Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

Are workplace tools making decision fatigue worse?


Published on June 25, 2019

A doctor begins her day with a series of challenging patients. The first few have a mix of contradictory symptoms. Another hasn’t been responding to treatment. As the day wears on, the doctor begins to default to safer, easier solutions—perhaps without even noticing it.

By the afternoon, she’s jumping to diagnoses more quickly, asking fewer follow-up questions, and in some cases, writing unnecessary prescriptions.

Such is the power of decision fatigue, according to a report in The Journal of the American Medical Association. When people have to make a sequence of tricky, demanding decisions, they slowly lose their decision-making willpower. It’s the same reason why judges tend to deny parole more often as the day wears on. Having used much of their decision-making stamina, they start leaning toward the less risky, default choice.

But decision fatigue doesn’t just happen in high-stakes industries like medicine and law. It turns out there’s a sneakier version that’s even more common, just as draining, and increasingly, much harder to avoid.

Workplace tools force us to make hundreds of micro-decisions

This new kind of decision fatigue comes from all the tools we use (like email, chat apps, smartphones, and enterprise software) and the content we create (like files, folders, and documents). Thanks to the explosion of mobile gadgets and workplace software, we’re getting more alerts and notifications than ever before. According to Bain & Company, executives received about 4,000 communications per year in the ’80s. In the 2010s, that number is well over 30,000.

Every time you get an alert, you make a micro-decision: read or ignore, act or delay, stay focused or shift your attention.

Rank-and-file workers aren’t immune. Today, we receive around 60 phone notifications per day. We send and receive around 140 emails. And that’s not to mention the hundreds of alerts that come from chat apps and project management software. Some of these alerts are key to our job, but many are trivial—requests to complete low-priority tasks, lists of irrelevant information, and outright distractions. If these numbers sound high to you, it’s probably because you barely notice just how many times this happens in a given work day. But every time you get an alert, you make a micro-decision: read or ignore, act or delay, stay focused or shift your attention.

“You don’t realize all the decisions you make all day,” says Timo Mertens, a product manager at Dropbox. “Anybody can ping you very informally. It’s gotten harder to make the decisions that only you can make or you have to make. And I think it’s getting worse.”

What’s so bad about taking a second to check a notification or email? First, these alerts destroy your flow state in an instant. According to a study from the University of California, Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to work after a distraction. If your job requires any level of sustained concentration, alerts like these chew up hours of your time.

But the problem can become deeper, and more insidious. Suppose you hear that email chime or text ping while you’re coding, writing, or designing. You resist the urge to check the message. You’ve maintained your flow state, but at a high cost. When we know we have an unread notification, psychologists say our brain releases a stress hormone called cortisol, which increases our heart rate and tightens our muscles. The hormone lingers until we finally check the alert, meaning we constantly have to choose between staying focused and stressed, or willfully distracting ourselves to feel calm again.

This is also why turning on “do not disturb” features can only help so much. Even if we’ve shut out all the distractions for a fixed period of time, we know we’ve got an avalanche of alerts building up in the background, just waiting for us to flip the notifications back on.

In part, this phenomenon comes from human evolution. We’ve been wired to keep social tabs on other people—to stay alert for threats, to keep tabs on changes to the social order around us. Centuries ago, understanding these social cues could mean the difference between safety and harm (is your new neighbor a friend or enemy?). Decades ago, social updates gave us a way to keep track of occasional changes in our jobs or communities. Today? Thanks to the internet and our constant state of connection, a new notification is more likely to be a cat GIF than a tornado warning or family emergency. But the fact that it could be urgent means you feel you must check all 60 pings and 140 emails right away.

Disorganized content compounds the issue

Then comes the content part. Suppose you do choose to read your latest notification. It’s a simple request for budget information on an upcoming campaign. You know the number’s somewhere: but where exactly? Is it sitting in your email? A shared doc? A team folder? A chat message? An enterprise app? Some note on your phone? The process of finding the info becomes a decision tree unto itself as you decide where to look, for how long, and in what order.

