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, we’ve got some good news: you can stop beating yourself up because it's likely that this has nothing to do with you. Instead, you may be experiencing decision fatigue.
In this lesson, we’ll cover what decision fatigue is, the common side effects, and how you can avoid it altogether.
What is decision fatigue?
Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long period of decision-making. Essentially, the more decisions a person has to make over a period of time, the more their mental energy is sapped, and their ability to make good, well-informed decisions is impaired.
Decision fatigue can happen when a person has to make many decisions in a short period of time or when they have to make decisions that require a lot of mental effort. This can be particularly challenging for people in high-stress or high-pressure jobs or for people who have to make a lot of decisions every day.
When someone is experiencing decision fatigue, they may feel mentally exhausted or overwhelmed and may struggle to make even simple decisions. This can lead to poor decision-making, procrastination, or avoiding making decisions altogether.
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 tend to want as many options as possible because they believe a large selection will maximize their chances of finding the best fit. But when it comes time to actually make a decision from all of these options, people can become paralyzed.”
Thomas calls this the "paralyzing paradox," in which too many options can cause people to avoid making choices altogether.
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 ends up receiving less of our willpower, and even simple decisions can begin to feel like an annoyance.
So if you're usually feeling confused, cranky, or have brain fog 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. Many of us will start suffering from decision avoidance because of these feelings, which leads to work and tasks piling up.
While choice fatigue is something that all of us will eventually experience, we’ll share some simple strategies that will help you avoid experiencing it daily.
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Signs of decision fatigue
So, how do you know if you have decision fatigue? Let's take a look at the common signs:
- Procrastination: You may find yourself putting off decisions or tasks that require a lot of mental effort, whether you need to make major decisions or minor ones.
- Impulsive decisions: Ironically, one of the most common signs of decision fatigue is making a multitude of hasty impulse decisions in a short amount of time. You may find yourself impulse buying clothes online or overloading your cart with items while you are grocery shopping.
- Irritability: You may feel more easily annoyed or frustrated when faced with decisions, even relatively minor decisions, as you struggle to deal with your mental overload. You may feel worse as the day progresses.
- Poor decision-making: Decision fatigue can impact your decision-making skills in a number of areas. You may make poorer decisions than you would normally, as you become more likely to take shortcuts or overlook important details.
- Mental exhaustion: There are physical and psychological effects to decision fatigue. You may feel mentally exhausted or drained, even if you have not engaged in physically demanding work. You may find yourself making poor choices in order to feel better, like eating junk food or smoking.
- Lack of motivation: You may feel less motivated or enthusiastic about your work, even if it is work that you normally enjoy. You might try to put off doing something, focus on less urgent tasks, procrastinate, and exhibit other avoidance behaviors in response.
Why is it important to prevent decision fatigue?
Managing decision fatigue isn't easy, although it can be done. There are a few benefits to overcoming decision fatigue, including:
Decision-making is a cognitive process that requires our brains to process information, weigh different options, and come to a conclusion. When we experience decision fatigue, our cognitive resources are depleted, making it harder for us to make high-quality, important decisions. If you can prevent decision fatigue, then you will be able to maintain your cognitive resources and make well-informed decisions based on the information at hand. This can lead to better outcomes in various areas of our lives, from personal finance to career choices.
Reduced stress and anxiety
Decision fatigue can be a significant source of stress and anxiety. When we are faced with too many decisions or complex decisions that require a lot of mental effort, it can be overwhelming and exhausting. This can lead to feelings of stress and anxiety, which can have negative effects on our mental and physical health. By preventing decision fatigue, we can reduce the mental burden on our brains, which can help us feel more calm and focused.
One of the well-known effects of decision fatigue is procrastination and other decision avoidance behaviors. When you are fatigued, you may not have the mental energy to make decisions, which can lead to delays and missed opportunities. By preventing decision fatigue, we can maintain our focus and productivity, make good decisions with more clarity, and accomplish more in less time. This can be particularly important in high-pressure or time-sensitive environments, such as the workplace.
Making decisions requires mental effort, and when we are fatigued, we may have less willpower to resist temptation or make healthy choices. By reducing decision fatigue, we can improve our self-control and make better choices in other areas of our lives.
How to avoid decision fatigue
The good news is that you can overcome decision fatigue with practice and tools that can guide you through the decision-making process.
First things first: Find out what aspects of your life need 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? Walk through your day and identify all the places where 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
Again this may seem obvious, but one of the best tactics for dealing with decision fatigue is to prioritize the most important decisions you need to make first. You can use a decision matrix to help you categorize your decisions based on importance and urgency. When you view all of your decisions in a set order, it becomes easier to make decisions.
After evaluating, reflecting, and deciding which tasks, habits, projects, and hobbies matter most to you, you can get a clear view of the things that 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 these days, you'll know what to do 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 reduces drastically.
Limit your options
The more options you have, the more difficult it is to make a decision. Try to limit your choices to a few viable options, or even just two, when possible. At some point, you have to stop doing research and whittle your options down to a shortlist. Start wide and then narrow your choices down immediately.
Taking short breaks throughout the day can help you recharge and reset your decision-making abilities. Go for a walk, practice mindfulness, or do something that helps you relax and refocus when you feel overwhelmed.
Automate routine decisions
Automating repetitive or routine decisions can help you conserve mental energy for more critical decisions. For example, you can set up automatic bill payments or try your hand at meal planning so you don't need to make decisions about what to eat.
If you have a team or support system, consider delegating some decision-making to them. This can help take some of the burdens off you and free up mental energy for other tasks. Ask friends for their opinion, and trust their advice. It will make you feel less alone and give you confidence in the decisions you have made.
Get enough sleep
When you are physically fatigued, decision fatigue is sure to follow. Try to get eight hours of sleep every night so that you are rested and ready for the day.
Additional resources about decision fatigue
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 Perlmutter - 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. Baumeister & 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 - In 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—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.
Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon that can have a significant impact on a person's life. It can lead to poor decision-making, procrastination, and avoidance behavior. By recognizing the signs of decision fatigue, such as procrastination, impulsive decision-making, irritability, poor decision-making, mental exhaustion, and lack of motivation, you can take steps to prevent it. Avoiding choice overload, making fewer decisions, and prioritizing decision-making can help you avoid decision fatigue.
Indy’s workflow automations can also prevent decision fatigue by automating your daily tasks—like sending emails, proposals, contracts, invoices, and more—so you can free up that mental energy for more important tasks. Check out how Indy’s tool suite can help you, and get started today!