Decision Fatigue – What it is and How to Avoid it

Feb 21, 2023 | Aging Successfully, Motivation

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Woman with thought bubbles suffering from decision fatigueI have a twofer for your consideration today. How about avoiding a negative and improving your life? Interested? Today I am talking about Decision Fatigue.

Making decisions, even small, seemingly harmless ones, can wear us down over time. Every day we must decide how to spend every waking minute — what we eat and wear, what we work on, and what we do with our spare time. It is said that by bedtime, the average person has made 35,000 decisions.

Every decision requires time and energy and depletes our willpower.

Solid or stripes? Flats or heels? Tall or Grande? Latte or drip? Soy or 2 percent milk? Almond milk? Before you’ve taken your first sip of coffee, the decisions have mounted. But let that number sink in: the average adult makes 35,000 decisions a day. 

What is decision fatigue?

The term “Decision Fatigue” was first coined by social psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister. It simply means the more decisions we make, the more difficult making our next decision becomes. Baumeister discovered that humans have a finite amount of daily willpower that wears away as we make decisions.

Think of it this way. Our decision-making power source is like our cell phone battery. We start out the day with 100%, but as the day goes on and decisions are made, our mental charge depletes. You are a big phone, and you are being called upon to navigate and render. Your apps are running in the background, which is all taking you down.

Decision fatigue is different from physical fatigue. You’re not consciously aware of being tired but low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually, it looks for shortcuts -or relief. This may cause you to become reckless in your decision-making, acting impulsively instead of thinking things through. 

Decision fatigue occurs when decision-making becomes increasingly difficult, leading to mental and emotional strain. And it can happen more often than you might think.

Deciding everything from which pair of socks to wear to which candidate to hire to what’s for dinner is cumulatively exhausting.

Each decision – no matter how small – requires time and energy. Decision fatigue doesn’t just occur after big decisions. Even a series of small decisions can add up to decision fatigue. 

What are the symptoms of decision fatigue?

Have you ever reached the end of a busy day and felt like your brain was too fried to decide what to eat? Instead of going to the grocery store and picking up some vegetables to cook, you head for the fast-food drive-through. (Little did you realize that even more decisions are waiting there: Which Combo Meal? Fries? What drink? You’ve just signed up for even more decisions!).

Decision fatigue carries with it some symptoms, such as tiredness and crankiness. You might find yourself engaging in behaviors such as:

  • Impulsivity, especially impulsive buying
  • Difficulty in making trade-offs: Decisions between two outcomes that each have pros and cons
  • Procrastination and other avoidance behaviors

This happens because your brain is worn down, and you’re stressed. Decision fatigue can also make you easily agitated, and it can make you cross. Or consumed with remorse or second-guessing. Not good, those outcomes.

They don’t call those candy and other novelties racks by the cash register “Impulse Racks” for nothing, do they? Retailers are very much aware of this phenomenon.

Let’s shift into solution.

Let’s shift to solution. (Y’all know that is where I like to live!).  Let’s talk about circumventing that fatigue with simple changes and get some good outcomes.

Our overarching goal, the intent here, is to eliminate as many small decisions as you can to save your energy for big decisions.

A lot is written on the subject, and I collected some ideas for you to consider. Most of these I have transitioned into doing, and they work for me. The point is to consider this and try some things to find out what improves our lives.

  1.   Make fewer decisions.

The best way to reduce decision fatigue is to reduce the number of decisions you have to make in a given day. Look for ways to streamline your choices. Avoid random decision-making by using lists throughout your day. To-do lists keep us on track. Shopping lists help us avoid walking up and down grocery aisles trying to decide what to buy.

Plan your meals of the night or the week or fall into a routine that you like and is predictable. Taco Tuesday? A friend and her husband plan on a simple sauteed salmon every Saturday night, and they vary the side dish. What vegetable, asparagus? Salad? Wine?

You know, many of us already do some of the things I am covering today.