You’d think this kind of searching would have gotten easier since 2001, when an IDC report found we spend 2.5 hours per day searching for info like this. But most recent studies suggest it’s only improved a little. McKinsey estimated it was still taking up 19% of our day in 2012. And in 2017, another IDC study found that “80:20 rule” still exists when it comes to finding, organizing, and preparing data (i.e. we spend 80% of the time simply getting data in a place where we can actually do the meaningful analysis). The common theme: technology hasn’t helped solve this problem as much as we’ve hoped. And the avalanche of tech that’s supposed to be helping might just be making things worse.

We often don’t respect the power all this new tech has

The volume, power, and scalability of our tools has increased dramatically, but as humans, we’ve been slower to fully appreciate their impact. We still treat one-off requests like we’re walking up to someone in a hallway. When we need someone’s approval or feedback, we use a whole fleet of tools to get what we need: a chat message, email, comment, text, request form, and more. Worse, we don’t always stop to consider that half of these might affect a dozen additional people—not just the person we’re trying to reach.

And then there’s the way we think about content. “The file and folder structure as a whole made a lot of sense when documents and software were becoming a thing,” says Andrea Kimball, a product manager at Dropbox. “That’s how you organize paper documents. File them and stack. That doesn't really meet the bar now, now that we’ve moved past paper.” Trying to corral and sort files might be faster digitally than physically, but it’s also easier to create an even bigger mess, with thousands of documents strewn across our hard drives and among various cloud services.

That means some of the tools you rely on every day not only don’t solve decision fatigue—they exacerbate it. “When it all kind of comes at you and it’s not being distilled in any way, everything is isolated in one tool or another and I have to triage all that,” says Andrea. “It can be very overwhelming. I have to be my own wall of defense.” The tools that were meant to save us have replaced one kind of inefficient search and decision-making for another.

Imagining a future workplace with fewer decisions

It’s tempting to say we just need to roll back all this tech a bit. If we could all choose one app for each job, one cloud for all our content, and one type of notification that’s worth sending to colleagues, maybe we could get most of our time (and sanity) back. But the reality is all these tools and files aren’t going anywhere. We can’t put the tech genie back in the bottle. People use all these tools for a reason, even if they come with a lot of unintended side effects.

Instead of having all these tools fight for your attention, they can come and go gracefully, when you need them or when they’re relevant.

Instead, what if we found new ways to make our technology help solve the very problem it created? To help us prioritize, to lighten our growing decision fatigue burden?

It’s this sort of solution Timo spends a lot of time thinking about. “Maybe not all the notifications I’ve received this morning are important. Maybe only those two really matter right now, and maybe some kind of machine intelligence is shielding me more proactively by looking at who the most important people are at this moment, what’s the most important content right now, what are my priorities overall, today. Maybe there’s a layer of prioritization in between that Dropbox could provide.”

In this vision, instead of having all these tools fight for your attention, they can come and go gracefully, when you need them or when they’re relevant, whether it be to support a task today, or help set longer term goals. “We can use machine learning in order to predict what users might need, and surface that at the top,” says Andrea. Several of these solutions are still a ways off—at least in the grand vision expressed by Timo and Andrea. But a few steps could come much sooner.

Here, context will be huge. This doesn’t mean only using one tool or app, but it likely means bringing those tools together into the same space. “Creating one space where this collaboration happens makes the act of deciding a little easier,” said Andrea. “You don’t have this heavy overhead of ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘Where’s all this information?’ because now everything has context.”

Ultimately, to solve these problems, we need to keep a close eye on decision fatigue. If we’re just spinning out yet another app, primed to make us answer another 20 questions per day, we need to take a hard look at whether the benefit is worth the cost. But if the tech can limit our decision-making burden by taking on some of the prioritization, maybe—for once—the tech can reach its potential and the rest of us can finally get back to work.

See how the new Dropbox takes the first few steps at solving these problems→