By Richard M. Coad [MDB Chief Creative Officer]
Three men in prison recently appeared before a parole board that included a criminologist, a social worker and a judge. Their crimes were similar and each prisoner had completed at least two-thirds of his sentence. One prisoner appeared before the board at 8:50 a.m. The second appeared at 3:10 p.m. The third at 4:25 p.m.
The prisoner who appeared at 8:50 a.m. was the only one who received parole. The other two were denied. The decision had nothing to do with the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences.
After analyzing more than 1,100 decisions made by the parole board over the course of a year, researchers concluded that the likelihood of parole being granted or not was all about timing. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70% of the time. Those appearing late in the day were paroled less than 10% of the time.
Journalist John Tierney reports “Such erratic behavior was not malicious in nature, but simply an occupational hazard of being, as former President George W. Bush said, ‘the decider’.” The mental work of ruling on one case after another, of having to make so many decisions over the day, wore them down.
Called, “Decision Fatigue,” it can explain a quarterback’s poor choices at the end of a game, or place a company’s financial fate in question thanks to a late night decision from a worn down CFO.
“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car,” Tierney continues. “No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue—you’re not consciously aware of being tired—but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?). The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing.”
According to Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University and expert on all things regarding self-control, “Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you can use to say no to doughnuts, drugs or illicit sex. It’s the same willpower that you use to be polite or wait your turn or to drag yourself out of bed, or to hold off going to the bathroom. Your ability to make the right investment or hiring decision may be reduced simply because you expended some of your willpower earlier when you held your tongue in response to someone’s offensive remark or when you exerted yourself to get to the meeting on time.”
Out of Baumeister’s extensive research come a few helpful pointers:
Don’t schedule back-to-back meetings. In terms of taxing your willpower/decision reserves, being a good team member for extended periods is like designing a custom tuxedo and then planning a wedding in one day. You’ll have no smart, calm decisions to give anyone else.
Set up healthy habits and avoid temptation: Pick your day-to-day meals, make appointments to exercise with your spouse or friend (in the morning), and figure out a way home from work that doesn’t take you past Chinese food or fried chicken.
Don’t be afraid to “sleep on it”: It’s tricky, because the height of decision fatigue can lead someone to make the easiest possible decision: no decision at all, even if the consequences will pile up. But if you know you’ve fought your way through a day of self-restraint, or made too many stress-inducing moves at work already, try to move your decision to the next morning.
One final thought gleaned from an article by Kevin Purdy on the subject. “Make expensive decisions earlier in the process. How do you sell someone overpriced car options? Run them through 48 other decisions first, then make that sunroof seem like an obvious, safe pick. In other words, decision fatigue isn’t just a daylong process, but one that impacts any judgment call you have to make after feeling constrained and taxed. If you’re reviewing a contract, negotiating compensation details, or just going shopping, discuss the big-money item first, and give yourself some space and time to look everything through.”
Sounds like a smart decision.