Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Decision Fatigue

Lawyers are inevitably leaders in all positions they hold due to their privilege, power, prestige, and responsibility.
~ Randall Kiser ~

With great responsibility comes considerable decision-making.  When we make a lot of decisions, we can suffer from decision fatigue, which can lead to poor health outcomes such as weight gain.

Australian researchers examined how work might contribute to obesity.  They studied psychosocial aspects of white and blue-collar occupations of 450 mostly middle-age participants.  Their focus was on two types of job control: skill discretion, having and being able to apply skills; and decision authority, the requirement to make a lot of decisions.  The research revealed that people who have high levels of skills discretion (they exercise control by getting things done themselves) tended to have lower Body Mass Indexes (BMIs) and smaller waste size.  The need to exercise a great deal of decision authority was linked to a bigger waste size. 

Even if you have good stress management skills, the current levels of volatility and uncertainty are likely to cause chronic stress, where the stress response is over-activated for long periods of time.  The stress response is initiated by the threat-processing amygdala, and the resulting physical and emotional responses are automatic.  The pandemic is causing heightened threat assessment.  There are some things you can do to manage the panic button amygdala and enhance cognitive capacity for decision-making:

  1. Focus on what you can control.  This will help you be less reactive and more thoughtful.
  2. Organize and prioritize tasks with professional and personal To Do Lists and Calendars.  Your brain treats all unfinished tasks with the same level of urgency, so reduce your cognitive processing by writing down everything you need to accomplish.  Organizing, prioritizing, and calendaring will free up mental space and reduce cognitive overload.
  3. Don’t multi-task.  Switching from task to task reduces effectiveness.  Make the decision to schedule and separate long-term planning and projects from dealing with short term emergencies, so you can differentiate your approach to problem-solving.
  4. Schedule well-being activities.  Figure out when you are going to exercise, meditate, write in your gratitude journal, etc. and put that on your schedule.  It takes 21 days to begin to form a new habit, but at least 2 months for the habit to be self-sustaining.

Takeaway: Take time to organize what you can control to enhance cognitive capacity and relieve cognitive load.

Sources

Randall Kiser, Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer 226 (2017).

Christopher G. Bean, Helen R. Winefield, Charli Sargent and Amanda D. Hutchinson, Differential associations of job control components with both waist circumference and body mass index, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 143 (October 2015), doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.08.034, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953615300861

Vida Skreb, 7 Tips from Neuroscience from CEOs Dealing with COVID-19 Stress, May 8, 2020, https://chiefexecutive.net/7-tips-from-neuroscience-for-ceos-dealing-with-covid-19-stress/. Debra S. Austin, Windmills of Your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931, 961 (2019) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3374006.

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