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How Are You Handling Decision Fatigue?

I enjoy reading articles and blog posts that make me think differently about things. Seth Godin is one best for me, showing me something from a different angle, combining items I never connected before, or pulling back the blinders to broaden my view of something.  

Seth started my brain a-thinking with a recent blog post, but it was the addition of two other articles that put me in high gear. Together these articles provided insight into ways we make decisions, something that impacts every professional services firm — internally and in their business development and customer relationships.

Seth’s short blog post talks about how most of us react to a New Idea or the prospect of Change. The second article from the New York Times, Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?, explains actions or decisions around New Ideas/Change. The third article explains how TMI (too much information) and decision overload causes prospects and customers to pull back and go silent.

What does this all mean for your firm?

Consider this food for thought. . .

Let’s start with Seth’s observations about New Ideas or Change. He notes warning signs of defending the status quo . . . or fighting change:

  • Consider cost before benefits
  • Focus on the pain to a few rather than the benefits for the many
  • Marginalize people who suggest new ideas or changes
  • Focus on what can go wrong rather than what could go right
  • Accept ongoing costs instead of swallowing a one-time expense

From the deepest part of our brains, we human beings fight change. It is easier to add a special step to a hard-wired habit in our brains than to undo the habit and change. Think about what it would be like for you to be transplanted to a major city after a lifetime in a small town. Or to be transferred to Shanghai or Seoul.

Not everyone fights change. Many tap into the higher areas of our brains. They rise above simple hours and effort as the sole determinants of success. They see benefits first and weigh them against costs to make an informed decision. They view ideas as opportunities and encourage them. They see the forest and the trees.  With experience, success becomes more consistent.

If that is all there is to it — willpower and experience — then everyone should be successful in time. Why aren’t they?

Because, as the New York Times article demonstrates, we succumb to a very real problem: Decision Fatigue. Can you think of a 10 minute period in which you made no decisions?

  • Low-ball the bid to get the job or bid the value?
  • Lay off Jane and Joe or pay myself less?
  • Hire the 20-year-experienced engineer that was laid off last year from your big competitor or increase the number of hours you and others work?
  • Pay $800 now for Technical Support & Maintenance, or $145 per call and $1,000 next year to upgrade?
  • Interrupt the boss with a call or send the client to voice mail?
  • Stop work on a project because receivables are older than 60 days or continue working?
  • Invest $400 in training for the office manager or let her learn it on her own?
  • Braces, college tuition and another family car or no vacation trip, 1 movie a month and dropping your life insurance?
  • Starbucks or house coffee?
  • Healthy lunch or a Fat Burger with triple bacon and extra mayo and cheese?
  • Staple or paperclip?
  • First class or coach?

It is not just you who is overwhelmed. Customers and prospects are feeling decision fatigue too. You might be giving them too much information in proposals or too many options when discussing an issue. You leave voice mail after voice mail after email with no response. Like you, the customer or prospect put themselves inside a bubble to survive, letting in only what is necessary. They deny that the $45,000 in extra costs per year is significant or they question if it is real. They ignore your $30,000 proposal and the documented savings of at least $250,000 over 3 years.

What causes mental fatigue?

Decisions. Especially ones with long-term consequences. Decisions delete energy as we exercise the mental muscle. Often we don’t know we’re fatigued. One clear signal is our decisions become reactionary. We grasp the status quo tightly regardless of the consequences.

Not being able to change, to act as a leader and consider options, is not lack of willpower. To a large extent, it is biological in nature. As the Decision Fatigue article shows, glucose level has a significant impact on fatigue and decisions. Of course, other factors are at work too.

After reading Seth’s blog, Decision Fatigue and other articles, I spoke with a handful of business owners and managers. In a very unscientific test, I looked for patterns to their decision-making. The ones who have experienced consistent business success (and personal success) tend to hold meetings involving significant decisions first thing in the morning and right after lunch. They have breakfast meetings with clients to discuss financial matters and new projects. At breakfast or lunch meetings they discuss firm issues like technology, training and other investments. Several principals/owners said they review proposals first thing in the morning or after dinner at night. Most also exercise in the morning or in the evening.

My anecdotal results appears to support the research cited in Decision Fatigue. The food replenishment-decision-making pattern may be one factor in their success.

Something to think more about. . .right after dinner.

Bob Wolff

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