Over the past year, I have settled into my first tenure track position, found my feet in a new town and new department, and I am still setting up a laboratory of my own. There are many fun things and many crazy things about this. Many of them I knew to expect: starting somewhere new is difficult, but it becomes fun when you start meeting wonderful people and making friends. Doing established techniques in a new place is always more, um, interesting than one expects, but when something (anything!) works, it’s a great feeling.
One of my favourite things has been buying shiny, brand new
toys equipment. I have hugged the crate that held the microscope, squealed with excitement over pipettors, and jumped up and down when one piece of equipment I’d been wanting for years came in*. I have even cheered over a box of empty bottles arriving.
What I did not expect was that ordering all the things would be so hard. Not the actual placing of orders, our administrative support is excellent, and that part** is smooth. And it isn’t the big decisions that take the biggest toll. The big ticket items are more specialized, there’s usually something I want in one version versus another, it’s been budgeted for, and it’s more a matter of negotiating on price. What I did not expect was that it was the hundreds of tiny little decisions that you never see in a lab that is already up and running, that kicked my butt. What kind of pens should we order, how many boxes? How many beakers in various sizes? Do we order from VWR or Fisher? Is it worth spending $100 more on something and getting it now or wait a month and save the money?
Add to this decisions about hiring a technician, undergraduate RAs, teaching, how to arrange my office, how to organize my house, trying to decide what techniques to troubleshoot first, not to mention trying to think about science, the inevitable outcome was me bursting into tears when considering the question of whether I should order lab tape 1” or 1.5” in width.
It turns out that decision fatigue is a real thing, a kind of cognitive or mental exhaustion. The term coined by the psychologists Roy Baumeister and popularized by John Tierney, to describe why people make worse decisions as the number of decisions in say, a day, increases.
Or, in my case, refusal to make real decisions. There was a lot of “I don’t need this now I’ll deal with it later”. Slides, for example. We still need to order slides.
This mental exhaustion was one part of how I felt about constant attention and decision making.The second part was anxiety: what happens if I make the wrong decision? What if I buy the wrong machine? Spend too much money? Buy the wrong part?
And what about renovations of the new lab? What if I fail to anticipate something that we really really need? What if we are unable to do an important technique next year (or in 5 years) because I make the wrong decision now?
These days, everything is easier, for a few key reasons
- There are fewer decisions to be made on a daily basis. We bought the pens, the lab is built, I’ve hired people, we have equipment and undergrads are troublshooting basic techniques. I still need to order those damn slides, but we have enough to get us through another month or so.
- Trust/delegation. I trust the technician. It took a little time (new people initially mean more attention), but now we both trust his judgement and he makes the call on gloves***, lab supplies et cetera, and will merely run his final numbers by me before submitting the order. No real decisions here! Plus he can address many of the minute-by-minute details that new people need when following protocols.
- I’ve already made mistakes. Things were used anyway, returned, or given away. But I learned that I can make mistakes and the world doesn’t end****. Because of this, I’ve learned:
- To let go of the small things. Which to choose? THAT one. Why? It’s shiny. What color lab chairs? Red. Why? Because I like them. Also because the tech liked them. At the end of the day these are not going to be the things that will matter in 10 years.
- Chocolate. No, really. Glucose apparently helps recovery from decision fatigue.
There are still days where I want to run out of the lab sobbing “I DON’T KNOOOOW!”, but now when it happens there are people around to ask “what do you think?”.
How to avoid the fatigue? I don’t know, and I can’t find anything other than “make fewer decisions” and that is not a real option. So for those of you who have done/are doing this, how do you deal with the constant barrage of decisions? Do we just need to get through until there are fewer decisions to made? Or do you have strategies for minimizing the mental numbness of decision fatigue?
For those who will do this: be aware. And stock up on chocolate*****. Forewarned is forearmed, right?
* This probably caused my then brand new technician to wonder what kind of crazy woman he was working with, for the split second before he joined in.
** As long as we follow the rules for ordering and don’t ask for ridiculous things.
*** Except the ones in my size.
**** Who knew?!
***** Or your glucose source of choice.