This is the second post in our series on productivity thieves, those habits and distractions preventing you from achieving your full potential. You can check out our first post, on ‘fractured focus,’ here.

Ever sat in a meeting and had the awful realization you don’t need to be there? You were told to be there, but what’s going on just doesn’t pertain to you. While some lucky few can leave, you’re more than likely stuck watching the clock. 

Unfortunately, you’re probably losing more than time. 

As you listen to your colleagues problem-solve toward a decision, maybe part of your mind joins in. Or maybe you furtively glance at your inbox and debate whether or not you can fire off an email without being noticed. It’ll just look like I’m taking notes, right? Either way, this deliberation over choices that don’t really matter makes it harder to devote your most creative reasoning to the choices that do. 

Today we’ll look at what happens when you take on superfluous decisions and offer you five ways to pick your battles, so you can accomplish your goals. 

What is decision fatigue?

Decision fatigue, also known as choice overload, is the diversion of your finite mental resources to excessive or nonessential problem solving. 

Think about how often you’re faced with extraneous decisions—the unnecessary meeting that asks you to chew on a problem that isn’t really yours, the surprise assignment from your manager that forces you to weigh options for reallocating your time. The more things like this happen, the more you might have a nagging feeling that your most important work is suffering.

Science agrees with that nagging feeling. 

In his book, “The Shallows,” Nicholas Carr explores the work of prominent brain researchers to find out how splitting up your problem-solving energy across multiple decisions affects your quality of work.

One such researcher is Stanford professor Clifford Nass, who conducted a study to find out what happens when you deliberate on multiple problems at once. Clifford and his team gave cognitive tests to a group of people who routinely engaged in multitasking and another group who did relatively little multitasking. The result? The heavy multitaskers were more easily distracted and found it harder to concentrate—to the point that Clifford called them “suckers for irrelevancy.”

Nicholas Carr also points to research showing that even seemingly insignificant decisions can have a real effect on your productivity. These can be so subtle, you might not even realize you’re exerting mental effort. 

For example, in 2008, UCLA psychiatry professor, Gary Small, found that experienced web surfers had increased activity in prefrontal areas of the brain associated with problem solving and decision making, as compared with people who read more print media. 

The takeaway, according to Nicholas Carr, is that “Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us—our brains are quick—but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently.”

How can you fight decision fatigue?

We’ve just discussed the two ways decision fatigue steals your productivity: One is obvious, robbing your mental energy in broad daylight by giving you decisions that require conscious effort. The other is more of a burglar, sneaking off with it by presenting you with countless barely perceptible decisions online. 

With this in mind, here are five ways to direct your problem-solving ability where you want it to go:

  1. Clearly define a problem, then walk away from it. The old idea of “sleeping on” a problem really can help you solve it. In fact, even just switching your focus to a less demanding task can help, if you do it the right way.

    Work from Dutch psychologist, Ap Dijksterhuis, suggests that when we shift our attention away from a tough problem, we continue working on it unconsciously.

    But this only happens if you engage with the problem first. So spend some time trying to solve the problem, then have a goal in mind before stepping away.

  2. Schedule recurring tasks for the same time. Many of your decisions relate to things you do on a regular basis. Every day you decide when you’re going to plan for dinner or when to catch up with email.

    In the book “Deep Work,” author Cal Newport suggests removing scheduling decisions for recurring tasks to take unnecessary problem-solving off your plate.

    For example, you might respond to email at 4 p.m. every weekday or hit the gym every Monday and Wednesday at 6. Establishing these kinds of routines can help you do more and deliberate less.

  3. Choose a daily highlight. Do one thing every day that you’ll look back on and say, “That was the highlight of my day.”

    This idea comes from Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, whose book “Make Time” gives practical suggestions for improving focus. They suggest finding a task each day that is either the most urgent, satisfying, or joyful thing you can do, ideally in about 90 minutes.

    This practice can help you focus on the decisions that really serve you and avoid spreading your problem-solving ability too thin.

  4. Use reading mode on your browser. So many web pages siphon off your attention by asking you to perform small but constant deliberations.

    You tend to have better retention when you absorb a single piece of content from start to finish before moving on to something else. More and more browsers now offer some type of “reading mode” that blocks multimedia content and makes it easier to pay attention to what you’re reading. 

  5. Read books on paper. Reading print material on a regular basis rests your decision-making mind and frees you to focus on one unbroken train of thought.

    Nicholas Carr touches on this when he says, “By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking. The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one.”

    You don’t have to quit online reading, cold turkey. Instead, close your laptop and silence your phone for a few minutes every night and enjoy a good (physical) book instead.

Remember, these tips aren’t an all-or-nothing proposition. We love giving you lots of actionable advice, but we don’t want to create the very kind of overwhelm we’re trying to help you avoid in the first place. Try the strategies that look promising to you. If they work, stick with them and see what a new clarity of mind can do for your productivity.


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