Decision Fatigue

It’s hard to wait for a hurricane. The constant awareness of danger inexorably approaching creates a slow burn of anxiety that wears on the body, not just the mind. It may well be that New York will be spared the sort of devastation that Irene is currently inflicting on the coastal regions of North Carolina and Virginia, but it’s impossible to know what sort of storm we’ll get until it’s already here. Meanwhile I can’t help noticing that the only other residents of my building who seem truly alarmed about what may be coming our way tomorrow are the superintendent, who experienced a major storm in Puerto Rico as a child, and a neighbor from Atlanta. The native New Yorkers seem unconcerned. As for me, having grown up in New Orleans and seen my city ravaged by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina almost exactly six years ago, I have a great deal of respect for the havoc a storm like this can wreak. Maybe you have to witness destruction like this with your own eyes to really grasp it. Even though I spent days glued to CNN in 2005 as New Orleans was flooding (a manmade disaster, by the way), it took returning to the city three months after the storm to fully understand the extent of the damage. Pictures of devastated buildings and even blocks cannot capture what it feels like to stand at the center of an intersection, looking down the street in every direction and finding not a single habitable dwelling as far as you can see. Or what it means to drive down in a U-Haul truck to salvage the contents of your parents’ house, only to realize that pretty much everything in a condition to be worth saving would have fit in the trunk of a car. Waiting for Irene is calling up these memories again; you don’t know what kind of storm you’re getting until it arrives.

Noting the physicality of these feelings reminds me of an article I wanted to blog about when I first read it in the August 17, 2011 issue of The New York Times Magazine, because it made me realize something about the physicality of translation work. “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” by John Tierney talks about a phenomenon I’d often experienced but never fully understood: Making decisions – like suffering anxiety – is physically as well as mentally taxing. Tierney explores the research in the area of what social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister dubbed “ego depletion,” in particular new studies that indicate that we have only a finite capacity for decision-making, and that once this particular store of energy is depleted, we begin to choose randomly, wildly, exhaustedly, or else find ways to put off making decisions. This is why savvy car dealers will barrage buyers with a large array of unimportant choices in the early phases of the car-purchase transaction (what color upholstery? cup holders?) so that, twenty or thirty minutes later, the exhausted buyers will be more likely to allow themselves to be steered towards more expensive optional features. When exhausted, we tend to default to whatever is recommended to us. Fortunately there is a surprisingly simple way to recharge the depleted brain: add glucose. It really seems to be the case that taking a short break from the mental activity – and eating something – can help put us back in a position to think and choose to the best of our abilities.

Now think about what the translator’s work actually consists of. The sort of writing we do as translators involves constantly choosing among lists of synonyms and alternative phrasings. Translators tend to be like walking thesauri, highly conscious that language comes sorted into neat little bundles of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. Say “suddenly” to a translator, and she will immediately be able to shoot back the alternates “all at once,” “abruptly” and “unexpectedly.” A translator, more than writers of other sorts, is someone who sits at a desk choosing between alternatives all day long. And so it makes sense that translators will regularly hit the wall in their day-to-day work. And what Tierney’s article teaches us is what not to do when this occurs: Don’t just try to muscle through the exhaustion, waiting for your second wind to arrive. Much better is to respect the chemistry of your brain and body and do something that will actually improve your ability to work effectively: Step away from your desk for a few minutes, and while you’re at it, have a snack.

I wish everyone who is reading this a safe weekend. May Irene come gently.

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  1. A subject close to my heart. It has also been observed that after 24hrs of being awake judgement and reaction time is equivalently affected as if legally drunk. This means that many operations are performed by drunk surgeons. When I was a resident, I always kept a piece of a cookie or brownie or some such for when I would be called in the middle of the night to make a management decision regarding a patient. I instinctively replenished my blood glucose when faced with the thousandth decision of the day. Awareness of the forces that affect us is GOOD.

  2. The stress of decision-making must be so much greater when lives are at stake. It must take a great capacity for equanimity to endure having this sort of responsibility day after day.

  3. Donald Brown says:

    I think I have a very low store of decision-making ability in the first place: I can decide to have a snack, but not necessarily decide to get back to work!

    I think it’s hard for lifetime East Coasters like me to get into the jitters pre-major weather events. In the Tristate area where I’m from nothing much happens; that’s changing with the new configurations of global weather and alterations in the oceans, etc., but it will take something major to convince us Midatlantics that we need to get anxious. When I heard local New Haveners recalling Gloria in 1985 I realized that there was impact up here (not so, down in DE) and thought, “ok, maybe CT will get it this time too.” Mainly though I just expected power loss which is what the state mainly got (though not me).

    I’m glad NYC mainly squeaked by too. But even a shot of flooded streets in Soho shows something almost unthinkable by my old expectations.

    “Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet” seems wise advice.

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