26 September 2023

Want to stay focused and make smarter decisions all day long?

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Neuroscience says start managing attention fatigue, writes Jeff Haden*

Research shows your ability to focus gets depleted the more you use it throughout the day.

What’s the answer?

You’ve probably felt the effect of decision fatigue: The more decisions you make during the day, the harder each one is on your brain.

There’s a scientific underpinning to this — research published in Cognition determined you’re more likely to think a situation through and make a good decision in the morning, before you’re mentally — and physically — tired.

(In other news, research also shows you’re more likely to make impulse purchase decisions after a long day of decision making.)

But decision fatigue isn’t the only reason your judgment may sometimes be less sound than you prefer, especially if you’re fully aware of the importance of the decision you’re about to make.


Attention fatigue

The authors of a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that baseball umpires pay more attention to important calls.

That bang-bang call at first, in the bottom of the second with no runners on, during the dog days of summer? Meh.

The same call in the bottom of the ninth, with the game tied and the bases loaded? That call matters.

But here’s the thing: Regardless of how important the call, attention applied earlier in the game increases the likelihood of errors late in the game.

As the researchers write:

We find that umpires not only apply greater effort to higher-stakes decisions, but also that effort applied to earlier decisions increases errors later.

These findings are consistent with the umpire having a depletable “budget” of attention.

Interestingly, umpires seem to know this, even if unconsciously.

The researchers also found that “an expectation of higher stakes future decisions leads to reduced attention to current decisions, consistent with forward-looking behaviour by umpires aware of attention scarcity.”

Or in non-researcher-speak, since the umpires know they’re likely to face tough calls later in the game, whenever possible they tend to coast a bit.

(Clearly for good reason; while you could argue that every call is equally important, that’s really not the case.)

So yeah: Attention depletion matters.

So does…

Managing attention fatigue

First think about when you and your team make important decisions.

I used to schedule important meetings late in the day, thinking that would allow the managers who reported to me to take care of their “normal” stuff and focus on whatever critical decision we needed to make.

Turns out that was a bad idea; by the end of the day, most of us were running on decision and attention fumes.

The better approach?

Schedule important meetings early in the day.

Other research shows we’re more likely to make rational decisions about high-risk propositions in the morning.

Or, if that’s not possible, schedule them after lunch or some kind of break.

In the umpires study, the researchers found:

There is no such dynamic interdependence after breaks during the game (at the end of each inning), suggesting that even short rest periods can replenish attention budgets.

Another approach is to find ways, like umpires, to “coast.”

But not by paying less attention to certain situations or issues.

A smarter way to conserve attention is to decide who should make certain decisions, and then empower those people to make those decisions.

(Hint: The right person is almost always further down the org chart than you think.)

In a broader sense, whenever possible structure your work so you can tackle tasks requiring focus and concentration as early in the day as possible.

(That’s also the best way to get your day off to a great start.) Or right after lunch, when you’ve had the chance to physically and mentally recharge.

And one more thing: if a critical issue pops up late in the day, instead of making the decision, ask yourself another question first

“Can I put this off until first thing tomorrow morning?”

In most cases, you can.

And should — because when the stakes are truly high, the best time to make a tough decision is when your attention capacity is at its peak.

*Jeff Haden is a contributor at Inc.

This article first appeared at inc-aus.com

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