Two ways you can reduce change or decision fatigue
I hear a lot of people talking about change or decision fatigue nowadays. Neither concepts come from the psychological literature or workplace research, they are both catch-all colloquialisms for general cognitive fatigue that have gained popularity in light of the pandemic and the digital revolution. In my opinion this link between change or number of decisions and cognitive fatigue is a misattribution – a classic correlation causation error.
In both instances, people are needing to deal with loss. Most decisions that need to be made have an element of trade-off which means something, or someone, experiences a loss. Any change means that you are losing a way of working or an interpersonal relationship, and replacing it with something else. Where there is loss there is grief – even if you are changing to something better you still grieve the loss of the old. This triggers a grieving process, a mental pattern that we need to go through in order to process loss. This process takes time, and a fair amount of cognitive energy (depending on how dramatic the loss is). The more grief we are processing, the less cognitive energy we have. The lower the energy we have the less capable we are to deal with other losses. Smaller losses (changes or trade-off decisions) become harder to process, and we mistakenly blame the decision load or rate of change for the overwhelm. This is in part true, but we don’t have the option to reduce the rate of change or the number of decisions needed in these chaotic times. Therefore we need to deal with the intensity and speed at which we grieve a loss. The quicker we can move through the process of grief the less cognitive energy gets drained, and our ability to cope with change and decision load increases.
The first step in better management of grief is to understand the seven stages of grief.
- Shock and denial
- Blame and self-loathing
- Anger and bargaining
- Depression, isolation and loneliness
- Turning the corner
- Reconstructing the future
- Hope and acceptance
It’s worth spending some time and understanding what each of these stages feels like for you. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, an organisational restructure, or finding out your favourite brand of something is no longer available. All are loss, and all trigger our brain into a grieving process. The faster we can move through this process, the less energy it will rob from you.
The other thing to do is to reframe the loss so that it is less traumatic and intense to begin with. Sometimes we can get so emotionally offended by a loss, and work ourselves up into such a lather, that we make the pain much worse than it needs to be. The bigger the pain, the bigger the grief, the less cognitive energy we have to put towards things that matter.
This is why high powered executives can come across as cold or uncaring, it’s simply that they can’t afford to get too bogged down in complexity as it undermines the ability to make difficult decisions. This is why the building of empathy skills is so critical. High empathy means you can quickly evaluate the human impact and make a decision without vacillating or unnecessarily ruminating over energy-sapping anxieties. It enables you to be caring and acknowledge emotional realities, without becoming overrun by emotion or suppressing it.
It is important to note though that sometimes you need to give yourself time to grieve. This is a cognitive process for a reason, and with more traumatic loss you need to be gracious with yourself, and let your mind take the time it needs to heal. The grieving process is a healing process.
However, for many changes or decisions, we can be much lighter and facilitate a much more expedient grieving process to make better decisions, and face the day with greater confidence and enthusiasm.