Have you heard of the psychological concept of Decision Fatigue? That we get to the point where we can’t make any more decisions? This article is about a simple technique you could try, to free up more energy and focus for your writing or editing.
When I was young, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and men wore crimplene safari suits, meeting someone for coffee involved a choice between:
- a pot of tea OR
- a cappuccino in a cup and saucer.
Now think about the hot beverage board at your local cafe, the number of options in flavours, sizes, different kinds of milk.
An overabundance of Choice is the hallmark of modern western society. And if you’ve ever dithered over a minor decision, you already know that Choice can be a useful servant but a cruel master.
What does this have to do with writing and editing?
Every single time we make a choice about words as writer or editor, whether we are creating them or refining them, we are making a decision.
This is how I think of it (my terms are NOT scientific!)…
- Every one of those decisions about words needs a spark of decision-energy.
- Each one of us has only a certain amount of decision-energy voltage available at any given time.
- In a world bombarded with too much Choice, our stores of decision-energy are being steadily drained, often by rather stupid things.
- And then, if we are self-employed, or writing/editing in our spare time, we naturally have FLEXIBILITY (just another word for Choice), which means our decision-energy is further drained as we make a lot of other minor decisions about how to use our available time.
By the time we’ve sat down to write or edit, it’s a wonder we’ve got any decision-energy left at all.
I was on a conference panel with a fellow editor, Beth Battrick, who fascinated me with her personal story about this thing psychologists are calling Decision Fatigue.
And I’ve seen Decision Fatigue pop up again in an excellent article by Ruth Harris over at Anne R. Allen’s blog. Ruth gives examples of Decision Fatigue, from a child struggling to choose between too many toys through to impacts on the criminal justice system.
She also talks about the link between Decision Fatigue and two big problems for writers: Writer’s Block and Procrastination. She has multiple useful tips for ways to rein in the impact of Decision Fatigue in our writing careers, and I strongly recommend her article.
In my article, I want to zoom in more closely on one single issue (which Ruth also mentions): our weekly schedule.
You might love planning everything ahead. I prefer spontaneity – I’m a P on Myers-Briggs.
But there are some things Beth will mention below that perhaps none of us has thought about planning before. If we could get the type of benefits that Beth outlines below, would it be worth it to plan some of these tiny things?
The brief summary (TL;DR)
Beth talks about how she found ways to make a bunch of minor decisions about her schedule – such as when to start or stop, what to eat for lunch, when to exercise – in a clump, ahead of time, either at the beginning of the week, or the beginning of the day.
This protected her stores of decision-energy, and freed her to become more productive, more relaxed and happier.
Beth Battrick is a freelance copyeditor, proofreader and indexer based in Canberra, Australia. She cut her teeth editing legislation for the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, and then moved on to ANU Press for a taste of academia before pushing her canoe into the freelance stream. She predominantly edits and indexes academic non-fiction, and can be found at Teaspoon Consulting. She also blogs at thecutlerydrawer.com.
In my conversation with Beth below, you will notice that her discoveries initially apply most obviously to full-time freelance editors, and writers who write full-time – people who have their whole week at their disposal (sort of!).
But look closer: these tips can also be adapted if you are writing or editing around the edges of a full-time job, raising a family, or other commitments.
The principle of making a bunch of tiny decisions ahead of time has the potential to create more decision-energy and therefore productivity, whether the blocks of time being organised are large or small.
My conversation with Beth Battrick
1. Beth, what is decision fatigue? How did you discover the idea and realise it had something to do with your freelance work?
Decision fatigue is a concept in psychology that tries to explain why we struggle with making good decisions over a period of time. I knew it as a lived experience before I’d heard a name put to it!
To take an example from my own experience: I’ve been freelancing for several years, and I couldn’t work out why I found it so hard to exercise in the afternoons. If I exercised in the morning, then I could happily work all the way through to finishing time in the evening, so it wasn’t just a question of general fatigue. But if I tried to do things the other way around, I’d hit a wall at about four pm and just… not exercise! Not a great decision, by any metric.
I found it baffling, because while I worked an office job, I found time to exercise at lunch and to practise music in the mornings before work. Theoretically, I now had more time and more flexibility, so why was it so hard to make the time for these things?
I realised the answer lay in the structure of the day. When I had an office job, someone else had made the decisions regarding when to start, when to stop, when to have breaks, what to do and by what deadlines. As a freelancer, I’m in charge of all that! And while it sounds like minutiae, it’s still hundreds more decisions that need to be made about how to go about my work.
I’m a bit indecisive at the best of times, and I realised that after a day of making editing-based decisions and business-structure decisions, at four pm I just didn’t have the mental wherewithal to make the choice between working and exercising – so I’d take the default option, which is to keep working. And that is decision fatigue.
For me, the clear answer was to implement some structure into my days, and then into my weeks. That’s basically making a whole bunch of the more tedious decisions for the day in advance, so that you lighten the decision-making load for the rest of the day!
