Simplify is a place to find focus and explore ways to make life better, simply.

Multitasking and Decision Fatigue

Nose art from a WWII era B-29, courtesy USAF & Wikipedia Commons

There was a great article in a recent New York Times Sunday magazine that examines “decision fatigue.” As your day wears on, your brain gets tired of making decisions–so much so that the later in the day, the more likely you are making poor decisions or making decisions that would be better ones if you could wait or reset your brain. Some people just shut down and make no decisions. Depending on the urgency and circumstances, waiting could be good or bad, really bad (like deciding when to land an airplane–you just can’t sleep on it and do it tomorrow).

Very interesting is the correlation with diet–specifically how the brain metabolizes glucose. So when you get that late afternoon hunger for a chocolate bar, in part, your brain is telling you it needs a shot of glucose to keep on making decisions. See the full article here: Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? by John Tierney for the NY Times, Sunday, Aug. 17.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain.”

So how does this relate to multitasking? Multitasking erodes your concentration on big decisions by “sidetracking” your brain with a thousand little decisions–click this, grab that, read an email, answer the phone–all while you are trying to get something done. Your brain never gets a rest for constant little decisions.

On the flipside, when you are trying to relax or play or do nothing (God forbid you should have some actual downtime) continuing to multitask robs your brain of the recovery period it needs. And then–what a surprise–on comes a chocolate craving. Sound familiar?

How to help yourself:

Know your body and brain. Tiredness and irritability are but two outward signals that you may be pushing your decision envelope. If you are in a minute-to-minute crisis, you may have to stick to the job at hand, but if not, be honest and brave enough to say, “You know team, we’re all fried now. Let’s take a break or sleep on this decision and approach it when we’re all fresh tomorrow morning.”

Prioritize decisions. Handle the most immediate, pressing or most important earlier in the day (if possible).

Try eating smaller balanced meals throughout the day every few hours (instead of a large breakfast, lunch and dinner) and have some simple snacks handy (go easy on fatty foods). Avoid gorging yourself to avoid the “post-lunch coma”. Eating this way keeps your blood sugar more constant during the day–you’ll likely have fewer and milder peaks and valleys of energy. By the way, that is also one dietary strategy to help manage gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and is also recommended for some diabetics.

Have other ideas? Please comment!

About Hornsby

I'm a mid-career public relations executive now, but I've had nine lives. After 15 years climbing the ladder in the art world up to executive director in a museum, I vaulted over to this Internet thing, which was just getting going good in the 1990's. I worked at an information technology company, then had a short stint as a marketing executive, which led to technology public relations full time. After the tech bubble burst, I did corporate PR for a while, until I joined the academic world. I'm now a public relations executive for an Ivy League university. During the same career trajectory, I transitioned from a visual artist (BFA, MFA) to being a writer and performer (storytelling, stand-up). My newest venture/hobby is music, rekindled as a baritone in an a cappella choir.

2 comments on “Multitasking and Decision Fatigue

  1. Angela L.
    September 17, 2011

    Sounds like someone’s been spying on me at work! We are constantly telling the students to take breaks during long study sessions (some of them hours long.) And I take breaks from sitting at my desk by standing up and stretching or walking around the building. But I never thought of taking a break from decision-making in the afternoon, when I’m reaching for that chocolate Luna bar. Upon reflection, I do try to avoid being cornered into making any decisions as the hours approach quitting time. Also, I think my attempt to structure my workflow a little (do this for 2 hrs, do that for 2 hours, after lunch focus more on certain activities which require less concentration, etc,) has helped my stress level at work, relating to constantly feeling pulled in 3 directons at once and having to continuously decide which task gets immedate priority. We also have no immediate supervisor, so there is no set division of labor and we have to decide most things as a group. Even small decisions can often drag on for some time and get quite complicated.
    We have an old newspaper article posted on the wall, titled “Multi-Tasking Makes You Stupid.”

    • Hornsby
      September 17, 2011

      Angela: We know your pain. Some of our earlier posts deal with prioritizing and perspective. Taking “brain breaks” is a good way to regain focus. Another great way to reset is to take a short walk outside, preferably where you can see some grass, trees or water–we call it a “green break”. It works better than a coffee or cigarette break, and saves money because green is free.

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