or if our employees needed to have their hands held, I’d likely be wiped out from dealing with those things.

      Along those lines, having good daily routines helps free up the mind as well. I eat the same breakfast and lunch pretty much every weekday in part because it means I don’t have to expend any energy thinking “what am I going to eat today?”

      • Rob says:

        Yep. Also, I think Einstein had multiple sets of the same suits and casual clothes and just wore them in rotation, to avoid having to spend time on the decisions.

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