Decision Fatigue: Why Less is More

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This blog was originally published on Medium by Funzi Ambassador Henry Onyango.

“Don’t grow up, it’s a lie!”. There’s truth in that warning. Part of being an adult is having the ability to swift through numerous decisions that are constantly coming your way.

Time is an enemy to us all, in fact it is the only enemy. Each morning we wake up, the clock count begins and our day of making decisions starts. The day ends, we sleep and the loop repeats.

Most of us, if not all, have suffered a burn out at some point. Ruling out medical conditions like chronic fatigue, and assuming that one get adequate sleep — one of the major drives behind the constant exhaustion and eventually burn out is decision fatigue. Put simply, we make way too many decisions and the quality of our decisions deteriorates along the curve.

Without intending to, we overwork our brains to a point of exhaustion.

If you’ve had a burn out, like I have in so many occasions, then the effects are rather obvious: Decrease in productivity and efficiency, loss of focus, stress, anxiety and many more. This results to chain reaction that ends in depression.

Overtime, I have learned how to reduce decision fatigue. I’m still learning and far from self-proclaiming to be a guru on the subject matter, although honestly I doubt anyone can. That said, here are a few tips that personally helped me:

1. Planning the day ahead
In the game of chess, having a bad strategy is considered better than having no strategy. Leaving your days to chance increases the amount of decisions you have to make in that day.

Because you have no clue what you are supposed to do, you are welcome to taking up any task that is presented to you. Having a plan of what it is you’re supposed to accomplish and allocating time for those tasks ensures that you get the most of your day. Since we live in the era of tech, some of the tools that you can use to effectively plan tasks ahead include: Todoist, Asana, and Freedcamp — although I have a personal bias for Todoist

Of course no one can know for certain how the day is going to unfold, so part of planning should be allocating time to handle random tasks.

In case to-do lists don’t work for you, then you can opt to divide your days into chunks; allocating each chunk to a particular work session.

2. Knowing what you’ll put on the night before
Take a moment and think about this; Steve Jobs always put on a pair of jeans and a black turtleneck, Zuckerberg always puts on a pair of jeans and gray t-shirts. The trend is true for Bill Gates, Obama, and even our very own Sam Gichuru (There is a reason why the profession of wardrobe assistant exists you know, it’s actually work).

Our life is frittered away by detail... Simply, simplify.

Ask anyone who knows me what I always put on, and 9 out of 10 times the answer is going to be “shorts and a plain t-shirt”. Now don’t get me wrong, I love shorts and the trend to almost always put on shorts and a t-shirts just happened, no planning whatsoever. It later occurred to me that this random occurrence happened to be serendipity.

My closet is full of plain shirts and pairs of shorts. I know exactly what I intend to put on tomorrow, and that’s shorts and t-shirt. It might not fit for every occasion — and every once in a while I am forced to put on something different — but it does in most. The result of this has been reduction in the time I spend choosing what to wear and thereby reducing the amount of decisions I have to make.

Simple as it may sound; people do struggle a lot trying to figure out what to put on that day (Ask my sisters). A lot of time is spent searching through piles of clothes and trying out different outfits before one is finally settled on.

Of course it is absurd to think everyone can put on the same type of clothing every day. Some people love being trendy, and rightfully so. It also doesn’t make sense for people to suddenly start putting on the same thing over and over again, what are we — a matching band? That would be stupid and simply copying what other people are doing, the world needs more mavericks. However, do plan on what to where the night before, and stick to it. That way, you wake up and know exactly what you should wear. You also save time in the process. Now ladies, this requires discipline and commitment. It means making a choice, and sticking to it.

3. Prioritizing goals or tasks for the day
It’s not enough to simply know what you’re supposed to be doing the next day. More than that, you should have all your daily tasks organized in terms of priority; with the most important tasks being handled first. Another way could be handling the easy tasks fast and within a very short time before jumping on to the more time-consuming tasks.

There are various tools out there to help with this, but my favorite is an app called Todoist. Besides scheduling tasks, you can prioritize them. This way, you give more time to that which is the most important and other goals can the follow later.

4. Employing the Pomodoro technique in work sessions

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This is a neat trick that was taught to me by a friend, Junior. Before this, I simply got things done — not really mindful of exactly how long I spent on one tasks. Being results driven and being mindful of how long you take to perform tasks is crucial in being productive, and so I realized.

Junior went ahead to teach me a technique I have adopted to date, and which has proven to be instrumental in helping me accomplish what I set out to do for the day. It’s called the Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro technique is a time management hack developed by Francesco Cirillo. It involves using a timer to break down work into intervals which are then separated by short breaks. I can’t stress how much this has been a life changer for me.

I use tomato-timer, which is a web based application, as my pomodoro timer. During work sessions, I put my phone on silent, and avoid using any form of social media or distractions. I started out doing 15 minutes of focused work and then taking 5 minutes short breaks but have then gone up from 15 to 25 minutes. After 4 pomodoro sessions, I take a long break of half an hour.

5. Learn to set goals
I think we have all heard the expression that goals need to be S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound). Well, it’s easier said than done.

One of the hardest things to do is setting a proper goal. Whilst setting out your tasks and objectives for the day, week or even year — caution needs to be taken so that you avoid setting ambiguous goals. You simply cannot improve on what you can’t measure, and if your goals have no metrics on them — then it becomes hard for you to keep track of your performance.

Take for instance reading a book. It’s not enough to simply set a goal like “Finish the book at the end of the week”. How exactly you do that or measure your success towards that is critical. A much more pragmatic approach to the same would be “Read 10 pages everyday”. This way you can track your performance.

The key to setting out objectives is also having a “scrum” framework to it. This means breaking a bigger goal into smaller “sprints” and handling those sprints all the while tracking your progress.

6. Less is more
We all want to seem like we are doing a lot. I know I’m a victim of this. Constantly being busy is very different from being productive (Again, guilty as charged!).

Spread your monthly goals across the weeks and keep your list short. Having less to do ensures sure that you can focus more on your tasks, have less decisions to make and be more productive in the long run.

In closing
A friend of mine once told me that we teach best that which we need to learn. Difficult as it may be for me to admit it, he was right. I am yet to also fully master how to do more instead of merely seeming to do. However, I am certain that daily practice and consistency will allow me to effective use my time — practice does make perfect.

I am a believer that there is no such thing as time management. Time moves on, whether you decide to utilize it or not. Instead, there only exists self-management. Fulfillment and meaningful relationships spring from being able to control yourself, and how you use your time.


Henry Onyango
Engineering student, web and mobile developer with crazy obsession and love for Artificial Intelligence. A proud nerd, Funzi Ambassador, entrepreneur, and on good days, a writer who shares his thoughts on Medium.