2. What was your attitude to your daily schedule before this?
Fluid! And draining. I loved the notion of the flexibility that freelancing offered – but I would get to the end of the day and feel uneasy about how little work I’d done, or, if I’d done a lot of work, I’d feel uneasy about neglecting other areas of my life.
I would try to plan out my day just by making a to-do list first thing in the morning. Usually after my morning coffee, which tends to make me over-optimistic.
So I would overestimate how much I could do – and how much I should do – and then feel frustrated and disappointed in myself when I inevitably couldn’t do it all.
3. What was easy about instituting a firm schedule? What was hard? Any tips for overcoming the hard parts?
The easiest part was the strict ‘no work after five pm’ and ‘no work on weekends’ rule. I’ve previously violated both of those rules, and the mental and physiological repercussions were so unpleasant as to remove any incentive to do so again! Ugh. So now I stick strictly to my finishing hours. And I’ve never had a client push back on this matter.
The hardest thing is an ongoing one: reminding myself that getting a bit of exercise every day is not self-indulgent or somehow cheating my client. I feel better when I exercise regularly, and my work not only improves but remains enjoyable. But, as I said above, if I reach mid-afternoon and I haven’t set aside a clear time to stop work and get some exercise, I simply won’t do it. I’ve used up my decision-making.
The most important thing is knowing yourself. Know when you have high energy levels and what things you’ll avoid doing if you don’t make a firm time to do them. I know that the more tired and stressed I am, the harder I find decision-making, and that’s when I’ll default to “oh, I’ll just keep working, nobody can say that’s the wrong choice”.
3. Your partner is supportive I gather. How does that affect making this work?
My partner is also a full-time freelancer, and we both work at home (in separate offices). His daily routine was fairly settled by the time I started freelancing, which made it very easy for me to pin my day to his structure.
We both work a little differently now – I tend to use my mornings for music and exercise, and work steadily through the afternoons, whereas he tends to work through the mornings and takes his reading/brain-clearing break early afternoon – but our start and finishing times are the same, and neither of us works weekends.
This has been incredibly good for me: we basically have agreed-upon start and stop times for our work, and we keep each other in check.
4. Any advice for others whose partners, families and friends might sabotage (accidentally or deliberately) their efforts to stick to a schedule?
There’s no doubt it can be really tricky, especially when you’re first trying to establish your working structure, and sometimes it does have to boil down to saying “I can’t do that then, I’m working.” Which is a lot more mature than shrieking “Don’t you KNOW I have a JOB?”
One method a friend uses is to set aside Thursday lunchtimes as her social time: anyone who wants to catch up during business hours hears “How about next Thursday?”
Partners and kids come with their own set of challenges: kids, in particular, can be unpredictable in their needs, and partners can have their own ideas about your new-found flexibility. (And if your partner expects you to do housework because ‘you’re at home all day’, you need to have a Stern Conversation.)
You may need to make it clear to your household that you are still working, even if it’s from home. I’ve heard of people replacing their home office door with a front door, complete with mail slot, to make it clear that this is their working space, but this may be a little extreme. (Or not.)
I don’t have kids, so I’m reluctant to give advice on that front. I will say, once you’ve done the hard work of establishing your structure and defended it with firmness, patience and understanding, people generally fall into the routine with you.
5. Have you noticed positive impacts on your productivity? Lifestyle? Happiness? Satisfaction?
Oh my stars yes. All three. Editing is at least 90% decision-making [Belinda’s note: AND SO IS WRITING.], so if I can dedicate the bulk of my cognitive energy to those decisions, and not to when I’m going to start work/stop work/have lunch/etc. that’s a win.
Setting up a structured week also means when I start work, I’m completely in it. I don’t have something nagging at the back of my mind about when I’m going to take care of those quotes I need to send out, because I know I’m going to take care of them at three pm! I’m more fully engaged in my work.
Similarly, when I finish for the day, I’m not dithering or revisiting that decision: I’m not worrying about whether I should have done just one more thing. Which means I’m more present in my non-work time, especially when I’m with my friends and family.
And I am definitely happier. I’m making space each week to take care of physiological needs (food, exercise, RSI-prevention breaks) and business needs (admin, record-keeping, quotes) as well as my work.
6. Any tips for how different personalities might tackle this?
As I said above, you have to know yourself. The first step might be that you need to make note of everything you do, every day, for a week. You will probably surprise yourself. “How long did I spend folding washing?” “How much time on Facebook?”
If you know you struggle to work in an untidy office, set yourself half an hour at some point in the day just for office tidying. If you hate making phone calls, get a list of all the ones you have to make and slot them in. If you love social media, give yourself a slot during the day to get into it – but know yourself. Are you going to fall down a time-sucking Facebook rabbit hole? Maybe leave it until the last half-hour of the day. Do you find it hard to make time for lunch? Pack your lunch the night before and have it waiting in the fridge, so all you have to do is go get it.