Find ways to automate certain decisions, such as signing up for automatic bill pay for the regular bills. There is merit in the saying, “Set it and forget it.”

Instead of thinking through which route to take when driving somewhere, use a GPS to help you navigate where you need to go. Set it and forget it. Make fewer decisions. Save up for the big stuff, what really matters.

  1.   Limit your options.

Having too many choices will stress you out. You become mired in your decision-making and start second-guessing yourself. This often happens when we make purchases and are faced with endless options and alternatives. Our decision fatigue is heightened by our desire to “shop around” and get the best deal. It all takes up so much energy and overloads the brain.

Try paring down your options so you have a limited number of choices. Often, the benefit of spending a great deal of time investigating a wide range of choices is negligible — you might save a few dollars, but you’ll feel anxious and overwhelmed.

I once had a boyfriend who was moving and needed a new tv. The big game was coming  up. He bought it at a big box store. All was well for Game Day. Except not in his world, it seemed. He proceeded to comb ads and drove to multiple stores to make sure he got the best deal. (He could always return the one he’d bought, right?). Instead of feeling accomplished or enjoying his new purchase, he ran himself ragged, wasted time, and operated out of fear and not satisfaction. Even if it was perverse satisfaction, look at all the time wasted, and the angst carried. Let’s simply enjoy, shall we?

If he had limited his choices, even to three stores that would surely have the features that he wanted, he would not have had to spend too much time wading through decisions and locations. Limiting your options is a good way to avoid decision fatigue.

  1.   Reserve the morning for the most important decisions.

In the morning, you’re refreshed and energized. If you need to make a difficult decision, do so when you’ve had your coffee and breakfast (don’t make decisions ‘hangry’) and your head is clear.

Researchers have found that the time of day impacts our judgment and our ability to make the best decisions. It might seem to make sense that morning people make their best decisions in the morning and night owls make their best decisions at night, but researchers have found this just isn’t so. For most of us, the best time of day is in the morning, when we make accurate and thoughtful decisions. By afternoon, most people hit a plateau. And as the day wears on and decision fatigue sets in, we start making riskier snap decisions.

Schedule resistant work early. Our so-called willpower wears out with each decision, so use it wisely. Many people think hard and resistant are synonyms, but not so. Solving a computer glitch might be hard, and paying bills might be easy, but if you love computer work yet dread the unopened envelopes on your desk, schedule the bills (that which you resist) first. Me, I can freely communicate with anyone by phone, but I will avoid negotiating with my phone or internet provider; better do that first. Yasss, while I am feeling strong and frisky! Then I can coast awhile on my big “Win”, or knowing that I’d worked on whatever was hard or to which I was resistant first.

  1. Don’t make decisions that you don’t have to – delegate.

An important distinction here: You can delegate decisions the same way you delegate tasks. By giving responsibility for decision-making to others, you reduce the number of decisions on your plate.

At work, divvy up tasks and let co-workers make some decisions. What do you think that will do for your management style and popularity, as opposed to the drag and responsibility to micromanage?

Really give this some thought. Truly consider your responsibilities in your home life, work, and elsewhere.  Are there obligations you can delegate to someone else? You can stop micromanaging those around you and have confidence that others will do their part.

Parents can delegate certain things to children. Your kids can also make some decisions (EX: what  new show to start binge-watching as a family and what activities they want to do next weekend). There are times when We can delegate to friends and family. This could be as simple as asking a friend asking the person you’re meeting up with to pick the restaurant for dinner.

Revel in the relief that you don’t run the show, and focus on creating a good time in whatever is decided. Quality. Enjoyment.

  1. Develop daily routines. Put the less-important tasks on autopilot.

Again, we probably are employing some of this already. Establish daily routines that minimize and simplify your choices. By having firm habits and a strict routine, you put certain decisions on autopilot.

