Making Smart Choices about Pushing Through

What makes you roll your eyes in exhaustion and want to quit?

Maybe it’s another pointless Zoom meeting. Or a report that goes into eye-bleeding detail. Or a repetitive exercise (like deleting all those emails you’ve been putting off.).

Your brain and body register this as fatigue: “the feeling of exhaustion from effortful tasks.” This drains our motivation and makes us want to take a break. It helps to know which kind you’re facing and what to do about it.

Different Types of Fatigue

Two show up in your brain.

  • Recoverable fatigue (RF) builds after a sustained effort. A short rest will reinvigorate you, so you can keep going.
  • Unrecoverable fatigue (UF) gradually increases over time with longer term attention and/or physical labor. It can’t be remedied by a break and requires recuperation. (Think of all those Olympic athletes …)

Understanding Fatigue

There’s some interesting research (for you and your people) on fatigue.

Here’s the most important question we ask: “Is it worth the effort?” This could be due to a reward (monetary or otherwise). It could be the wish to complete something. Or to reach a goal with others. If we’re motivated enough, a break allows us to continue answering “yes” to that question, get our second wind and keep going.

Know that anyone’s answer on whether or not to continue can change from moment to moment. The longer you keep at something, the more UF you begin to experience—despite taking short breaks when needed. That’s true even if the task has the same level of difficulty (as opposed to getting harder).

There is an inflection point for the shift. It happens when our view of “worth” changes. The incentive that spurred us on earlier is now devalued in our eyes and no longer works. Stopping becomes more appealing.

It’s also interesting to note that as our fatigue grows, so does our aversion to risk. Studies show that the more RF or UF people have, the more likely they are to choose the option that requires the least effort from them (versus the best choice given the situation).

Changing Your Approach to Fatigue

Now that you know this, try three approaches to create better outcomes when people (including yourself) are fatigued.

Decide “what would make this worth it?” Don’t gloss over this for yourself: make sure you pick something energizing.

Spend time understanding what motivates your people. Don’t guess. If it’s not clear, then ask. Most will appreciate your interest.

Know when it’s time to change this Over time—and fatigue—the rewards that initially incentivized us will lose their value. Be ready with Plan B and any others you may need.

Understand when you’re dealing with RF and UF Notice when you and everyone could benefit from a short break. In meetings, for example. Have people share their favorite vacation memory. Or an accomplishment they’re most proud of. Get a break with a boost of positivity, which allows everyone to relax then continue.

Also know when you are dealing with the truly depleted. It doesn’t matter where you are in the agenda. Call it a day so they can recuperate. (Nothing good will happen if you’re just beating the drum to rows of vacant-eyed galley slaves.)

I’m not Polly Anna-ish enough to think of fatigue as an opportunity. But it is a chance to be a leader who’s more in tune with yourself and those around you. Your awareness can be the start of something good.