Simple strategies can help overcome mental exhaustion of daily life.
“In an off-site meeting, after having breakfast we were all excited, fired up to contribute, and had a productive brainstorming session. After a few hours though, we were distracted and stuck on one idea. Then it was lunch time – desserts and coffee! And we were charged up again!”, said a senior manager. Can you relate to this kind of an experience where your mood and productivity levels change depending on the time of the day? Have you noticed that it is much easier to exercise willpower and self-control – for example, to avoid chocolates – after you wake up than as the day progresses?
Research shows that the ‘time of the day’ has significant effects of our decision making abilities. In one recent article, Maryam Kouchaki and Isaac Smith found what they called the ‘morning morality effect’. That is, people tend to lie, cheat, steal, and engage in other unethical behaviors less during the morning hours. The reason: as the day progresses, we get exhausted and our mental energies get drained such that we are unable to do the cost-benefit analysis that is needed to exercise will-power and self-control. We make all kinds of decisions through the day and after being on alert for long periods of time, each subsequent decision feels tougher to make. We suffer from ‘decision fatigue’.
One might argue that it is the untrained or inexperienced who succumb to this kind of fatigue. To demonstrate how fragile and widespread this issue really is, Shai Danziger of Tel Aviv University in Israel along with his colleagues studied the decision–making patterns of judges. They followed over 1,000 parole decisions made by eight judges for a period of ten months. Applications were from prisoners who were already serving a sentence and had appealed for being let out on parole or to get a reduced sentence. A typical day for the judges was divided into three sessions: morning until snack break, snack break until the lunch, and after lunch until end of the day.
The results were astonishing. Likelihood of getting a parole was not affected by prisoners’ ethnic backgrounds or the crimes they had committed. One factor that did matter was the ‘time of the day’ when judges made their decisions. Two-thirds of applicants successfully received favorable decisions as the day began. However, by the end of the day, this percentage fell to around ten percent. What was even more interesting was the effect of breaks. After each of the two food-breaks (mid-day snack and lunch), the rate of favorable decisions shot back up again to the original levels. Clearly, glucose levels mattered.
Making decisions is like going to the gym, where after working on a particular muscle repetitively, it feels tired. The mind begins to take shortcuts and to look for the easy answers. Shortcuts could range from being impatient in meetings, being impulsive in splurging, or just doing nothing and maintain status quo. In the judges’ example, it takes effort to think of the consequences of letting a prisoner get out of jail; it is rather easy to continue with the default of keeping him in jail.
This fatigue can show up in a variety of ways such as bad mood, improper communication, poor memory, attention deficit, and poor problem solving. Several factors can aggravate this exhaustion. Work involving time pressures to meet deadlines, large travel times and change of time-zones, boring and repetitive work, stressful personal life issues, frequent changes in work schedule, or a general lack of sleep can all make things worse.
Managing fatigue has always been important in areas that involve high risk activities and hazardous conditions, such as for pilots, doctors, and military-men. With many people working overtime, in trans-continental teams, and in night shifts, this issue is becoming relevant for many other fields too. Organizations are now providing leisure and recreational activities within their office space such as gyms, swimming pools, and dance studios. ‘Fatigue management’ is being included as a topic of training & development programs.
Simple strategies could be used to manage fatigue in daily life. Begin observing your own decision-making patterns. Do you show less interest for and spend less time on decisions being made during particular times of the day? If so, find ways to change the work routine. With day long meetings, schedule the heavy discussions for pre-lunch sessions and small group debriefs for evenings. Create checklists. Take frequent breaks or pre-work naps. If you are managing a team, have check-ins to find out if others have slept well, are fatigued due to excessive work, are stressed because of domestic issues, or just need a break to recover.
In a fast paced world, making decisions is mentally taxing. Deciding when to leave home to get to office, which dates to book flights for, what to wear at work, when to schedule the meetings, or what to cook for dinner may look like trivial decisions. However, they add up and clutter our minds. Clearly, biological rhythms, sleep, and glucose levels work in ways that we don’t even notice. Pauses are needed – not only for general well-being but for better quality of decisions.