Three prisoners appear before a parole board. They committed the same crime. They’re serving the same sentence. They’ve behaved more or less the same throughout their time incarcerated. The board grants just one of the prisoners parole.
What’s the difference between the three cases?
The time of the parole hearing. As one study found, prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time. Those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.
Experts theorize that it has to do with decision fatigue — the more decisions we’re required to make, the more mentally depleted we become, the worse the quality of our decision-making.
As it happens, the typical person makes about 2,000 decisions every hour. Each day, we make an average of 217 decisions — about food alone! That’s a huge quantity of choices, and while some of them, like which sandwich to order, are mostly inconsequential, others can have ongoing impacts on our careers, businesses, and lives.
When I founded my company Jotform 17 years ago, I had an idea of the leader I wanted to be, but sometimes, I struggled to execute. I ruminated on everyday decisions like: Should I exercise today? Should I write this morning or tackle my inbox? How should I reply to this common request?
It took some time to discover the secret to managing the flood of everyday decisions: automation, which I write about at length in my new book: Automate Your Busywork. But once I did, I had much more clarity in my decisions, not to mention, more brain power to dedicate to the big stuff.
Here, a closer look at how busywork hampers your decision-making and how automation can help.
Busywork clogs the decision funnel
Many of us are drowning in busywork — dull and repetitive tasks that we have to complete every day or the wheels of our business don’t turn. They steal time from other more meaningful activities, like creative thinking and planning. And they worsen our decision-making in various ways.
First, busywork piles unnecessary decisions on our plate. Picture a log jam: tree trunks and wood pieces accumulating in a river, obstructing the normal flow of water. The more decisions we have, the more our decision-making process is obstructed. As researcher Roy Baumeister has noted, the mere act of making decisions progressively depletes our ability to make them effectively.
And when we’re overwhelmed by massive to-do lists, we often resort to multi-tasking. Research shows that performance, including decision-making, suffers by up to 40% when we try to focus on two cognitive tasks at once. So if you’re choosing a design for your newsletter while returning a phone call, both the conversation and the email blast will be worse for it.
What’s more, busywork doesn’t leave us feeling engaged. Instead, it leaves us feeling frazzled, tired, bored, and generally, uninspired. Maybe even frustrated and angry. And when emotions run high, our decision-making abilities worsen, fueled by stress hormones rather than good reason. As Harvard Business Review explains:
The primitive parts of our brains aren’t wired to take the future into consideration, and tend to seek out instead the most immediate source of gratification, or the route to the least pain and discomfort.
The good news? There are effective strategies for controlling the overflow of busywork and setting yourself up to make better decisions. It starts with adopting an automation-first mindset.
Automation clears the path for the big stuff
At first blush, automation might sound like the robot takeover, fomenting fear that technology will replace humans and take their jobs. Those fears aren’t entirely misplaced. But as New York Times columnist Kevin Roose has noted, we will always need people to do the work that only humans do — like strategizing, collaborating, and creative thinking.
As I write in my book, automation is actually democratizing innovation. Today, there are so many no- or low-cost automation tools — the only barrier to entry is a quick Google search.
So, how does automation foster better decisions?
It can increase your speed on everyday tasks. Doing things manually takes time. Factor in the added time we lose to distraction, boredom, and forgetfulness, and we lose even more precious minutes (or hours) from our day. With automation, those same tasks can be done, flawlessly, in seconds or milliseconds. Or, in some cases, automation can remove busywork from your plate entirely.
Consider a vice president of a software company who attends 15 to 20 meetings a week. She needs to take careful notes, but with so many meetings, it’s a cumbersome task. She dreads it. Searching through her notes to find certain topics is a chore unto itself. To automate, the VP integrates an AI tool into her videoconference platform, and it auto-transcribes every spoken word of each meeting and saves the text in a Google document. The VP is left with more energy to lead her teams and developing their latest innovations.
With less busywork, you have more control of your schedule. You can cut out multitasking and carve out swaths of time for focusing on meaningful work and more important decisions. You can schedule those tasks for points in the day when your energy is highest, and when you’re least likely to be led by the primitive parts of your brain.
Busywork isn’t going anywhere. But instead of drowning in it, you can build automation-based systems to manage the inflow. It’s like a wheel that takes a little energy to start turning, then continually builds momentum and speed, getting more efficient with time.
Just remember: It’s not about working less — it’s about working on things you care about and freeing yourself to make more well-reasoned decisions.
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