Ep. 10 – Productivity: Decision Fatigue & Making Minutes Matter

Hey there – how’s your day going?

Was there anything you did today, or this week, that you wish you hadn’t?

I’m not talking big life regrets, I mean the little papercuts on your productivity. The hey-do-you-have-a-minute that never really take a minute and get you off track? The meeting, conversation, task, errand that seemed like a waste of your time. 

The Bottom Line on Top, or BLOT, of this episode is that there is a mental cost to how you spend your time and progress comes from making your minutes matter.  

Time often feels in short supply and there are many places where time seems to leak away – drips of minutes, drains of energy. 

The impact of this can be measured in minutes. 

Let’s look at a typical day. The average person gets just under 7 hours of sleep, 6.8, in fact, say the studies. Is that you?  

Let’s round that up and say you got a solid 7 hours of sleep. Congratulations, you now have 17 hours in your day. 

17 hours comes to 1,020 minutes. 

That seems like a lot – at first. 

Some studies indicate that most people have about 2-3 core productive hours a day. That’s when we’re doing the actual things instead of thinking about them, talking about them, and trying to decide which things to do when. 

Let’s add to this effort that fact that we make thousands of conscious decisions each day. Some studies put that daily number above 30,000 decisions. Now most of those are quick, small decisions about our daily functions, but each of those are processed through the brain then relayed to the body. 

Combine this multitude of decisions with limited amounts of minutes and that often leads to decision fatigue. This is the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual (that’s us) after a long day of making decisions. 

Decision fatigue can come and go based on the circumstances. Have you ever been in a meeting or conversation where you’re more likely to just agree with what’s being said because you no longer have the desire or discipline to continue? Or you’ve been in a grocery store when midway down an aisle, and all of a sudden your brain stops taking your messages? Cannot function, must go home.

Decision fatigue is more than just a feeling; it has connection to brain function. Pay attention to when your brain is sending up a white flag. It’s a signal that you are entering the fatigue phase. 

And when you’re feeling depleted, you’re far more likely to be impulsive, passive, avoidant, or influenced by others. 

So what can you do when you feel the brain drain happening in your day?

Depending on what type of decision you’re facing, consider if it’s something that requires time, money, or action. And which of these things is leading you to resist it. Often decisions require a combination of those three, so look at which is the more prominent one that is really starting to bother you. 

One of the biggest mental drains on decision making is actually not making a decision. When we get faced with something and feel overwhelmed, we then put it back on the I’ll Think About That Later list. 

One tool that can be helpful is to figure out what is the mental cost is of your time. If you have a little over 1,000 minutes in your day and those minutes have lots of competition for how they need to be spent, calculate how much you’re willing to invest to save minutes. 

If something is going to take you an hour, so 60 minutes, to complete, would you be willing to trade money to keep those minutes? Let’s use an example. Let’s say you need to do a return at a large shopping center for a $15 item. The shopping center is 15-20 minutes away, depending on traffic. It has a crowded parking area that you find stressful. The return line is also typically cumbersome. Altogether, this errand will likely take you about an hour. 

So the question becomes not whether you *can* do it but whether it’s worth $15 to you. How else could you invest that time? Could you donate that item or give it away to someone to ease your mind about the money already spent? Can you reframe it was hiring yourself for $15 an hour to tackle something else on your list or to even note do anything for an hour? Would you spend $15 to get an hour of time back in your day where you weren’t running an errand? 

See what your brain says to that and keep going until you come to the amount of money that you would spend to have that hour returned to you. These examples help you figure out the cost basis for your own personal time. And you will start to see where you are spending your time and then when you are giving it away at a discounted rate?

One of my mental models when it comes to calculating time and money is to ask myself: Would I spend more on this for lunch? If the answer is yes, then I can more easily release myself from the burden of feeling I have to do something.

What about when your decision fatigue is due to the multi steps that are part of making a decision or completing the effort? That contributes to the exhaustion that comes from thinking about all the steps needed just to get something done. 

One idea is to think about taking the task apart as a series of Lego pieces, or a jigsaw puzzle if that is more appealing to you. What is the first step? What’s the first Lego piece that fits into the next one. Or what are the first two jigsaw pieces that lock together. 

Sometimes it could be finding the information of the place where you to need to make the appointment. Looking up the phone number or website is the first Lego piece. Far less overwhelming than doing the scheduling, but it is a step forward. 

Progress is important to the brain. Often, we won’t allow ourselves to feel accomplished until everything is done. That expectation (unrealistic expectation) is part of what floods our brain. 

Small steps send signals to the brain through neurotransmitters. In episode 5, we talked about the power of dopamine and how that helps us create mental momentum in our productivity practice. A close friend of dopamine is serotonin. This is known as the “happy chemical” and it helps with mood, memory, learning, and even reward. 

While our negative self-talk gets involved telling us we’re not doing enough and there’s not enough time, our body is actually using its own superpowers of neurochemicals to help us in those moment. 

A small step – that first Lego – starts the engine to progress. 

Another cognitive tool that can help with the decision fatigue is to narrow down the choices. When I’m tired and hungry but can’t seem to figure out what to do for dinner or I’m standing in the middle of a grocery store staring at cereal, I try to switch to mental multiple choice. 

Do I want this or this? And listen for your brain to respond, even if that response says: I don’t want either one of those. That’s actually progress. 

The move into the next multiple choice: “Okay, pick one of these four things.”

The trick is to only do this a couple of times – otherwise your brain can get overwhelmed again. But there is a sweet spot to decisions. When we’re confronted with all the things in our day or our to-do list or our email box or even in that large aisle of options, narrowing it down helps your brain be able to say Yes or No to this or that.  

We’ll spend more time on, well, time and how to train your brain to recognize where there are micro steps  – Lego pieces – that propel further progress. The first step is recognizing how it shows up in your daily life right now. When are you experiencing decision fatigue? And then use that information and insight to navigate the realities of our busy days. 

This creates mental GPS and helps you see the shortcuts to find a way to do fewer things better. 

In the meantime, look for ways to make the most of your minutes now and take good care. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
Unlock Video Library.

Unlock helps you skip the line and save time with smart, simple steps that get results. Come visit the free video library to get keys to real-life ways to unlock your brain.

Share this post

I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.