Photo: Susan Merrell

If you have to ebb, make sure you flow

A recent article in the NY Times magazine about decision fatigue got me thinking. Thinking leads to fatigue, and fatigue prevents thinking. So thinking leads inexorably to impulsiveness. Seems like a paradox. I will be brief lest I deplete my thoughts.

Decision scientists know that impulsiveness is not always bad, as Malcolm Gladwell summarizes in Blink. Sometimes we make wiser choices by acting on our unconscious instincts or impulses. My critique of Blink is that the unconscious is most effective when we act based on deep pattern recognition borne of expertise borne of repetition. For example, after years of experience with rock climbing, you might approach a pitch and find yourself troubled about the rope setup without being able to articulate exactly why. As described in The Gift of Fear (de Becker), it can be very important to listen to your unconscious even if it is not articulate.

In the modern world, however, we often encounter brand new situations, some of which involve very high stakes (medical, housing, career, relationship decisions). In these situations, under-thinking and impulsiveness may not channel the informed unconscious, but simply our ignorance. Then we may overlook missing but knowable information, or act out rashly on ill-considered preferences (e.g. fight/flight defensive reactions). This is really stark in medical and financial decision making. We may react impulsively to a perceived threat (pre-cancer diagnosis, stock market churn) and embark on irreversible decisions (surgery, divestments) based on fears that may be, on further reflection, overblown. On the financial topic, Warren Buffett supposedly says, "Be greedy when others are fearful."

I am drawing several connections to this work on decision fatigue. First, fatigue is the result of consequentialism - the commitment to evaluating the pros and cons of different alternatives. Besides impulsiveness, there is another alternative to consequentialism, namely formalism. This is when you resolve to follow a rule rather than constantly evaluate the consequences of your actions.

My favorite example is that I find it very depleting to constantly re-evaluate whether to keep scheduled commitments. I often schedule commitments 3 months in advance, and then find that when the time approaches, there are suddenly three competing claims on that time. I used to re-evaluate: should I reschedule with A so I can do this new activity with B? I now have a rule that I keep commitments in the order I made them. I don't think about it. It's a no-decision. Technically, I might have better optimized my time by rescheduling dynamically. But I have preserved daily capacity for decision making through rule-following.

In my experience, though, there is an even better way to preserve decision capacity than to follow rules. Find Flow. Flow is the state of being perfectly challenged: enough so as not to be bored; not so much as to become frustrated. You know you are in Flow when you lose track of time. It's a form of self-hypnosis. It is inherently energizing. I can spend six hours at a stretch making complex decisions that flow like water in a stream. I might be designing a training exercise, writing a song, or writing a research report. In those cases, I can emerge with full decision capacity. Conversely, if I spend six hours processing my expense reimbursement requests, I achieve a state of anti-Flow and feel totally depleted. Productivity gurus have therefore pointed out we should manage our energy, not our time (see The Power of Full Engagement by Loehr and Schwartz).

When you are conscious of the possibility of decision fatigue, you can anticipate it, and prevent it.

If you have to ebb, make sure you flow.

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