Optimize Cognition at Work by Reducing Decisions: Part 2

by Jarrett Green

Is it possible that the small decisions we make throughout the work day directly affect our high-level cognitive functioning and professional performance at work? The science says, “yes!” 

Click here to read Part 1

Aware of the research showing that each decision we make throughout the day impairs our cognitive resources and intellectual functioning, many of our society’s great thinkers optimize their cognition by reducing the amount of decisions, or time and energy spent on decisions, throughout the day -all the way down to the decision of what outfit to wear in the morning! 
Think of Steve Jobs and the black turtleneck, blue jeans, and white new balance sneakers he wore virtually every day. Or Mark Zuckerberg and the same grey t-shirt and grey zip-up hoodie…or President Obama and the small collection of navy and grey suits that he wore virtually every day for eight years. When asked about his repetitive attire, Obama explained, “I’m trying to pare down my decisions,” adding the “need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can't be going through the day distracted by trivia.” Zuckerberg has cited the decision fatigue doctrine and elaborated, “I really want to clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible, other than how to best serve this community.”
Will Power Depletion
As our reservoir of energy and will power slowly declines throughout the day, we not only become cognitively impaired, we also become emotionally impaired. Indeed, the more decisions we make and the more cognitive fuel we burn throughout the day, the more emotionally imbalanced, impatient, and reactive we become. If you have ever gotten into an 11 p.m. argument with your significant other – over a frivolous issue that would normally not trigger you – after a long and painful day of airports, taxis and delays as you travel home from an out-of-state trip, you have experienced will power depletion.
So, what can we do about it? 
To master our energy supply and our corresponding emotional and cognitive functioning, we must attempt to view every action, decision, and thought-process throughout the day from the perspective of energy and will power depletion. Rather than focusing only on making the “best” decision or taking the “ideal” action in every micro-situation on an ad hoc basis, we need to ask ourselves: how much energy and will power should I dedicate to this particular decision or action, and would I be better served to preserve some of that energy for other decisions and actions in the day, even if it means making a slightly “worse” micro-decision in this moment? 
Examples of micro-decisions and micro-actions we succumb to throughout the day that build up and deplete our cognitive firepower may include what we wear, what we eat (did we really need to engage in a 10-minute debate with our coworkers over whether to have Mexican or Mediterranean for lunch?), whether we engage in that 12-minute water cooler gossip with our colleague, and how much time and effort we spend on each email or text throughout the day. 
Think about the emails you sent yesterday. Every person reading this has likely spent twice as much time as necessary on a particular email that was simply not that important. Let’s be honest with ourselves: that extra time, effort and thought simply had no discernible impact on the effect of your email. What if you spent half as much time on that email? What if you spent half as much time on 20 other decisions you made that day? What the research shows is that your cognition on far more important tasks would actually have been enhanced.   
Prevent “Death By a Thousand Cuts”
When all of our micro-decisions accumulate over the course of the day, week, and month, our baseline energy levels and cognitive firepower dwindle. We are causing our cognition “death by a thousand cuts.”   
One recommended technique is to quickly place every micro-decision into one of five priority “buckets” that will provide you with guidance on how much of your precious resources to dedicate to the issue: (1) important; (2) above average; (3) average; (4) below average; and (5) unimportant.  This mental label may only take 2-3 seconds per decision but could save you minutes of time – and heaps of cognitive fuel – in making or executing that decision.

Most of us, for example, get trapped into treating “below average” emails as if they are “above average” emails, which tangibly affects the amount of time, energy, and resources we devote to the email. When we start correcting these repetitive misallocations of resources throughout the day, we will notice ourselves experiencing renewed energy, emotional buoyancy, and cognitive firepower. We will suddenly unlock new reservoirs of energy, focus, and brain power that we have been needlessly bleeding out throughout the day. Our happiness and our professional performance will inevitably escalate.   
When you notice yourself feeling fatigued at work, ask yourself: what are the ways in which I needlessly burn my energy throughout the day? What categories of micro-decisions can I stop making entirely, or begin spending half as much time and energy on? As you begin to make fewer decisions and spend less energy on the decisions you do make, you will notice your physical and cognitive energy ascending. The science shows that the age-old expression, “a penny saved is a penny earned,” applies equally to your energy and brain power.
Micro take-aways:
  • Take note when you are ‘deciding’ anything
  • Remind yourself: “My energy is finite”
  • Ask yourself: “Does this decision warrant the time I’m giving it?

Article links:
  1. “Obama explained”: https://www.fastcompany.com/3026265/always-wear-the-same-suit-obamas-presidential-productivity-secrets
  1. “and elaborated”: https://www.cnbc.com/2014/11/07/5-things-we-learned-in-mark-zuckerbergs-facebook-qa.html

Jarrett Green, Esq., M.A. Psychology, is a former business litigator, who now works with companies, law firms, and other entities to help reduce employee stress and turmoil, improve employee engagement and fulfillment, and optimize employee performance and success. He also serves as an executive coach, and a law professor at USC Law School, where he co-created the “Mindfulness, Stress Management, and Peak Performance” program. You can contact him at jag@jarrett-green.com, and learn more about him at www.Jarrett-Green.com.


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