Beware of fatigue and its impact on your decisions

Fatigue and decision making

“Ram, oh no, you can’t use Ram as a name in these sentences.” My reaction was loud and strong as I corrected my 7th grader’s Hindi idioms exercise. Her notebook read, in Hindi, ‘Jhooth pakde jaane par, Ram ne apni aankhen chura li’ (meaning, as Ram’s lies were caught, he was ashamed). Not just one idiom, she had made a template for all idioms that meant being ashamed of. The sentences she had made were in series and each example followed the same template- Jooth Pakde Jaane par, Ram ne… (when his lies were caught, Ram… ). 

The idea of making a template, to use it for various idioms is a shortcut that my Hindi averse girl had adopted. Less thinking, same work. The problem was not with the template. The problem was with the name.  She chose a name that is easy to spell. But well, Ram and lies… You know how our brain reacts. 

We have a way to find shortcuts when we want to escape from hardship. This is how our brain is designed. There are two minds. One is slow and deliberate. The other one is quick and intuitive. Daniel Kahneman has  defined the functioning of the brain as System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. When a person is tired, distracted or stressed, they are more likely to revert to less rational ways of solving problems and less on deliberate thinking. Simply said, mental tiredness leads to poor decisions. 

Continuous hardship and mental tiredness leads to fatigue. And, this is our reality today. Fatigue is in and around us. It is not just due to illness but also due to boredom, a series of bad news, stress and anxiety. It is real and it is everywhere. It is in my city, in my house, on my workstation. It is in my neighbour’s house, my colleague’s home, my clients workplaces. It is everywhere. 

In an article, how affluent Indians became covid superspreaders in Mint lounge, blame to some extent is on fatigue and therefore poor decision making.  Response fatigue is real, says Anoop Amarnath, head of geriatric medicine at Manipal Hospitals, Bengaluru, and a member of the Karnataka government’s critical care support unit for covid-19. “It was a huge lifestyle change for people to stay locked in their homes, wearing masks, keeping physical distance and not meeting friends and family. People were waiting to meet and talk to each other. Man is a social animal and if you don’t let him socialise, fatigue is bound to set in,” he says. He adds that such fatigue played a significant part in the covid-19 peaks in September last year.

And, this mental fatigue, individual or as a community, leads to bad decisions and therefore to further tiredness. Managing a routine, a physical routine, as mentioned in the previous article, helps in finding a balance. In today’s Habits for Thinking, in addition to the routine, here is a template, almost like the Hindi Idiom template that helps in managing the fatigue. One can follow these at home, or as a team leader at workplaces. It can be practiced, taught, nurtured to save from bad decisions and breakdowns. 

1. The realist optimism- understanding the Stockdale Paradox

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” — Admiral Jim Stockdale.

The Stockdale paradox has been written about in Jim Collins’s bestselling book From Good to Great. Admiral Jim Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for eight years. Tortured over multiple times, living in uncertainty of whether he would survive to see his family again, Stockdale did everything he could to create conditions that would increase the numbers of prisoners who could survive unbroken. Collins read Stockdale’s memoir and found its grim details hard to bear, despite his knowledge that Stockdale’s later life was happy. Collins wondered, “If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he survive when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?” 

When he posed that question to the admiral, Stockdale answered: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Collins asked him about the personal characteristics of prisoners who did not make it out of the camps. “The optimists,” he replied. “Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart … This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

This became known as the Stockdale Paradox. To be a realistic optimist. To accept the reality and yet keep the faith to prevail in the end. Leaders demonstrate that with  acceptance of reality yet keeping up the hope.  

As a realist optimist leader, one would accept the changes in the reality but still keep the faith. One would not follow that all of this will be over by May 10th or May 30th, one will just believe in managing and seeing it through week by week. 

The Stockdale Paradox

2. The ability to listen 

My daughter’s school arranged for a meeting with parents to explain about the process of online exams. Since it is the first year for middle school to be taking online exams, parents, in videos, on switched-off mode, were waiting for a list of dos and don’ts. But wait, the meeting started with the school authority asking parents to share how they were feeling. A family has been suffering with covid and the parent suggested canceling the exam, a family has been worried about their child’s well being, a family has sent the child to stay with some other people for safety reasons. Different stories tumbled out of square tiles of the zoom screen. While it started with suggestions on canceling the exams, it turned out to be almost everyone in favour of the exam as it is a constructive way to keep children engaged at home. It was not that the school authority had concluded the decisions, in-fact, the school authorities were just listeners. The moderator only thanked each parent for sharing stories but as the zoom video tiles lit up one by one, the narrative of the group changed. The ability to listen to the pains and agonies of others is managing the fatigue too. Fatigue is impacting both parents and school authorities, but the leaders demonstrate the ability to listen and make others feel heard. It changes the energy level of the room. 

3. Nurturing a learning mindset 

A growth mindset, or a learner mindset is more resilient to failures and has the ability to come out of it step by step.  It believes that intelligence can be developed. It creates a desire to learn and therefore develops a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks and pick up learnings from their failures. It is important to build the culture of learning mindsets in homes and workplaces to face the challenges. In crisis, it starts with every morning to be treated as a fresh day to deal with. 

Like the 7th grader uses a template for sentence making, it is ok to make a template for fatigue handling. Your template could be on the lines of, ‘‘I manage fatigue by being a realistic optimist, by listening to feelings and emotions and by nurturing a learning mindset.” Fatigue is manageable. And yes, you can use whatever name you wish to, even Ram. 


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One thought on “Beware of fatigue and its impact on your decisions

  1. So well written ( as always ). Struck a chord with me today ! I needed to read this 🙂

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