Decisions, Decisions

Original published on The Pastry Box Thursday June 26, 2014.

“What do you want for dinner?”

“I don’t know. Not chicken. What do you want?”

“I don’t care. Not pizza. Come up with something.”

“I came up with it yesterday.”

We just bought a new home and we’re prepping our condo for sale. We spent two weeks in the old place with a rapidly-shrinking inventory of food because we didn’t want to have to move it. We’re a week into the new place and haven’t had time to food shop yet. We’ve eaten take-out from every restaurant and fast-food joint in town for three weeks.

We’re tired of deciding what’s for dinner.

We don’t have these issues at breakfast. In the morning, we wake up, stretch, get cleaned up, and someone buys breakfast armed with specific lists of choices. The difference isn’t the number of choices or how picky we are. The difference is that when we first wake up, we don’t yet have decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is the inability to make good decisions because you’ve been making decisions too long. Essentially, the brain is tired of making decisions, so it just stops, the same way that the body gets tired of running and refuses to take another step.

As an Information Architect, I struggle with decision fatigue almost every day. Which projects take priority today? What on this project needs work first? Is this workflow accurate? Should this be a button or a link? Should this be a layer or a new page? Does this design align to our corporate specs? Is it a variance worth changing or fighting for? Do I tell this developer about this tiny bug that’s not hurting anyone? How do I encourage my mentees to do better work? How do I repair this relationship with this business person? Is this an issue worth elevating to my boss? It’s a miracle I can choose what to have for lunch most days, much less get to dinner. If my GPS didn’t tell me which route home had the least traffic, I might not be able to leave the office.

The consequences are real. Poor decision-making ability leads to the inability to compromise, bad financial decisions, bad eating habits, and arguments. When we’re fatigued by too many decisions, we’re more likely to do things with high short-term gains regardless of the long-term consequences, like snacking on candy or telling your boss what you really think.

Since decision fatigue isn’t likely to suddenly stop occurring, I’m doing a few things differently right now than I have for the past few years. I’m trying to make them habits — we’ll see how well I do.

Make decisions that involve other people early in the day. Figure out what’s for dinner at the same time we decide what’s for breakfast. Schedule meetings for critical design decisions as early as possible so that everyone involved is still fresh. Prevent arguments when everyone’s too tired to decide, and prevent mistakes caused when one person’s too tired to recognize that they’re making a bad decision.

Let go of perfect. Acknowledge that the new owners are going to replant the garden no matter what I do at the condo, so I don’t have to “fix” it. It’s OK to sell a house with a thirty-year-old sink even though I swore I’d replace it someday. If the difference between two design elements is a dead tie, just pick one and move on. Tell my developers that something’s a “working copy” and they should expect small tweaks later, so they can start building. Put off decisions about things that don’t matter and stick with the important choices.

Pick whatever is closest to my values. There are two ways to rewire the kitchen so it’s up to code. One of them is “by the book” legal, but carries a slightly higher fire risk than the other, more expensive and more complicated solution. I’m not a fan of fires — we’re going with the safer solution. There are two ways to develop a workflow for a transaction. One makes it easier for my customers to make mistakes than the other, more expensive and more complexly coded solution. I’m not a fan of causing errors — we’re going with the more effective solution. Make it easy to look back on my decisions and say, “it was the right thing to do.”

Build an environment where making good choices is the default. When the refrigerator is filled with cans of soda and the cups are still packed, it’s much easier to drink soda than water. When there are carrots in the fridge and no chips, it’s much easier to munch carrots than chips. When the personas for a project are hanging on my cube walls, it’s much easier to think about their needs. When the company has a defined specification for how to lay out forms, it’s much easier to build good forms. This step takes some up-front work, which makes it easy to put off, but the gains are worth the time spent.

We are our first users — we’re using the workflows and environment that we set up for ourselves to make good decisions on behalf of ourselves, our families, our clients, and our users. We know the consequences of decision fatigue and poor choices better than most. We’re never going to eliminate decision fatigue from our own lives, or from anyone else’s, but by changing our own habits and lessening our own decision fatigue, we can make better choices more consistently throughout the day, which leads to a better experience for everyone.

Tonight we’re having Thai food — pretty much the last restaurant we haven’t visited. Tomorrow we’re making a menu for the week and going food shopping. It’s time to make some good decisions that will make it through the week.