Academic Leaders, I’m worried about you. I’ve been in awe watching you over the past year and a half. You balanced the needs of your students, faculty, staff, and families as you responded to a crisis that few of us had the training or expertise to handle, and you did it with grace, wit, and patience. You’ve been faced with decision after decision in response to circumstances and policies that were far outside your control, and far too often, it felt like even the best possible solution fell short of the ideal. And let’s be honest--it took a lot out of you.
That’s because making decisions is like lifting weights--you build your strength by practicing regularly over time, but if you try to do too much at once, you run out of power. Last week, we asked Academic Leaders what kind of issues they were working on as school gets started. 96% of our respondents said they were working on problems that are both urgent and important: high stakes decisions that consume time and energy. If we go back to our weight-lifting comparison, it’s like you’re lifting more weight and doing more reps, and that means you’re tiring out faster than ever.
If we take away the simile, you’re stuck in what social psychologists call decision fatigue. Human brains expend a lot of energy making decisions, and as they run out of energy, it becomes harder to make decisions well. In other words, there are physiological and cognitive explanations for why it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the number of problems you have to solve. Researchers who study this phenomenon have documented concrete approaches to managing and minimizing decision fatigue. Here are three of your most effective strategies:
When I say I’m worried about you, Academic Leaders, it’s only because I see how much you’ve shouldered in the past year and a half. I want to make sure you’re doing okay, and I want you to have every tool available to make your work as manageable and visionary as possible. If you can separate out the skill of decision-making from the decisions themselves, they become easier to approach--and this is the year when you deserve to have things a little easier.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)