The “What Do You Want for Dinner” Moment in Leadership

Decisions“What do you want for dinner?”

“I don’t know. What do you want?”

“I don’t know. Whatever you want.”

In households across America, this is a daily conversation. Most days, what I want more than dinner itself is just to not have to make a decision about what to have for dinner.

By the end of the day, we’ve been presented with thousands of decision points that literally push us to the point of exhaustion. Research shows that as the day progresses we make worse and worse decisions, or we hit a wall and venture into complete decision avoidance. In terms of our dinner choices, decision fatigue either leaves us incapable of making a decision on what to have for dinner or leaves us more open to unhealthy, quick solutions to the problem. While decision fatigue’s impact on our physical health is concerning, the impact on the workplace is equally important.

Think about all of the decisions you make before you arrive at work. You decide what to wear, how to style your hair, what to eat for breakfast, whether or not you need a coat or umbrella, what route to take, and where to park. If your brain is only capable of making a finite number of well-reasoned decisions a day, you wasted six of them before you even walked in the door.

This is exactly the reason some of the top CEOs, from Mark Zuckerberg to Steve Jobs, wear the same outfit every day. It isn’t just about comfort or branding. It’s about life simplification and mental resource conservation. Some leaders take it even further and eat the exact same meals every day. Again, this isn’t due to a love for a particular meal or for health reasons. Having the same daily routine means they are able to eliminate frivolous decisions and save their energy for important ones.

If the idea of filling your closet with black turtlenecks doesn’t appeal to you, here are some other ways to avoid decision fatigue and make higher quality decisions at the end of the day:

  • Delegate — If you’ve hired a team of competent, driven, and trustworthy team members, unload some of your daily quick decisions onto them. Providing your team the authority to make sensible decisions on your behalf lessens your decision workload and also gives your team members oft desired autonomy and additional responsibility. As you identify high potentials and potential successors on your team, you can delegate even more decision-making responsibility as you groom them for their next promotion.
  • Avoid Marathon Meetings — Virtual teams often meet in person a few times a year to strategize, problem solve, and collaborate on upcoming projects. While this time is valuable, and should be maximized, be careful not to pack too many key strategy decisions into the last meetings of the day. Start the day with the most important issues while your team is most engaged and your cognitive resources are fresh.
  • Take Breaks — Research has shown that while the quality of decisions deteriorate as the day progresses, there is a brief boost in decision quality right after short breaks and meals. So, if you must schedule back-to-back meetings, be sure to take mental breaks. Get some fresh air, a healthy snack, and mentally disconnect from the agenda momentarily.
  • Sleep on It — Finally, when presented with a major decision at the end of the day, don’t be afraid to purposefully hit the pause button. If the decision can wait until the next morning when you are refreshed and have enough cognitive resources to ask important questions, and fairly evaluate data, you will make a higher quality decision.

While making sensible strategic decisions on behalf of your organization is your corporate responsibility, being mindful of your decision-making capacity is your personal responsibility. As your cognitive resources drain, you lack the energy and  willpower to stop, think, and reflect. Being aware of your sensitivity to decision fatigue will save you from making risky decisions on everything from what to invest in to what to eat for dinner.