The word decide shares an etymological root with “homicide,” the Latin word “caeder,” meaning “to cut down” or “to kill.” Decision making often feels like “killing,” or “cutting down” your alternatives. If that potential loss weighs heavily when we don’t know what to watch on Netflix, it can be absolutely oppressive when we’re navigating the ambiguity of a global pandemic. And while decision making is a critical executive skill, over the past month, we've been thrown on evaluation treadmills.

As humans evolved, our decisions ballooned from basic survival (where to eat, drink, and sleep) to limitless options for how to think, behave, and position ourselves for success. Unfortunately, our brains didn’t evolve as quickly.

Now, we’re stuck with an exceptionally overwhelming psychological experience: decision fatigue.

After realizing how irrationally frustrated he became when evaluating fabric swatches for a bespoke wedding suit, Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jonathan Levav decided to research how multiple decisions impact the quality of our choices. He chose to study judges — presumably the most rational decision-makers among us.

After analyzing over 1,000 parole decisions made by a cohort of judges over the course of a year, Levav surfaced unsettling conclusions. The judges’ decisions wavered drastically — not by prisoners’ ethnic backgrounds or crimes, but by time of day. Prisoners who appeared in the morning received parole about 70% of the time. Those who appeared late in the day, after the judges evaluated many cases, were paroled less than 10% of the time — even when they committed identical crimes and all other factors were controlled for.

“No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price,” explains John Tierney, who documents Levav’s research in his book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. “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.”

The most common shortcuts we take when experiencing decision fatigue are lashing out, doing nothing, and shelling our decisions off to other people.

If you've resorted to these shortcuts, you’re not alone.

Decision making is a critical executive skill. But over the past month, we’ve been thrown on evaluation treadmills. It doesn’t matter whether we’re deciding how to rapidly pivot our business or what to stream at night. This pandemic has been non-stop choices. And at this point, many of us desperately want to escape.

The catch is that we can’t.

Acting out isn’t appropriate. Doing nothing isn’t possible. And no one can tell us what to do — there is no “Coronavirus playbook.” Deprived of shortcuts, we’re paralyzed by the number of decisions we need to make. We’re all acting as tired judges, our brains are only wired to handle so much.

Small adjustments can also preserve some energy during this decision-making marathon. First, make your most critical decisions as early as possible, not when you're burnt out. Second, outsource non-critical decisions, and don't overreact if your team's choices don't directly align with what you would have done. And third, use a decision making framework. Frameworks drive efficiency and consistency, and help your colleagues understand why you made the choices you did, so that next time they can make the call themselves.

Most importantly, while some decisions require obsessive analysis, many do not. Too often, we exhaust ourselves searching for the best solutions, when many solutions could suffice. When experiencing fear of better options — or FOBO, as Patrick McGinnis, the venture capitalist who coined FOMO, calls it — we forget that pursuing one solution does not bar us from exploring alternatives down the line.

If we cannot mitigate the scope of our decisions, we can control the energy we expend on being right. Even if it’s not the “best” decision, deciding on something empowers us to learn from its consequences — good, bad, and fine. This learning process sharpens our judgment, improving our decision-making endurance in the long run. Not making any decision is still a decision, and any movement forward is better than standing still.

Dissonant as it may feel, most of today’s decisions will not dictate your, or your team’s eventual success. There is freedom in zooming out.

Published April 17, 2020