How to Beat Decision Fatigue

Decision Fatigue

Every wonder why at the end a long day you can’t even make up your mind about what to eat for dinner?  You probably have “Decision fatigue”; and yes it is a real thing! Making decisions all day long is exhausting.  Constant decision-making actually depletes the limited resources in our brain. The term was named by Roy F. Baumeister, social psychologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.  Decision fatigue happens after a long session of decision-making; which results in lowered self-control and willpower.

Many people don’t realize is that even small micro decisions (what color shirt to wear, what to eat for breakfast, whether to hit the snooze button) can add up to be a huge energy drain if you stack enough together.

We can face more than 25 decisions before even finishing breakfast!  

University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and colleagues demonstrate repeatedly that the mere act of making one selection may deplete executive resources.

These findings have important real life implications. If making choices depletes brain resources, then decisions later on could be negatively biased when we make choices with a tired brain.   Hence that dinnertime decision to get drive-through fast food rather than making a healthy home-cooked meal. Or deciding to go out for drinks instead of the original plan to hit the gym after work.

Your brain works like a muscle: when depleted, it becomes less effective.  So it’s important to remember this when making decisions. If you’ve just spent lots of time focusing on a particular task, exercising self-control becomes a lot more challenging! (ie.  Avoiding those sweet treats lingering in the office).

Luckily, there are plenty of ways you can combat decision fatigue. With routine and consistent breaks during your day, you’ll replenish your willpower and boost your productivity even during the most stressful days.

How To Beat Decision Fatigue

1. Take a Break

Ever notice how you sometimes get the best ideas in the shower, on vacation or out walking?  There’s a reason why. When you get some distance, you free up your prefrontal cortex, the “logical thinking” part of your brain; which is responsible for using willpower to overcome impulses. Your brain then subconsciously presents new and existing knowledge that you weren’t able to see when you were consumed by the buzz of the day. When you give your critical thinking brain a break, you allow it to make better neural connections and ultimately better choices.

2. Create systems or daily routines

Think about where in your life you can set up systems to reduce decisions.  Creating a wardrobe with similar clothing or picking out your clothes the night before are great ways to cut down morning decisions.  This is because developing a routine for common tasks (like getting dressed) conserves your brain space and energy for bigger decisions.  Also, having a set schedule, ex: 8am you know you always go to spin class, then head to work. Or perhaps you pack your gym clothes with you so after work you already know what your plan is; no decision necessary!  Whatever your preferences, a consistent routine will help you know what to do and reduce the amount of daily decisions you have to make.

3. Batch your work

A great way to boost your productivity is by batching your work. You can block off certain days that are dedicated to certain tasks.  For instance: Tuesdays and Thursdays you could focus on doing creative work, and Monday, Wednesday, Friday focus on emails, meetings and strategizing on projects. It’s also effective to batch your tasks by time blocks each day. For example, you can schedule some hours in your schedule to prep your food for the week.  By putting work into these blocks, you reduce the need to make decisions on what to work on every day or even every minute. Instead you have a consistent, daily routine that frees your mind of small decisions that lead to fatigue.

4. Set deadlines

If you have to book a flight for your next trip or decide which job to take, set a personal deadline for yourself to make that decision. By setting a deadline, you are letting your brain off the hook for that moment.  The set deadline will give your brain confidence that you will in fact come back to make the decision later. This will help free your brain space and energy to focus on tasks that need your immediate attention in the meantime.

5. Eat a healthy snack

Science shows that hunger is linked to making impulsive decisions.  Judges are known to make worse decisions right before lunch. When you are hungry, your impulse control decreases. Furthermore, using self-control actually causes reductions in blood sugar levels, which leads to decreased self-control on behavioral tasks.  So when you are hungry and your glucose levels are low, eating a healthy snack can give you the boost of energy you need to be more productive and avoid making a bad decision. Next time you have sustained focused on work or anything that creates mental fatigue, grab a piece of fruit or handful of nuts before your next task.  (Just make sure to avoid sugary or processed foods which will leave you even more fatigued later on!)

There’s no way to avoid making every decision, but with a few of these tips in your toolbox, you’ll be able to quickly identify when fatigue is setting in and how to combat it.