Take a moment to count the decisions you have made since morning. Most likely, you've chosen what clothes to wear, what to have for breakfast, which route to take to work. Once at work, you took stock of pressing demands and made some decisions about which tasks to tackle first.
If you're a manager, you might have had to schedule and attend meetings, possibly negotiate with team members on a proposal, counsel administrative staff, prepare reports or presentations, and pitch an idea.
All before lunch …
Additionally, because of escalating pressures and deadlines, you might have felt called upon to do the thinking for some of the people you work with, something you find both necessary and frustrating at the same time.
When you notice that some team members respond without enthusiasm, you grow resentful. Intellectually, you know it's important for employees to have ownership in the decisions that are being made so they will be more likely to carry them out.
But the deadline is looming, there's no time, and it's your job on the line.
If any of this sounds like something you experience in home with your kids or at work, it's quite possible you're suffering from decision fatigue.
Neuroscience explains why we suffer this fatigue and points to what we can do to guard against it.
This happen because of the part of the brain called Prefrontal Lobe. Although it is supposed to be the newest and the most effective part of the brain, it has its own shortcomings.
The prefrontal cortex is like the 'goldilocks' of the brain, because it needs to have everything just right or it doesn't function well. This most evolved part of the brain allows people to plan ahead, make complex decisions, organize and inhibit unhelpful responses.
Amygdala an almond shaped organ in the brain responsible for emotions and evoking the stress response (flight, fright and freeze). Under stress, however, the prefrontal cortex can malfunction-as chemicals are unleashed, cells are prevented from communicating properly, and we find we are less able to regulate both our thoughts and our behavior.
Another area of importance is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Research has found that cells in this area are active when people widen or narrow their attention – say, when they filter out distractions to concentrate on a difficult task, like listening for a voice in a noisy room.
Threats v Rewards
The primary goal of the brain is to minimize threat and maximize reward, which has implications for decision-making and problem-solving.
When an individual or team experiences levels of threat, we know this impact on the capacity to think clearly and make good decisions. The threat response is mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person or an organization. It also impairs analytic thinking and creative insight.
On the other hand, we know that reward states are positive and support creativity and engagement, allowing people to make better assessments of risk. Remember, however, that the brain likes everything to be just right. Too much reward can impact negatively on decision-making as our arousal increases beyond the point of optimal performance.
Think back to one of those days where you are performing a number of tasks at a high level. You might be in meetings all day having to concentrate. You might be in a training course or learning a new skill. Or you might be driving to an unfamiliar destination along a busy freeway. All of these experiences take a large toll on your prefrontal cortex, which has limited capacity to work on 'high alert' during any given day. The more you use it for highly complex cognitive processing, the more quickly the 'power' within your brain drains.
Creative decision making usually requires both analysis and sudden out-of-the-box insight.
You may really end up toggling between the two, but I think that they are truly different brain states. At least, that is what brain-imaging studies are beginning to show. At first, such studies did little more than confirm that the process was happening as expected: brain areas that register reward spiked in activity when people came up with a solution, for instance.
Some of the suggested methods for improved decision making are
Reduce your stress levels
High levels of stress create a lot of noise in the brain and inhibit our ability to have and hear creative insights. Insights are the result of a very small number of distantly associated brain cells talking to each other. To compare, deciding what to eat for breakfast involves millions of brain cells having a conversation with each other. An insight only involves a few thousands of neurons talking to each other. This is why we have them when our brains are quiet and activity level is low.
To illustrate, imagine you are hosting a party and a guest knocks at your front door, the music is blasting and you are out on your back deck enjoying conversation with other guests. You will probably not hear the person knocking at your front door because the noise level is too high to hear the knock. To be able to hear it, you would need to turn down the music. It is a similar situation in our brains in that when anxiety levels go up, so does the noise level, making it very challenging to hear quiet signals coming to us from our non-conscious in the form of creative ideas. The key is to keep yourself and others around you in a positive mood where anxiety and noise levels are low.
Reboot your mind set
An impasse is a block or a dead lock in the thought process which does not seem to have a resolution. To overcome an impasse we have to experience a shift in perspective – a break in our mental set. It is our natural tendency to project interpretations on to situations based on our past experiences. Unfortunately, this hinders our ability to see a different perspective. To illustrate this, let's practice right now.
Say for instance you take A route for work every day. Imagine that you are considering route B for tomorrow, write down the reasons you come up for taking up route A and not route B. Inspite of the valid reasons take route B the next day of course taking in consideration you do not get late for work . When you reach your office note down how many of the reasons were really valid and did you experience any anxiety or fear while taking route B. One of the biggest obstacles to breaking a mental set is analytic thinking, also known as rational thinking. Focusing on the problem and putting effort into finding the solution does not create the mental state conducive to having an insight.
Engaging in analysis with our rational brain constrains our ability to creatively solve an insight problem by further cementing a particular perspective or mental set and thus leading to hap hazard decisions. This often disrupts the ability to see different perspectives.
Consider the discovery of the sticky note. The glue that did not stick so well and seemed to have no value at all was considered a problem until someone broke their mental set and realized that a glue that did not stick that well could actually be a good thing.
Sometimes if we want to experience creative solutions, we have to reconsider so that we can see the bigger picture. A metaphor to illustrate this is seeing the forest instead of focusing on the trees. Studies show that people are more able to make better decisions if they visualize or imagine themselves in the future solving their problem. This promotes a form of reconsidering which results in the production of creative ideas.
At this point we have strong circumstantial evidence that this resting state predicts how you make decisions later on and that it may in fact vary by individual.
So if you try to make a decision after seeing a comedy movie the probability that the results will be favorable compared after seeing a horror or an intense movie.
The punch line is that a good joke can move the brain toward just this kind of state.