Have you ever felt like “If I have to make one more decision today, my head will explode”? Or, have you had a particularly heavy decision-making day at work and ended up skipping the gym afterward? Chances are that the answer is yes. If that speaks directly to you, I’ve got some good news: you can stop beating up on yourself because it’s likely that this has nothing to do with you. Instead, you may be experiencing decision fatigue.
Is Decision Fatigue Real?
Yes, decision exhaustion is an actual thing. And it’s way more common than most of us would think. Although it may feel that it “just happens”, this mix of indecision and exhaustion is usually the result of something going on inside the brain. To help you understand and overcome that, I’ve gathered some reasons behind this increasingly common issue, along with a few tips and practical solutions that will help you avoid it.
Too Many Choices Can Lead to Choice Fatigue
“If you run after two hares, you catch neither.” - Proverb.
Thomas Saltsman, a graduate student in the University of Buffalo Department of Psychology explains that “People faced with more options than they can consider wanting to make a good decision, but feel they’re unable, according to the results of a new study. Despite the apparent opportunities presented by a lot of options, the need to choose creates a “paralyzing paradox.”
This happens because, as scientists have discovered, we have a daily supply of decision making energy, and every time we make a decision, resist temptation, or exert some self-control, we are draining this "tank". Therefore, each choice we make end up receiving less of our willpower, and even simple decisions can begin to feel like an annoyance.
So if you’re usually feeling confused or cranky by the end of the day, that’s probably because you’re running out of your decision making fuel, which leaves your brain with two options: to choose default mode and take the path of least resistance or to shut down and do nothing.
While choice fatigue is something that all of us will eventually experience, I’ll share some simple strategies that will help avoid experiencing it daily.
First Things First: Find Out What Aspects Of Your Life Are Needing a Decision “Detox”
Stop for a moment and think - Where in your life are you giving yourself too many options? Where are little decision battles depleting you? Walkthrough your day and identify all the places that you’re overwhelming your brain with too many choices, whether that’s related to your exercise, work routine, diet, or any other important area of your life.
Establish Your Non-negotiables
After evaluating, reflect, and decide which tasks, habits, projects, and hobbies matter most to you and therefore should be done no matter what.
For example, one of your non-negotiables might be a mini-review of twenty minutes at the end of the day to plan the next day so you complete the things that are most important to you. Or you may commit to exercising every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Then, no matter how busy you find yourself on these days, you’ll know what to do, and instead of feeling paralyzed by indecision.
Doing this will not only help you avoid decision fatigue but will also set a standard that will inspire you to be more focused and organized in your life.
Become Best Friends With Your Calendar
“If it's not scheduled, it's not real.” - Marie Forleo
When working to avoid decision fatigue, having non-negotiables is useful, but not enough. If you’re serious about directing your energy to meaningful decisions, you have to schedule your priorities. Scheduling reduces the chances of your brain getting distracted by other (less important) activities, leaving more space for presence, creative inspiration, and joy in each moment.
And, as mentioned before, willpower wears out with each decision, so we want to use it wisely. It may be best to schedule resistant work - whether it is a tough phone call, hard project, or another difficult task, early in the day, and trivial tasks in the evening when you’ll be too tired to waste time finding the “perfect” answer.
Don’t Be Afraid to Say “No”
You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage pleasantly, smilingly, and unapologetically – to say no to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger yes burning inside.” Stephen Covey
Give yourself permission to say “no” to activities and obligations that consume your time and energy without overthinking or feeling guilty for doing so. If you don’t want to have lunch with a friend-of-a-friend, politely turn it down. If you’re tired of replying to messages all day, say “no” to notifications.
And talking about notifications, let’s get to our last - but not least - advice on how to avoid decision fatigue.
This one is simple and even obvious, but not easy. The choice to engage with distractions that pull you away from whatever you are doing can be one of the main reasons why you are experiencing decision fatigue. (Looking at you, Instagram.) Choosing to look at your cell phone, browse social media, or glance at the television may be draining energy you could be applying to meaningful things. Remove these distractions and you’ll watch your engagement with the tasks at hand increase while your mental fatigue will reduce drastically.
If you’re interested in understanding more about decision fatigue and how to overcome it, here are a couple of great books and podcasts episodes that dig deeper into this theme:
- ‘Brain Wash - Detox Your Mind’ by David Perimutter - In this book, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Grain Brain and his physician son explore how modern culture threatens to rewire our brains and damage our health, offering a practical plan for healing.
- ‘Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength’ by Roy F. Baumesteir & John Tierney - This book has a whole chapter focused on decision fatigue and it’s entirely worth reading if you’re interested in better understanding the hidden forces that can sap your willpower.
- Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess - On the Episode 124 of this incredible Podcast hosted by Dr. Caroline Leaf, she talks about the causes of mental fatigue, and how you can reduce decision fatigue in your life. Dr. Oz Show - a Daytime Emmy Award-winning and featured health expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show for over five seasons - shares his daily routine and the strategies he uses to keep his mind sharp.
- Tiny Leaps, Big Changes - Episode 552: How to Combat Mental Fatigue This personal development podcast focuses on exploring the day-to-day behaviors we all engage in that determine the results we gain in our lives.