Decision Fatigue EDU

I just finished the book Micro-Resilience by Bonnie St. John. From the beginning just the title caught my attention and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks reflecting on her work. She explains that micro-resilience is how you get back to you after the small challenges that happen every day. Macro-resilience is the resilience that’s necessary when a major challenge takes place like a death in the family or sickness. At a time of the year when I really didn’t have time to be reading ANYTHING extra, this book caught my attention because I’ve been caught in situations where several irritations had happened in rapid-fire succession and I had no time to reflect and process before the next one happened leaving me feeling like I’m drowning. When I happened to end up in a session by Bonnie St. John, the book and concept of Micro-resilience spoke to me.

Sometimes I hear people refer to resilience as the way and how quickly you “bounce back” from something difficult that happens. I disagree with this. I don’t think that after a major challenge you can ever get back to where you were before. The goal of resilience is to be as good with the change or better, depending on the situation. You will be a different person and that’s ok. Resilience helps you be okay with it.

There were many concepts that resonated with me in the book, but one of them that resonated the most was decision fatigue which is something that has been shown in studies to create the situation where you are more likely to choose the easy choice because you’ve already made so many decisions that you are tired. For example, St. John cites research that showed that if you’re going to court it’s best to have your court time in the morning and after lunch break when the judges are rested and fed. As the day goes on and they listen to more cases, they are more likely to uphold the former conviction than they are to change it because they are tired and have made so many decisions.

In considering the concept of decision fatigue, I started to reflect on my interactions with people throughout a day. Someone rarely speaks to me without starting the conversation asking me a question that I need to seriously consider the answer. I know I’m not alone in this. Especially in education, so many of our conversations throughout the day begin with questions. By the time I get home, I don’t want anymore questions which is part of what makes me so crabby with my family. It’s more than just being tired. It’s being exhausted with making decisions.

Even with our kids in personalized learning and our educators in personalized professional learning, we are asking them to constantly make choices. I am not saying I am against personalized learning, not at all. But, I do think that we need to have an awareness of decision fatigue when we are asking people (little and big) to make choices over and over and understanding how exhausting it is.

I often tell a story of a student that I had in my Educational Technology course when I was teaching at a university. I was trying to model giving voice and choice in assessment by allowing for students to show their learning in a variety of ways. One of the students, a high-achieving college student, approached me after class and asked me to tell her what to do. She cried when I told her she could choose anything. At the time, I thought to myself holy cow, I’m sending this girl out in the world to teach students voice and choice and she can’t even do it herself. She doesn’t know how to choose.

I realize now that it could have been a poor assumption. What if she was just exhausted in a class that went from 6pm-9pm at night? How many times does decision fatigue play a major part in the decisions we make? How many times have I made a semi-major decision that was easier just because I was too exhausted to think any harder. How many times has this affected student learning? Relationships with other people? My department? My family?

St. John gives several simple recommendations for trying to cut down on decision fatigue. Two that resonated with me were because they were so simple:

Create To Do Lists
I think in general teachers love to-do lists. For me, there is nothing more satisfying than checking things off. However, from the standpoint of decision fatigue, to-do lists allow you to take stuff out of your head and create brainspace. You don’t need to remember everything you need to do because you are putting it down on paper. Put it in priority order and you have even less decisions to make as you work your way down the list.

Create Checklists
Checklists are different as they are things that need to be done all the time in the same way. This takes the effort out of remembering next steps. As a mom, I hung a five step checklist for my kids when they were little. There was a little laminated sheet attached to the bathroom mirror that had things like “Brush your teeth” and “Brush your hair”. While at the time I thought I was trying to make them more dependent, it also allowed me to just ask them, “Did you do the list?” instead of asking each thing on the list for four kids. These little practices can help with the decision fatigue.

One of the most important takeaways from the book is that the changes that we make to be more micro-resilient don’t need to be huge changes in our lives. They can be little things like checklists and to do lists, but the important thing is actually changing the way that we think about using them and their purpose. The micro-resilience idea reminds me of the idea of working smarter not harder except your living smarter not harder and building your resilience in the process.

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