How to Beat Decision Fatigue

We like to have options, and have more today than at any other point in history. Unfortunately this leads to unique challenges as well, such as decision fatigue and closely-related information overload. It turns out that out decision-making capacity is a limited resource that depletes as we use it throughout our day.

You make more decisions every day than you realize. Should I take a sip of water or keep eating? Should I take a break or push through a few more minutes of work? Should I work out or sleep in? Researchers at Cornell University found that on average people make 220+ food-related decisions every day. That’s only food-related decisions. When you take into account all the other facets of our daily life, it’s no wonder people get burnt out. 

Decision fatigue in my own life has crept up on me because 1) I like to be in control, and 2) It seems like if I’m actively making a decision, it’s more likely to be the ‘right’ one than if I don’t think about it. An Israeli study on the effect of taking breaks in parole cases makes me think I could be wrong. Cases heard at the beginning of the day and after breaks were much more likely to be approved than cases right before a break, showing that the judge’s later decisions were less about the actual outcome than about the judge’s decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue leads to two common outcomes:

  1. Act impulsively – instead of expending more energy thinking through the outcome
  2. Act passively – saving energy by not making a decision at all

There are several ways to combat the effects of decision fatigue. I use a few of these in my own life already and hope to implement more of them.

 

How to Beat Decision Fatigue

Create Habits

It’s no surprise that habits can be powerful tools in life. Tasks which are habits are easier and more consistent. The surprising part is that utilizing habits makes non-habit activities easier as well, because you have more available willpower to devote to other things. See my articles on creating specific habits here.

Limit Your Choices

Minimize – Decision fatigue is a one of the reasons people promote minimalist lifestyles. Having fewer possessions creates fewer opportunities to make decisions about those belongings over time.

Use binary – Only give yourself two options at a time. Are you going to wear dressy or casual? Long sleeves or short? Skirt or pants? Limiting the number of options at any one point makes these decisions easier to think about.

Only Look at the First Three Options – This is tough because when there are a lot of options we feel like we might miss something. However, research has found that customers are more satisfied at stores with limited selection. Is the chance that you might like a later option slightly more than the first three worth depleting your willpower?

Eat

Craving that sugar at the end of a hard day isn’t just about lacking the willpower to resist; your brain actually craves glucose to replenish itself! John Tierney says in this New York Times article,

[Dieters are] trapped in a nutritional catch-22:

1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.

2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.

In the Israeli parole board study, the prisoner’s chance of being approved jumped up after each meal break during the day. This is a good reminder to not make important decisions late in the day or on an empty stomach.




Get Enough Sleep

Since our brain replenishes itself overnight, getting enough sleep is very important for avoiding decision fatigue. Being tired is even in the name – decision fatigue. I go more in-depth on this issue in my article on getting enough sleep.

Front-Load Decisions

Sometimes making a decision now can save you from making one or more decisions in the future. I often do this with meal planning: I’ll plan our meals out for a whole week and then for 6 days of that week I don’t have to make that particular decision. I started doing this because I found that I was less stressed over dinner when I already had something in mind.

Another option is making one decision now which cuts down many future decisions. President Obama did this with his wardrobe:

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.

Make Big Decisions in the Morning

I’ve known for a while that my willpower is highest in the morning. I have to work out in the morning or it won’t happen! Willpower and decision-making power seem to come from the same resource pool, so it’s also a good idea to save important decisions for the morning. This may change how I arrange things in my day, such as saving meal planning for later on since the result is not as important. Decision fatigue researcher, Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, says,

The best decision makers are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.

Putting it into Practice

If you’re looking for more practical information about decision fatigue, I recommend this article by Stephen Roe. It’s long but goes into more ideas for combating decision fatigue.

Now it’s time to think about how decision fatigue affects other people. Does this conversation sound familiar?

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know; what do you want to do?”

Sometimes it is a gift to have someone else take charge. This is a good reminder to avoid placing responsibility back on the other person unless it is necessary. Using this information we can manage our own energy better and bless others by being considerate with our knowledge. What is one thing you can simplify today to avoid unnecessary decision-making?

 

2 comments

I love this, so many great reminders! Sometimes I get so exhausted when I have to make my own decisions AND make decisions for my partner and people at work. It’s so overwhelming! But knowing that a lot of my basic decisions – like a meal plan, a workout schedule, a night time routine – are already made helps a lot!

Thanks, Liz! You can also boost your brain power when you’re feeling depleted by having a snack or taking a nap.

Leave a Reply