The second step is to be realistic. I know I’m not going to do more than five or six hours of work in a day. Even if I were to completely empty the day, I’ll hit my mental limit after five or six hours of focus. So I have no guilt in scheduling only five or six hours of work into my day. But I also know I’ll get stressed and anxious if I do less than five hours (with the occasional exception beyond my control). So I figure out where in the day I want to do those five or six hours, allowing room for the other things in the day I know are good for me.
It boils down to taking care of a lot of the more tedious decisions at one point in your week, so you can then devote the decision-making energies of each day to your work.
6. Anything else?
You’ll probably need a couple of goes at structuring your week before you get it right. Not just how you arrange things, but what tools you use to implement it. Some people love their bullet journals; others like spending some time each morning planning out that day. Some people work well with a to-do list, and others work best with a ‘done’ list. My personal preference is a week-at-a-glance diary, which I can check on Sunday nights and plan out the week to come.
Decision fatigue is an area that’s still being researched; whether you take it as hard psychological science or as a metaphor for how best to allocate your cognitive resources over the day, I think it’s a profoundly useful concept for helping you implement a sustainable working life.
Thanks Beth! I love these tips.
What do you think? Would you like to try planning minor aspects of your schedule, to see if it helps you write/edit more productively and happily? Maybe we could set one another a challenge!
Ruth Harris says
Beth and Belinda—Thanks for the shout! As research proves and writers know from experience, decision fatigue is insidious and robs us of our creativity. Important to recognize it when it’s happening and have ways to guard our energy. So glad you brought attention to the subject.
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks Ruth – appreciated your article, too! I’m still working at how to schedule my day to make the most of it, but I feel like I’m getting closer to the “time-blocking for different tasks” that works for me.
Decision fatigue sounds so much better than procrastination and this article has resonated with me more than the University’s messages of the importance of scheduling, especially for online students.
The reason I was drawn to online study and a future career as a freelance editor was the same. Flexibility. Or, as Beth called it, ‘the notion of the flexibility’. My goal was to study / work during the times my energy level is high (afternoon & evening) whilst also being able to meet family and other commitments.
However, my 1st semester of online study has been an eye-opener. As I didn’t think that I needed to schedule my study routine (certain that ‘older’ post graduates can do it by willpower alone), I kept finding myself in a feast and famine cycle. Study hard at the beginning of the week, turning into procrastination mid-week and the coming to a complete stop.
So, to help my current (and future editing self), I am going to try some of the methods Beth has mentioned. Such as no study/work on weekends, be realistic about how many hours I will study/work each day, educate my teenagers as to when it’s ‘study/work’ time, as opposed to ‘interrupt Mum’ time and last, but not least, find a tool that works for me.
Belinda Pollard says
Sounds like you are getting things figured out, Stephanie. Let us know how successful your attempts are! I’ve found the concept of “decision fatigue” helpful because it’s more of a carrot than a stick, and it also goes a little deeper than the rather toxic “good people are busybusybusy and organised” narrative that’s often put forth. Particularly, I wish you good luck with getting your kids not to interrupt you. 😉
I love this! I know decision fatigue from small, everyday things (I’m a vegetarian and often have few choices in restaurants around here. When presented with a veggie restaurant… I freeze), but I never thought about it as it related to planning work days. I work out first thing in the morning, and usually find that the first couple of days of the week go well (as I have a weekly to-do list that I tackle straight away), but then my planning runs out and things (other than the workout) get very disorganised and non-productive. I always thought I was just getting lazy as the week went on, but this explanation is rather more appealing…!
Belinda Pollard says
It really strikes a chord, doesn’t it? (I often check out a restaurant menu online before I go, so that my companions are not too annoyed by my dithering. In either case, I’ll have dinner-selection remorse when I see what everyone else gets…) I’ve started using a thing called the Daily Greatness Business Planner which was recommended by a friend. Don’t be put off by the rather grandiose title – it has helped quite a bit to align my work-day choices with a bigger plan. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂
B. J. Thompson says
I wouldn’t function/achieve To Do results without a schedule.
For me, it’s a simple cell phone note pad app where I delete each To Do as I go through the day.
I usually have it up for the week on the Sunday and then I tweak it throughout the week, as needed.
Due to health issues, not everything gets done as scheduled in a certain day. Some items get cut/pasted onto the next day, but by week’s end, the majority of my To Dos have been completed.
It seriously is the ONLY WAY I progress in my writing career.
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks BJ. Do you also plan ahead for the small items, like break times, what to eat, when to exercise, etc, as Beth mentioned? I’m thinking of trying that, although it’s not something that comes naturally to me.
Sue Jeffrey says
Very helpful. Decision fatigue is a biggie for me :).
Belinda Pollard says
Me too, Sue. I’ve tended not to want to be too regimented in my days… but planning ahead for some of these minor tasks might actually help.