Decision Fatigue. You’ve all heard of it, right? It’s the reason that people like Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama severely limit their wardrobe choices. In Obama’s case, a blue or gray suit, in Zuckerberg’s, jeans and a gray t-shirt. For each, it’s an attempt to preserve his most precious resource — the decision-making capacity of the quickly-depleted prefrontal cortex. To that end, limiting to as few as possible the number of choices that must be made in a given day makes perfect sense.
Now think of that reality in the context of the modern marketer’s job. In any given day, how many decisions are you called upon to make? And it’s not just one kind of decision. You might need to exercise high-level, strategic judgment: Is this new company a potential threat to our brand? How should we assess it? Or you might need to decide at the level of the mind-numbingly granular: excluding exogenous factors like time of day/week, is there a meaningful difference in response rates for campaign message A vs. message B?
All of that? It’s your job. I have this theory (does it resonate? I’d love your feedback) that for most jobs, decision-making tasks fall into a handful of different categories. I’ve charted them here:
- The first category, executive tasks, seems clear. They tend to be outwardly focused, with an eye on competition, financials, alliances and mergers, capital, economics, market research and product development. It’s the kind of work executives tend to be most engaged in.
- Production as a category is trickier because it’s so broad. Anything that’s largely solo work, where you’re creating something original, is essentially Production/Creation. A lot of tech work (coding, design) can be included here, but also sales. It may not be obvious to think of selling as creative work, but we do think of sales, intuitively, as a kind of production. Hence the language, “Is that person producing?” Whether the work product is code, revenue or a client relationship, this is the work category we tend to think of most typically as “work.”
- My third category is managing people. It includes training, giving employees feedback, progress reports, annual reviews, etc. These are most of the management and HR functions. It’s the kind of work that used to get dismissed as low-value. Thankfully we’re in a new management era, where employers recognize that workers are human beings, first and foremost. This kind of work can be the hardest, and also the most fun. Because, People!
- Process and project management are distinct from both people management and production. Unlike executive work, these tasks are inward facing, but they tend to focus on things like competition, product development and process improvement. Anyone who’s ever tried to shepherd a major project or new workflow from the whiteboard to implementation knows that wrangling systems — including people, deadlines, interim goals and budgets — is its own kind of task, and it is definitely work.
- And finally, there are administrative tasks. This can include data entry, recording client contact in a CRM, logging data for internal use, updating charts and graphs for management. It’s not really production. Rather, it’s the day-to-day keeping-track-of-your-work that many employees tend to deride as boring and no fun, largely because it doesn’t involve much brain power.
The truth is that almost all jobs (management level and up) include a component of each of these kinds of tasks. Most are heavy in two or three areas, which helps to limit decision fatigue. If you’re a sales rep, a typical day may be 85% production, 10% administrative, and 5% other. A sales manager (full disclosure, I was one for years) might have this breakdown: 40% people management, 35% process management, 15% production and 10% administrative. Even executives tend to concentrate their efforts — and their decision-making — in just a few areas, day-to-day.
But marketers? On any given day they may need to think about external factors (competition, brand, messaging), production (writing that copy), people management (coaxing design to update a landing page), process management (do we need to buy tech to automate this work? How much time/money would it save us?) and administrative (did the campaign deploy, are the data showing up in the analytics?). The mix shifts daily, even hourly. And when every one of these tasks feels like an urgent priority, half the battle can be simply deciding how to prioritize the work. It’s no wonder many marketers arrive at the end of the day feeling frazzled and like they’re giving an important project half the attention it deserves.
As the New York Times noted in an excellent summary of the research on decision fatigue, “you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain.”
Marketers. Can I get an Amen?