Avoiding Decision Fatigue The Barack Obama Way

According to Wikipedia, the term decision fatigue describes the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual caused by a prolonged period of decision making.  The common consensus is that decision fatigue is a phenomenon experienced by us all, whether we realize it or not. It can occur at work, at home or in our social lives.

In most cases, this has negative connotations: for example, my friends recently amassed over 1000 Facebook messages just to organize one night out over the Easter holidays, just because nobody could make a decision on where to meet, what to eat and at what time. But some industries use it to their advantage – I’ve learned recently that the reason why most supermarkets have magazine racks and junk food situated next to the checkouts is because people are so worn down by having to make constant choices throughout the store that they will often pick someone at the end of their shop without thinking.

Car manufacturers have cottoned on to this and now have learned to avoid swamping their customers with endless decisions up front and tend to offer a reduced set of options by packaging them up into distinct specifications. But in closing the deal they’ll offer you all sorts of additional extras like paint cover, extended warranties, gap insurance and expect you to be fatigued into ticking all of them – that’s where their bonuses come from.

As technology architects often working in high-pressure working environments,  we experience decision fatigue inducing scenarios all the time. Whether it be big up front design decisions, technology selections, change impact analysis, production change approvals, we need to find ways to remain as ordinarily sensible people and reduce our decision fatigue to become more effective architects.

How do other people cope? Barack Obama famously enforces a streamlined process on all (100+) of his direct reports, whereby they must include three check-boxes on any document they ask him to review with the options: agree; disagree; or discuss further. I really admire the simplicity of this approach.

Unbeknownst to his technique I tried something remarkably similar a few years ago when my fiancee went through a period of intensive wedding planning. Whenever she needed my input on a decision e.g. wedding invitations, colour schemes, menus etc. I asked her to do some research (she loved this bit) and come back to me with her three preferred options and we would pick our favourite together over a glass of wine. I could then focus my time on the important stuff like how much beer and wine we’d need and the location for the honeymoon etc. Incidentally we also had a huge shared Google Spreadsheet with reams of detailed plans and lists, which still serves a purpose nowadays as our Christmas card list complete with people’s addresses!

Like Mr Obama, we can do this by both employing prioritization techniques and structured decision making tools to our advantage. And if we’re lucky enough to have direct reports then get them to do some research and streamlining up front. We need to take stock of the types decisions and their cadence. Often, it’s easier to tackle big issues first before attempting simpler day-to-day decisions.

In my experience it always feels safer to weigh up all pros and cons in to arrive at the “best” answer for the bigger more complex issues, but to avoid fatigue try to focus your attention a few key criterion, and leave the rest alone. Where possible, try making quick decisions on smaller choices that don’t matter as much, or try empowering your team members to do the thinking for you and just provide you with the opportunity to quickly Agree, Disagree or Discuss.

What do you think? Is decision fatigue a problem for you at work or at home? How do you cope?

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