On any given day, school leaders navigate a battery of issues that require the ability to quickly make multiple decisions—selecting the next teacher PD topic, determining an appropriate response to a student infraction, or allocating budget for replacing outdated gym equipment, for example.
“The sheer variety of issues faced by school leaders, and the rapid pace at which they are asked to make decisions, mean that those leaders must remain focused and have the mental energy for sound decision-making,” write Ronald Williamson and Barbara Blackburn for MiddleWeb.
Like all complex thinking tasks, making decision after decision depletes the mental resources you can allot to the next crucial problem—a condition researchers call decision fatigue. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue, however, in that you may not be consciously aware of being tired. “It explains a whole set of undesirable behaviors such as losing focus in meetings, getting angry with colleagues, being impulsive or even making irrational decisions without considering the consequences.”
Both routine and complex decision-making suffer as the energy of the decision-maker flags. In turn, this may lead to a reduced ability to make good, sharp decisions, an increase in impulse decisions, or decision paralysis—an inability to make any decision at all.
Authors Williamson and Blackburn identify a few good strategies for leaders to keep in mind as they navigate a day:
Acknowledge the problem: Don’t assume you are immune to decision fatigue, and try to be aware of the signs as the day passes: slower-than-normal processing of information, a certain fuzziness in your thinking, or a turn towards impatience or grumpiness.
Schedule time between meetings to take breaks: Don’t schedule consecutive, back-to-back meetings or try to be always-on. Take short breaks to recharge your mental energy, and make time to move around, eat a healthy snack, hydrate, and do things that aren’t mentally taxing.
When in doubt, sleep on it: For important decisions, consider delaying the decision until the following morning when your decision-making abilities will be sharper.
Be clear about your vision: “Decision fatigue is linked to making complex choices from among alternatives,” Williamson and Blackburn write. Articulating a clear, well-defined vision that can serve as an anchor in choppy waters is a great help: “The clearer you are about your goals, the more you’re able to take irrelevant choices off the table and reduce the drain on your mental energy. Clear goals can also make it easier to delegate some decision making to others on your leadership team.”
Avoid distractions: Research shows the negative impact of multitasking. Set specific times for tending to tasks like email or phone calls and try to keep those separate from your priority decision-making time.