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By Teri Grant
This article will take ~7 minutes to read.
The danger of decision fatigue
Imagine you are in the market for a car. You’ve been saving your pennies, so you’re about to buy a brand new ride. You’re at the dealership, savouring the experience of choosing each feature yourself. Rims, gearshift knobs, interior colour scheme – the works.
You don’t know it, but you’re about to fall victim to a brilliant sales ploy.
The more features that are presented to you, the more exhausted with decision-making you become. Instead of carefully weighing the pros and cons of fifty-six different colours for the interior, you’re now just settling for whatever default option is presented to you.
Now the most expensive decisions are coming your way. What tire rim would you like? What type of engine would you like? Before you know it, you’ve spent thousands more than you’d planned.
This is all the result of a condition called ‘decision fatigue’. In their book Willpower, Baumeister and John Tierney write about a study done at German car dealerships. Not only did they show how overwhelming a series of decisions is on the human brain, they also described the clever tactic used by some dealerships of saving the most expensive decisions until the end – when you are most vulnerable to just taking the first choice offered, even if it means overspending. 1
Decision fatigue through email
Email stress comes in part from saving action items in your inbox. This means your to-do list exists in two places. This is mentally exhausting, and can cause valuable time to be wasted as you try to think about what task to tackle next. The effort of making decision after decision will wear your brain out, whether it is by leaving an email in your inbox that you have to keep looking past or it is by delaying thinking about what the single, simple next step might be to approach a task presented in your email.
To relieve this stress, you must put your items on your to-do list along with all of your other tasks. The three seconds that it takes to add that email item to your to-do list will more than be made up through the day as you are able to move through your action items confidently and decisively.
How to deal with emails that come in through the day
If it will take less than 2 minutes to respond to, do it right away. If you don’t need it, delete it. If it is something urgent, prioritize it. If it is not urgent (not by EOD), add it to your to-do list. Then, move that email out of your inbox. You can add it to a folder, you can archive it along with all of your other emails, or you can delete it (though I don’t recommend this).
If an email has both characteristics, which is to say that it will take less than two minutes to respond to and it also has an element that needs to be added to your to-do list, do not give in to temptation and leave it in your inbox. Give it the exact same treatment as the above emails; respond to it, add the task to your to-do list, and move it out of your inbox.
For more on the best way to organize your tasks, get the free ebook Master Your To-Do List.
How to deal with email first thing in the morning
- Do a quick scan of the subject lines. If there is anything that catches your eye as mission-critical, open it first.
- Next, start at the oldest unread email, and work your way to the most recent unread email. Click them open one at a time and do a quick sort. If it takes two minutes or less to deal with it, do it right away without checking other emails. Don’t flip between multiple topics and allow your brain to get distracted. Holding onto too many un-made decisions at once is exhausting.
- Deal with the quick stuff right then and there. Anything that will take longer than two minutes gets added to your to-do list. Be ruthless here; a long to-do list is much better than valuable morning time disappearing into an email black hole because you just tried to plough through every item in your inbox.
- Don’t leave anything unread. The goal here is to have a complete summary of what needs to be accomplished. Anything that has already been handled can be moved out of your inbox (filed, archived, or deleted).
How to deal with email at the end of the day
- Before checking your email, decide how much time you want to commit to working on email. If you don’t, a quick five-minute email check can quickly turn into an unexpected half-an-hour of work.
- Then, follow the same process as the morning. Read the email subject lines to see if there are any urgent items that might need to be addressed immediately.
- Then open each email in order from oldest to newest. If you only have a few minutes left at the end of the day to check emails, you will want to add as much as possible to your to-do list.
- File as many emails as possible out of your inbox; try to aim for getting your email inbox to zero.
A quick summary of how to stop treating your email like a second to-do list
- Do not leave emails in your inbox to represent tasks that need to be accomplished.
- In the morning, do a quick scan of your email inbox and add tasks that have resulted from your inbox onto your to-do list. Then file the email away.
- Throughout the day, keep tabs on your inbox but do not allow incoming emails to direct your activity (unless the email deals with a critically urgent matter that must be addressed immediately). Add items to your to-do list and deal with them in the order you think best.
- At the end of the day, decide how long you want to spend working on email. This will free you up to add more things to your to-do list for the next day, rather than being sucked into an email black hole.
Make it happen: Identify the three most stressful emails in your inbox. Determine a task for each one (for example, ‘write response to X’ or ‘research statistics on Y and respond’). Add those tasks to your to-do list, and then file the emails away. For more on effective email management, read Email inbox to zero.
1. Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The Penguin Press, 2011. I drew particularly from pages 103-104, but the entire chapter on Decision Fatigue runs from p. 88-107.