Decision Fatigue

Those of you with a sharp eye for detail, may have noticed that ex-president Obama, was always photographed wearing either a navy or grey suit when carrying out his presidential duties. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Barack explained that the reason for this is that on a day to day basis he tries to pare down his decisions, this includes what to wear and also what he is going to eat that day.

Research shows that the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting and why leaders need to focus their decision making energy, otherwise they could be at risk of decision fatigue.

Research carried out in the US looked at patterns in parole board’s decisions, by analysing over 1,100 decisions made over the course of a year. The patterns they spotted were not down to the prisoner’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences but in the timing of the decision. Prisoners who appeared in the early morning received parole in about 70% of the time, whilst those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10% of the time.

As leaders in business we are expected to make lots of decisions throughout the day, some small but others far reaching with possible long term consequences. Some of the signs that you might be suffering from decision fatigue include:

•   You have low mental energy, so you look for the easiest / quickest option (e.g. buy junk food at the supermarket)
•   You become reckless – tendency to act impulsively instead of expending the energy first to think through the consequences
•   Do nothing. Instead of agonising over decisions avoid any choice. Ducking the decision can however create bigger problems in the long run.

So how do the best leaders avoid decisions fatigue?
Well for a start they don’t schedule back to back meetings, they eat regularly and recognise when their blood sugar levels are low, they are well rested and exercise on a regular basis (usually scheduled in the diary) they make the most important decisions at the start of the day and don’t decide to restructure the company at 4pm!

They also don’t take on any major commitments during a cocktail party or a dinner with clients. They also practice mindfulness where they learn to ‘just be’ for 10 – 15 minutes.


How to Cultivate Resilience

If you have ever bought a Dyson vacuum cleaner then you may be aware of the story of James Dyson. A local sawmill caught James’ eye and under the cover of dark he sketched the timber yard’s giant cyclone. It spun saw dust out of the air, collecting it in a chamber. James wondered if the same principle could be applied to vacuum cleaners and put an end to clogging vacuum cleaner bags?

It took James 5 years and 5,127 prototypes later to produce a machine that had no bag and no loss of suction. This is a great example of personal resilience and never giving up in the face of adversity and rejection.
Resilient people seem to have an approach to life that is characterised by a realistic optimism, self-confidence, a sense of humour and finding meaning in every negative experience.

So how can we become more resilient in our working environment where on occasions both our physical and mental boundaries are pushed to their limits?

Change your inner dialogue –

Work at putting a positive spin on a negative experience. Resilient people know and understand that there are 2 possible scripts that can play out in the mind in the face of a setback. The quote “what’s meant for you won’t go past you” is a great example of rationalising and dealing with a setback and then learning to move forward positively. If you have ever had a setback always consider what you learnt or took away from the experience that then enabled you to move on.

Take time out –

Sometimes the best thing to do is to take yourself out of the situation you are in for a moment to get clarity and perspective. Go for a walk, sit in a coffee shop and pause for reflection. It is much better for you to take the required space than perhaps lose it with colleagues or your boss. This is especially pertinent if you spend a lot of time in meetings as most senior leaders do. Even just going to the toilet or leaving the room to get a drink can just break the negative space you were previously occupying.

Ask for help –

According to John Lees, author of Secrets of Resilient People you don’t need to be a different person to be resilient. He states that sometimes it is about owning up to what you are not good at and then asking others who are good at it for their help. Sometimes as leaders we can put a huge amount of pressure on ourselves believing we have to be good at everything. If you are able to declare what you are not good at then you can honestly turn to others and ask for help.

Reframe the fear –

Psychologist Emma Barrett states that if you control your thoughts, your physiology will be better able to cope with the situation. When symptoms of fear kick in try reinterpreting them. For example when speaking in public tell yourself that it’s ok to feel like this because I am hyped up and it’s exciting to be asked to speak at such an event.

Lonely at the Top?

In a recent episode of the Radio 4 programme, Bottom Line, the subject matter was ‘Lonely at the Top’. The programme had 3 guests – 2 senior business leaders and an Executive Coach talking about why many senior executives now employ personal coaches to help them through their toughest business challenges.

Coaches can provide confidential, independent support for senior managers who find life lonely at the top. But shouldn’t the boss be capable of making decisions on his or her own?
I have been an Executive Coach for the past 7 years and have run my own coaching business for the past 2 years. My observations on where and how a coach can help a leader include:

  • Opening the leader’s eyes to a different perspective
  • Looking at how the leader works on a day to day business and exploring with them where and how they might be more effective
  • A confidential sounding board. The higher you go in an organisation the fewer people you can talk to confidentially, especially if the buck stops with you
  • Enabling a leader to work through their thinking and reflect on the choices they have. A coach will quite often come up with a number of alternative options that the leader may not have thought of
  • Look at the leaders balance in life. How is their work / life balance? How good are they at self-care? The more senior you become the more the lines can become blurred between home and life.

I’m a great believer that in coaching you pay for what you get. The difficulty for those looking to hire a coach is that at present it is unregulated so anyone can set themselves up as a coach and start practising with little or no experience or a coaching qualification. Here are my suggestions to ask a coach to ensure you are getting a great coach:

  • What coaching qualifications do you have? (All good coaches should have a coaching qualification)
  • How often do you attend coaching supervision? (All good coaches should have regular coaching supervision)
  • How many clients are you currently coaching and at what level? (Are they coaching leaders at the same level as you?)
  • How many hours coaching have they amounted over the past 6 months? (How experienced are they?)
  • Describe your coaching style and the impact it has on your clients? (Would this style be right for you?)
  • What personal development have you done as a coach over the past 12 months (Good coaches continually learn and develop themselves)
  • What coaching associations are you a member of? Is this displayed on your website? (Good coaches will be a member of a coaching association and be guided by the associations code of ethics)

The best feedback I was recently given by a client was “Thanks Fiona for another great coaching session today. You have made a big difference to my life”.

If you find the right coach, they could make a real difference to you, both personally and professionally.