It all started with an article about “uniforms.” Wildly successful people have admitted to wearing the same thing every day — whether that be a black turtleneck or specific Lululemon jacket. These individuals claimed that it helped them be more productive and lessened “decision fatigue.” That piqued my interest. What was this mysterious thing?
Upon some diligent research, I discovered that decision fatigue is “the deterioration of our ability to make good decisions after a long session of decision making…the more decisions you need to make, the worse you’re going to be at weighing all the options and making an educated, research-backed choice.” One of the most notable and impactful examples of decision fatigue in action occurs in court hearings. A 2011 NY Times article details the impact that the time of day has on sentencing — the people who had hearings earlier in the day were more likely to receive parole. The likelihood didn’t have anything to do with their original sentencing. Instead, it had to do with how fatigued the judge was at the time they appeared in court.
The same study says it best: “No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.” That biological price? Mental energy. Decisions chip away at the mental energy you have to exercise control, eventually leaving with a depleted store by the end of the day. Less mental energy = less sound decisions.
The concept of “context switching” also ties into decision fatigue — when you have to switch back and forth between ideas and decisions, you lose mental energy. Working in an office environment is a prime example of this — emails, questions from co-workers, and last-minute meetings all force you to switch from the task you’re working on, and it can have a negative impact on productivity over time.
When I thought more about decision fatigue and the price I pay for constantly switching between activities, it made a ton of sense. I definitely do my best work and make better decisions between the hours of 10 AM and 2 PM. The later it gets, the more burned out I feel, and the worse the quality of my work is. At least, that’s how I perceive it.
So, how can we combat decision fatigue and lessen the frequency of context switching? It all starts with slowly decreasing the number of decisions we make throughout the day and increasing automation. When I started doing research on how to do this, one of the most popular things people started streamlining was their food intake. I already eat the same thing for breakfast every day (boring I know), so the next level was to eat the same thing for lunch for an entire week. Taking the guess-work out of a middle-of-the-day decision also seemed appealing. When I was researching, I even found an article titled “If You’re Looking To Improve Energy and Productivity, Eat The Same Thing For Lunch Everyday.” I was sold.
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During my quest for a week of identical lunches, I tapped local crop-share program Local Roots to help me out. Their program is great because you pay weekly, and can decide on which type of items you want: fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, and more. The week I tested Local Roots, I utilized the sunchokes and cherry tomatoes in my share to batch meal prep a ton of veggie pasta, which I then packed for lunch daily.
My first observation in this experiment was that it saved me quite a bit of money. As someone who budgets for a near-daily lunch purchase, I was shocked at how much I ended up saving when I opted out of salads from Chopt or a Chipotle bowl. Second, I did notice that already having lunch felt like a relief when everyone else was thinking about what they wanted for lunch. I am a person who thrives on routines, and having a set meal that I knew was sitting in the fridge waiting for me was wonderful.
Almost every day I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I realized I didn’t have to decide on a lunch option. It felt like a burden had been lifted off my shoulders. And I definitely felt like taking that decision away helped me conserve brain-power for big, work-related decisions.
Would I recommend this to other people? Definitely. The only potential negative effect of this, that I can think of, would be lack of nutritional diversity — if you’re just eating nachos every day for lunch, week in and week out, it might not be the best for you. But the relief of not having to worry about, or leave the office, to find my lunch was wonderful. Even if it increases my productivity or quality of decisions by 5%, it’s worth it.
If you’re not into uniformity of meals, some other ways to decrease decision fatigue include scheduling or time-blocking your calendar, so you’ve set aside specific times of the day or week for certain activities. This will help set a routine and decrease decisions around what work to do at a specific time of day. You can also turn off push notifications and alerts on your phone to help you limit switch cost and keep you focused on the task at hand.
What is your experience with decision fatigue throughout the work day? Let us know in the comments below.