Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 24, 2020
A few days ago, one of my clients complained to me about “decision fatigue.” He is the CEO of a solid $100 million company, he is charming and successful, and his lament is — “gimme a break, I am just tired of being the one who always has to make the final decision. I’m exhausted.”
Now, let’s be clear. Decision fatigue is not the same as Munchausen Syndrome (a factitious mental disorder, such as jumping to the conclusion that you have cancer when you see a pimple on your nose). This fatigue is real. And it can have significant impacts on the quality of your decision-making.
Sixteen years ago, I started to build my house. It took 21 months and involved more decisions than I can remember, including a sinkhole that refused our efforts, no matter how much concrete we poured into it. Now, I was an experienced developer. I had built almost 2 million square feet of commercial and residential properties. I knew the construction business inside and out. And I would never do it again.
Unless you have the time, energy, stamina, passion and tremendous focus to build anything (including your company), thinking you can turnkey it and give it to someone else to do — you will be deeply disappointed. And you will hate the finishes.
Decisions (even what to eat for lunch) require some degree of mental effort. For example, Barack Obama (same suit), Steve Jobs (black T-shirt) and Mark Zuckerberg (hoodie) “have been known to reduce their everyday clothing down to one or two outfits in order to limit the number of decisions they make in a day.”
My wife will ask me what I want for dinner — I don’t care, no opinion — just tell me if I need to bring a fork or a spoon. But in big issues, decision fatigue can have serious consequences. It explains why “sensible people can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car — even though they know it is unnecessary.” Why they will agree to anything to get out of the showroom.
Now, my client is former military, he is a warrior, and we both know that fatigue leads next to “decision avoidance.” If the company needs to know whether to go left or right because an iceberg is looming, avoidance, also known as analysis paralysis, is not a good option.
Think about the supermarket. The impulse purchase items are at the checkout counter, when your defenses are weak, and your children are screaming.
As many of you know, I spend some time in prison (teaching, not incarcerated — at least not yet). I have interviewed more than 50 of my favorite felons, and when I ask them what they were thinking at the time of their crime, all of them say the same thing, “I was thinking I wouldn’t get caught.”
Now transfer that to the C-suite and the stupid sexual dalliances that infect some of the inhabitants. At the end of a long, hard day, they were thinking like my felons — I won’t get caught. The corollary to fatigue is the loss of self-control. Personal behavior requires decisions, and when you are exhausted mentally, you have a high chance of slipping into adverse consequences.
I really understand the matrix of worry, anxiety and depression, fueled by decision fatigue. It doesn’t matter if your company is blasting ahead cash in the bank or about to go broke; figuring out the next step takes effort and mental acuity.
For those of you contemplating litigation, the clock on the wall matters. One research study found “that decisions judges make are strongly influenced by how long it has been since their last break.” Favorable rulings decline to almost zero right before the break — and after they return from lunch to more than 65 percent favorable.
Finally, all of the above is doubly impacted by COVID. The daily pressure of dealing with the virus reduces exponentially the amount of mental space available for other decisions. I am not a doctor, and I don’t play one on television, but my advice is husband your emotional resources, exercise and do not apologize to yourself or others for being tired. It is not weakness; it is being human.
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. [email protected]
Rule No. 673
I’ll get back to you on that.