You make poor decisions when you're not as mentally sharp as you could be

By Brent Jolly | September 2013

How do you like your morning coffee - black or double-double? How about an espresso or a vanilla latté, with or without an extra pump of vanilla and whipped cream? What shirt will you wear? How about your shoes? Will you drive to work or take the subway?

You haven't even started your day, but you already have been bombarded with decisions that must be made.

And by lunchtime, you may have made dozens of decisions about staff vacations, the office fridge and your latest blog post. You might not be feeling overwhelmed just yet; but, over time, this pattern could diminish your ability to make big decisions when it really matters.

You might be suffering from a form of cognitive fatigue known as "decision fatigue," says Joti Samra, a clinical psychologist in Vancouver.

"People make poor decisions when they aren't as sharp cognitively as they should be," Samra says. "If you work in a high-pressure environment and have to make [repeated decisions] over the course of the day, you could see a drop in the quality of your decision-making."

The causes of cognitive fatigue are diverse. Some of the most common triggers include poor diet and lack of sleep, Samra says. Although decision fatigue is not a diagnosable mental illness, she says, it is a problem that could arise in the demanding financial advisory sector.

Patricia Hewlin, a professor at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, says many financial advisors suffer from decision fatigue because they lack proper self-awareness and thus overwork themselves.

"The industry is highly competitive," says Hewlin, "and there could be shame or stigma with saying you can't function, especially when you typically are a high-performer. But decision fatigue is not a weakness."

Instead of trying to "power through" a period of decision fatigue, Hewlin says, you should find ways to take the pressure off yourself. For example, delegate responsibilities to your team members, especially those tasks that require less onerous decisions.

"It's about putting your own well-being front and centre," Hewlin says, "so you end up making the best decisions for your clients."

April-Lynn Levitt, a coach with the Personal Coach in Oakville, Ont., has worked with several advisors who have experienced decision fatigue. One of the first symptoms you might notice, she says, is the sense of wanting to avoid work because you feel overwhelmed and don't know where to start. You eventually may see a decline in your revenue and even may begin to lose clients.

In order to avoid or overcome decision fatigue, Levitt recommends you take a couple of days away from your desk and focus on your larger vision for your business. A few days off can be like hitting a "reset" button, allowing you to regain your focus.

Levitt also recommends you examine your decisions through the prism of the "10-10-10 rule."

If you are labouring over a decision, consider the consequences in the long term (10 years), the medium term (10 months) and the short term (10 days). Balancing the anticipated outcomes can make decisions easier to make.

U.S. President Barack Obama employs strict routines to minimize any potential decision fatigue. For example, Obama wears only blue or gray suits and has schedules set for what he eats.

While that might be too rigid for you, the point is to save your brain for important decisions and to do whatever you need to do to stay in a good frame of mind.

"Don't see [decision fatigue] as a weakness," Samra says. "Instead, use it to find ways to be more efficient in your work."

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