People love to have options.  It provides a sense of control and the opportunity to discover what fits our particular needs, goals, and preferences.  Who would want to go to a restaurant where they picked your dinner without knowing anything about you?

The problem is that the very choices we believe empower us actually result in poorer decisions, decreased energy and focus, and weakened willpower.

Decision fatigue refers to the strain and exhaustion that occur when we attempt to focus or engage in decision-making.  The basic idea is that each choice depletes our mental energy, leaving us susceptible to irrational thoughts and impulses.

There is a growing body of science behind this phenomenon.  People want more choice but make fewer good decisions when they have increased options.

This is a huge problem for employers and their people.  The average person switches between tasks more than 300 times per day.  That cognitive stress decreases the likelihood of making optimal decisions for themselves and their work responsibilities.

“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people…can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car.”  Standford’s Jonathan Levav explains what retailers already know: wearing people down through a series of complex decisions leaves them susceptible to basic sales tactics.

Consider the impact this has on open enrollment.  Employees are presented with dozens of options (which they overwhelmingly say they want) and then given a 90-minute cram session from several different providers to help them understand each possibility.  What’s worse is that the educators are often the representatives of the benefits they are trying to sell to the participants, creating another conflict of interest that infects the decision-making process.  And those choices are going to dramatically effect how they feel about their employment for the next year.

The good news is that common sense solutions are proven to help:

  • Decrease and simplify available options—Provide personalized guidance that eliminates unsuitable options and delineates the essential pros and cons of the remaining choices.
  • Eliminate conflicts of interest—Make sure advice and education are not clouded by the perception of a profit motive, which adds complexity and insecurity to the decision-making process.
  • Help establish priorities—Ask employees what is most important to them in terms of their progress, protections, and preferences. Then key decisions can be given the required focus.
  • Allow more time—Breaking open enrollment and benefit education into smaller sessions over a few weeks instead of the typical “cram day” can help participants make choices more consumable. Committing more time to the process actually makes it more efficient and will decrease the stress and anxiety produced by the process not just on the day of education or during the open enrollment period, but for the balance of the year as the participants feel a sense of confidence in their choices and how to use them.

Understanding the importance of decisions and building systems and relationships that support informed, empowering selection is an essential way to show your people you care about their wellbeing and helps avoid the loss of focus and motivation that can accompany stressful, high-value decisions.