What is decision fatigue? 

Decision fatigue is the emotional and mental strain from the impact of making too many decisions, or more correctly from excessive choices. It causes a deterioration of our ability for making good or right decisions with a tendency to go for the easiest choice which can result in things like impulse buying and avoidance behaviours.

Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister suggests there are two components to this:

  1. We have a limited amount of willpower, so when we have used it up we will make poor choices.
  2. Working for an extended period of time or when we are forced to make multiple complex decisions our stores are depleted even faster.

Most of us make multiple decisions across the day from what we will wear, what we will eat, what we will listen to or watch. There are also business decisions, social interaction decisions and decisions on how to use our down time.These decisions require us to weigh up information and make, either consciously or subconsciously, a choice. Decision fatigue is not always easy to notice and can be one of the first signs that you are heading for burnout.

Which means that this is really important for us to be aware of.

How to spot it?

The most common signs include:

  • Procrastination – “I’ll get to this later”
  • Avoidance – “I just can’t deal with this right now”
  • Impulsivity – “whatever is easiest right now” or “eeny meeny moe”
  • Indecision – “When in doubt just say no”

Over time this can lead to irritability, depression and increased anxiety, and also physical impacts like tension, headaches and digestive problems.

What can you do to help yourself?

A first step is understanding that this is a real problem and therefore may require you to stop blaming this on a lack of will-power or laziness etc.

Some other suggestions include:

  • Simplify the choices you need to make throughout the day

Barack Obama only wore grey or blue suits during his presidency. The concept here is simply eliminate or reduce the choice so we are not exhausted before we begin.

Another example might be using a weekly food plan or setting up a routine that might include what day you shop, days you go to the gym and what time you go to bed. By reducing the energy required for less important decisions allows energy for the larger, more important decisions.

  • 1. Make time for self-care

Taking time to have lunch away from your desk and prioritising fun and enjoyable activities might not sound initially like they will increase your productivity, but these simple tips can make a huge difference. Allowing your brain some down time or an opportunity to think of something other than work at lunch can allow for an energy boost that compliments the boost you will get from  eating a healthy lunch. And ensuring you have time for fun and enjoyable activities to ensure you are living a balanced life.

  • 2. Set priorities

Using a list and or taking the time to consider what your priorities are for the day can ensure your energy is focused where it needs to be. Tackle high priority tasks for the beginning of the day when your attention is sharpest.

Another suggestion is to keep your to do list small, in fact about 5 items, this makes it much easier to prioritise.

  • 3. Remove distractions

Engaging in distractions like looking at your mobile phone or browsing social media can be a subconscious choice that can contribute to decision fatigue and drain your ability for tasks later in the day.

Removing these distractions can help reduce this fatigue allowing you to engage in the tasks at hand.

  • 4. Focus more on the momentum than on willpower

To avoid the feeling of being out of control that can come with decision fatigue, focus on building momentum around a task – this can help us feel back in control. If you have similar tasks group them together to reduce the chance of feeling the need to “make a decision to get started”. You can also use the 5-minute rule to build momentum. The rule uses the premise that if you can commit to just 5 minutes of a task the likelihood of engagement and sense of reduced stress leads to positive feelings about the work we are doing.

Find your own ways to build momentum throughout the day either by grouping tasks or using the 5- minute rule to reduce the friction of getting started.

  • 5. Eat a healthy snack that includes glucose

The research tells us that hunger is linked to our desire to make impulsive decisions. When we are hungry, the hormone ghrelin is produced by our stomach and this decreases impulse control. So next time your energy levels are low and your feeling hungry a healthy glucose snack can give you the boost you need to tackle your decisions.

Our lives are usually extremely busy and we are often juggling many balls and this means our lives are increasingly filled with multiple decisions. So……if you are feeling overwhelmed, irritable and low on energy you may be experiencing decision fatigue.

To support you making good choices ensure you are listening to your thoughts and notice when your energy is reducing and consider what decisions you can take out of the equation, set up routines and you can decrease your anxiety and conserve your energy for what really matters.

Written by:
Cheryl Gale
Psychologist

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