Fighting against decision fatigue

For my money, project management systems (however that looks for you) are at their best and most powerful when they're helping you make choices. Pick up any book about habit building, or productivity, or self-help book, or blog, and they'll tell you the same thing:

Making decisions is tiring on your brain. And the more decisions you make in a day, the more likely you are to have trouble making decisions by the end of it. And one consequence of that mental fatigue is that it becomes much harder to exercise self control. 

As one study demonstrated:

A nearby department store was holding a going-out-of-business sale, so researchers from the lab went off to fill their car trunks with simple products — not exactly wedding-quality gifts, but sufficiently appealing to interest college students. When they came to the lab, the students were told they would get to keep one item at the end of the experiment, but first they had to make a series of choices. Would they prefer a pen or a candle? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented one? A candle or a T-shirt? A black T-shirt or a red T-shirt? A control group, meanwhile — let’s call them the nondeciders — spent an equally long period contemplating all these same products without having to make any choices. They were asked just to give their opinion of each product and report how often they had used such a product in the last six months.

Afterward, all the participants were given one of the classic tests of self-control: holding your hand in ice water for as long as you can. The impulse is to pull your hand out, so self-discipline is needed to keep the hand underwater. The deciders gave up much faster; they lasted 28 seconds, less than half the 67-second average of the nondeciders. Making all those choices had apparently sapped their willpower, and it wasn’t an isolated effect. It was confirmed in other experiments testing students after they went through exercises like choosing courses from the college catalog. - NYTimes "Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?"

So, the research suggests - by the end of the day, it's not just harder to make decisions after you make a lot of them, it's actually harder to exhibit self-control. In our context, it looks a little something like this:

You sit down at your desk, and decide what to start on. You decide which emails to respond to, which articles to read, what format to take your notes on, whether to open up Twitter, what to write, what to eat for lunch......and then it's the end of the day. 

So you collapse on your couch, and it's harder to will yourself to get back up to [do the rest of the things that you want to do, like go to the gym or make a healthy dinner]. It's harder to resist the lure of a new show to watch, or video games all night. 

So, when you're thinking about designing the perfect project management system, spend a little time thinking about how it helps you make decisions. 

  • Is it clear when you open it up what tasks are most important?

  • Does it allow you to quickly filter out less important/less urgent tasks so you aren't "tempted"? 

  • Does it make it easier for you to categorize tasks in a way that makes decisions more clear? 

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We have to make an extraordinary amount of decisions every day - no project management system will erase that. But by knowing what decisions do to our brains (this is your brain on decisions!), we can set up systems to make it easier on ourselves. Maybe we work out in the morning or at lunch when our will power is a little higher. Maybe we make it easier to grab healthy snacks during an all day revising session so we 'don't default to the (awesome) choice of jelly beans and suffer the (less awesome) impact of pure sugar to the blood stream. And maybe we make sure that we have tools that help us take even a little of that decision making responsibility off our plates!