It might sound boring, but try sticking to the same breakfast each morning. Get up at the same time, and exercise at the same time. Creating routines will allow you to move throughout your day without making a decision about everything that you do.

Have a nighttime routine, as in develop one! Researchers have cautioned us against limiting our screens right before retiring, we are familiar with this. What is your routine? I read a totally – unrelated – to – anything – else – I – gotta – think – about book before sleeping. It helps me to relax and detach.

Set a wake-up time and stick with it. Instead of debating whether you should work out or not, have a routine that establishes what days and at what times you exercise.

Eat a variation of the same healthy breakfast every morning. For example, do you like oatmeal? Vary the topics: banana. Berries. Cinnamon. But it’s oatmeal, and you know exactly how long it will take to prepare it, and you like it! Start out your day with a WIN.

Stop trying on ten different outfits in the morning. Instead of agonizing over what to wear every morning, have established outfits that you rotate each week or a limited group of components to mix and match. Many successful people have a handful of go-to outfits. President Barack Obama talked about wearing only gray or blue suits while in office, so he didn’t have to give too much thought to what he would wear. Other presidents have mentioned the same. (Hey, they do vary the ties!).

Steve Jobs was known for his black turtlenecks and jeans, and Mark Zuckerberg sports his hoodie. You can make it a routine whatever your preferences, clothes or otherwise. Doing all this will help you waste less time and create consistency in your life, so you know exactly what comes next without much thought. It will also help you conserve your willpower and give you self-control.

I was in a Toastmasters Club with a lady who wore the same blue dress for our Monday meetings, aka her ‘Monday Dress’. She even introduced it as such. I never saw her except on Mondays, but I can tell you that years later, I still remember her in my mind’s eye as looking good in her blue sleeveless frock.  

Even if you don’t have a Monday or a Gray/Blue suit volley going, you could pick out your clothes the night before. That way, you don’t have to try on several outfits and use all of your energy before the day gets started.

While you’re at it, if you’re heading to the office, you can do the same thing with your lunch—pack it the night before. Pack a simple lunch every day.

I did this, and it worked. While an employee in a call center, I had a 30-minute lunch. I’d pack a sandwich and draw from a bowl of apples that I replenished at my workstation every Monday. I’d have my sandwich, my fruit, and then…. I’d build a cup of yogurt over some berries and top it with a sprinkle of granola to create my sweet, my dessert. I was the envy of cubicle-land! Passersby would actually comment, “Hey, a parfait!”.

I “won” at lunch every workday. I expended very little mental energy planning and packing and enjoyed my treat!

The more tasks that are low excitement, like ordering groceries or dumping a Monday bag of apples in a basket on my desk – the more that can be taken off my plate and fully automated, the better. I then have the energy and the brain power for things that are real decisions I need to make.

  1. Change your beliefs about decision-making.

I put this notion last, but it could very well have been first: We can change what we think about decision-making.

Some scientists believe that decision fatigue affects those who believe that exercising willpower is exhausting, yet we must strive to maintain it. While there may be some cultural reasons why this belief is prevalent in our Western society, as individuals, you and I can change our beliefs surrounding decisions. 

Instead of viewing the decision-making process as exhausting, learn to find joy in making decisions. Power, even.

Part of why decisions may feel like so much work is the responsibility that goes along with them. Try sharing that responsibility by engaging in shared decision-making — even if that just means asking your partner for input about what to eat that night. By changing our pattern of beliefs around what it means to make decisions, we can start to give decisions less power to exhaust us. 

There are plenty of ways to prevent decision fatigue from occurring. We can combat decision fatigue by minimizing the number of small decisions we make in a day and changing our beliefs around making decisions.

Whether assisting with healthcare navigation, patient advocacy, or conversations in aging, it’s easy to become encumbered, even overwhelmed, with decisions. Diminishing mental clutter is one way I help folks obtain clarity, ease and solution. Want to work with me? Schedule your Complimentary Consultation today. 919.628.4428