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What is Decision Fatigue?

12 January 2022

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How many choices do you make in a day? In an hour, even? According to Inc. magazine, adults make more than 35,000 decisions in a day. Researchers at Cornell University posit that we make 226.7 daily decisions about food alone.

You will decide whether or not to keep reading this post in its entirety, just skim it, scroll down looking for helpful tips (they’re down there!) or do something else. Learning that you likely make 35,000 decisions a day may be all you need to know about why you’re feeling fatigued!

Here are some mundane decisions that fill many of our brains: when to get up, when to leave for work, what to eat, what to wear, to watch the news or not, take the usual route or change it up, run an errand on the way to work or save it for afterward? Pack a lunch or plan to grab a sandwich? Will you exercise today? If so how? What’s for dinner? Should I make sure the kids have their (fill in the blank: schoolwork, sports equipment, permission slip, lunch) or transfer the responsibility to them?

More complicated decisions are things like whether to look for a new job, whether to add a pet to the household, tackle a project yourself vs. schedule a repairman, sell your house and buy a new one, downsize or upsize. Even more difficult are decisions about whether to get married (or stay married), how best to help ailing parents or when to retire. Even bigger decisions come with things like medical diagnoses. By the end of a day filled with decisions, no wonder it’s so hard to decide what to have for dinner!

All of these large and small decisions have been given an extra layer of complexity since the pandemic started in March, 2020. Now, instead of thinking ‘should we go out to dinner?’ it’s more like ‘what are the risks of contracting COVID if we go out?’; ‘is it safe to send the kids to school?’; ‘should we travel?’ We’re aggregating COVID data into every decision: case counts, new variants, mask requirements, vaccinations, boosters and more. And the information we use to make these determinations changes frequently, too. Think about how quickly omicron went from a word we weren’t sure how to pronounce to the most transmissible variant yet, sweeping the country.

Your brain is tired. You are tired. This is decision fatigue. When decision fatigue ramps up, you might feel like you’re out of mental bandwidth and can’t deal with figuring out one more thing. Decision fatigue is not a medical diagnosis. Lynn Bufka, PhD and senior director of practice transformation and quality at the American Psychological Association explained it to Health magazine this way: “It’s the challenge of dealing with an overload of information and processing that any of us can face at different points in our lives.”

Decision fatigue or cognitive overload can add up over time. It might look or feel like tiredness, irritability, a feeling of being overwhelmed, poor concentration or fatigue. The more effort we put into making our first decisions of the day, the less effort we want to put into making any decisions that follow. We look for the easy way out of subsequent decisions, making them with the least amount complex thought possible after we’ve previously made a decision that took more mental bandwidth. 

We may, in our haze of decision fatigue, take it a step further and decide not to decide. Can’t figure out what to have for dinner? Decision fatigue may be the culprit. Handing a decision off to someone else because it seems too much to make it yourself? Standing in front of your closet, staring blankly? Scrolling through Hulu, unable to choose something to watch? You guessed it. Our old friend decision fatigue.

How to ease decision fatigue

We may not be able to eliminate decision fatigue altogether, but we can lessen it and give our minds a little breathing room. Here are some ideas:

  • Automate what you can. This means removing as many decisions as possible. Eat the same thing for breakfast every day, for example. Set up recurring orders for home basics like paper towels, toilet paper, soap and the like, or buy it in bulk if your budget allows. Set up your regular bills to be automatically drafted from your bank account. Set your weekly dinner menu and then forget about deciding what to eat until you’re ready to mix it up again. Make like Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson and other highly successful folks and develop a ‘uniform.’ Branson’s version is a white shirt and jeans. Every day. Matilda Kahl, a creative manager at Sony Music wears the same white shirt/black pants outfit – she’s done it for four years. “I did it because I realized how much time and energy I could save during my work days by just taking out the clothing aspect,” Kahl told MSNBC.
  • Make tough decisions in the morning, after you’ve eaten. Even night owls make better decisions in the morning. Morning hours are best for decision making because we are energized and well-rested. Our minds have had a break overnight. To further optimize your decision-making ability, eat a meal. When morning decision-making isn't possible, wait to make your list of pros and cons until after lunch. You'll benefit by reclaiming some of the energy you had earlier in the day and feel better able to make more solid choices.
  • Treat yourself with kindness. Take breaks as your schedule allows. Even 15 minutes spent doing something enjoyable can replenish you. The best way to do that is to combine a little physical activity with a mental break. For example, take a walk and just let your mind wander. Begin practicing self-care, even if the phrase makes your eyes roll. Here are a few ways to get started: start a journal; breathe deeply for a few minutes; choose who you spend time with; eat something green every day; move your body (dance! exercise! Walk the dog!); and rest.
  • Eliminate clutter. Surprised by this one? Think about it: walking into a fresh, clean kitchen always feels better than walking into a jumbled messy kitchen. Science backs it up! According to a Cornell University study from 2016, stress triggered by clutter may also trigger coping and avoidance strategies. A messy environment can trigger cortisol (stress hormone) production or keep it higher than it should be. Cortisol levels are naturally higher in the mornings to get us going but normally taper off as the day progresses. Taxing this system, whether through a cluttered environment or in other ways, may eventually result in higher levels of depression and anxiety, and a lower capacity to think clearly, make decisions, and stay focused.

To learn more about ways to cope with decision fatigue, you can talk to your primary care provider who can provide additional resources. For more health and wellness content, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.

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