Meeting 2: Decision fatigue

You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day… You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.
— Barack Obama on decision making as president


Last time, the concept of ego depletion was introduced. This time we're exploring it a bit further, and especially something that can be very depleting: making decisions [1]. I chose paper 1 for an overview of research about how making decisions or choices can cause us to become depleted. Paper 2 is looking at outcomes that particularly interest us as knowledge workers - how intellectual performance is affected by ego depletion (however it comes about).

Paper 1 examines the effects of making choices on subsequent self-control. Findings from four studies are reported on, and suggest that making choices does impair later self-control, i.e. causes ego depletion. For example, in one study, subjects got to choose between college course options. Others got to think about the options but did not have to make a choice - these were not depleted. Making choices led to things like decreased persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination and worse performance on arithmetic calculation.

  • What choices do you have to make in a day, are they all necessary?
  • What could you easily routinize to avoid excessive choice each day?
  • Phone notifications, email, ads, distractions -> forced choice-situations

Paper 2 discusses three studies on effects of ego depletion on tasks requiring ”high level cognitive control”, as compared to tasks requiring less cognitive control to perform. Not all information processing depends on executive control. Think of what Kahneman calls system 1 vs system 2 modes of thinking. Logical reasoning etc uses system 2, which is relatively slow and costly. Examples of this are: ”drawing conclusions and implications from ideas, extrapolating from known facts to make estimates about unknowns, and generating novel ideas”. The distinction between fluid and crystallised intelligence may also apply, where fluid intelligence - the ability to reason, manipulate abstractions and discern logical relationships - relies more on volitional resources than crystallised intelligence which involves retrieval of knowledge acquired through experience or education.

The test of ”easy” cognitive tasks were for example rote memorisation and knowledge like ”Who wrote Gone with the wind?” while the complex tasks involved choosing and implementing an analytic strategy, select among a variety of information, decide what is useful and what is to be ignored. Which of these is more like doing a PhD? :)

The studies concluded that, as expected and in line with the strength model, ego depletion worsens performance on complex cognitive tasks but not easy cognitive tasks. The researchers believe more complex tasks require more self-regulation and thus, becomes affected by depletion of this resource.


[1] Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M. (2008). Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(5), 883-898.

[2] Schmeichel, B. J., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Intellectual performance and ego depletion: role of the self in logical reasoning and other information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(1), 33-46.


Meeting 1

Two perspectives that underpin my current view on knowledge work:

  • The executive powers of the brain seem to be, or work as if, they are in limited supply and thus one has to be economical about how you spend it[1]. 
  • Realizing that knowledge and the mind is always already situated and embodied, meaning that our tools, habits, and physical environment are literally part of our minds.
    • We can use this to our advantage! Spending limited energy on changing yourself is, I believe, not how you get the most bang for the buck. Rather, whenever possible, change the environment to make it much easier, default even, to generate your desired patterns of behavior.

From a more practical point of view, I like the idea of "deep work" presented by Cal Newport at his blog.

"Knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on). This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling in responding to a question; even if the topic is unimportant).

But this type of work is ultimately empty. We cannot find real satisfaction in efforts that are easily replicatable, nor can we expect such efforts to be the foundation of a remarkable career.

With this in mind, I argue that we need to spend more time engaged in deep work — cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

Deep work, if made the centerpiece of your knowledge work schedule, generates three key benefits:

  1. Continuous improvement of the value of your work output.

  2. An increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.

  3. Deeper satisfaction (aka., “passion”) for your work."


When others come to us for help or we're given work from somewhere, it is unlikely to be deep work. "busywork" that is more concrete will easily take over your schedule if you let it. And you may have to take care of that, but it won't bring you even one step closer to actually making progress on your thesis. When we sit down to do deep work, we can't know that we will in fact get the desired results during that session. But we do know that if we never make the time, we're guaranteed not to make progress. Here I also like the concept of "manager time" and "maker time".

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.
— Paul Graham

In preparation for the meeting, please consider 2 things: 1) what it was that made you sign up, 2) what you consider to be the most difficult thing about your work.

Decision: we'll aim for bi-weekly meetings on Thursdays, either at lunch or after work. The first theme will be on Decision fatigue and Gisela will select some readings.