Tempted to work extended hours without taking breaks? Inclined to skip lunch? It is wonderful to recognise that work goals and deadlines are serious and important enough to perhaps warrant personal self-sacrifice. However, when we work long hours, we overlook our own physical and mental needs for rest, food and drink. As a result, our professional objectivity and critical thinking are negatively affected. Our brains need glucose and rest to function properly. Numerous studies demonstrate time and again how our thinking deteriorates, suffers and struggles without this basic care.
A study I came across recently clearly shows how the decision-making capacity of well-seasoned and experienced professionals was negatively affected as time progressed from a break in work. These professionals were more likely to render critical decisions that deviated from the status quo at the beginning of a work session: at the start of the day or just returning from a food break. They were also more likely to render decisions that required less critical thinking towards the end of a work session. The professionals studied were judges, although in a similar context, it could easily be one of us.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, and is titled “Extraneous factors in judicial decisions”, by Shai Danziger, et al. I came across it when I was reading a book about decision-making processes by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). I decided to cite the original study in the PNAS journal so that I could better understand it. This study consisted of 1,112 rulings in 50 days over a 10-month period by Jewish-Israeli judges. The parole judges were more likely to grant a prisoner’s request for parole if that judge reviewed the case right at the beginning of a “decision session” (or work session): at the beginning of the day or right after a food break. The prisoners who had their cases reviewed at the end of a decision session were more likely to have their parole request denied. The researchers proved this to be true after testing for the effects of many other variables that might have influenced the parole judges’ rulings. The single most significant variable that influenced the likelihood of a prisoner being granted parole was the ordinal position of the review of their case with respect to the beginning of a decision session. It was simply unlucky for those prisoners who had their cases reviewed later in work sessions as they were more likely to have their parole denied, regardless of their offenses, etc.
The authors of the paper say it best: “our findings add to the literature that documents how experts are not immune to the influence of extraneous irrelevant information.” They go on to highlight that their findings are consistent with “previous research demonstrating the effects of a short rest, positive mood, and glucose on mental resource replenishment.” Kahneman’s book develops these phenomena further.
If it is true that our judgement and critical thinking suffer as we progress through our work sessions, how can we use this information so that our work, what we produce and who we affect is not adversely impacted? How can we plug that variable into the work equation?
Can we notice when our mental resources have deteriorated to the point that the need for food, rest or other is winning over quality of critical thought? Are we able to check-in with ourselves and see if we become fidgety, impatient, annoyed, more direct, less empathetic, less interested or other? Is it possible for us to notice the feeling of rejuvenation and recognise when fatigue moves in?
If it is not feasible to schedule a break (as the study with the parole judges shows: even with regular breaks, our decision-making is impacted with time) then can we order our work to reflect the natural tendency of our energy levels to wane? At the very least, by being aware of our internal physical processes and needs we are better equipped to make more deliberate and well-informed choices. We can also simultaneously produce high-quality work and maintain healthy functioning.
Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 6889-6892.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Click here to follow a line to access a copy of the article in the PNAS journal
Blogging about mental health issues for personal and professional development. All material is authored by Cori Lambert unless explicitly stated otherwise. Authentic Consulting and Counselling is located in West Perth, Greater Perth Area.