Have you ever come home from a long day at work and not been able to choose dinner?
You’d happily eat anything, or nothing, than plan a meal from scratch. Perhaps you should get take out after all?
That’s decision fatigue.
You’ve made big decisions all day and now you’ve had enough.
Your mental energy has been depleted and your brain just wants to be told what to do.
This guide will help you recognise decision fatigue, take steps to reduce your decision load and keep your energy levels high till the end of the day.
Defining Decision Fatigue
Decision fatigue is defined as willpower or ego depletion leading to poor decision making and can be a factor in irrational behaviour in the workplace and at home.
The concept of decision fatigue was first proposed by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister who recognised the impact making important decisions has on our mental health.
Most of us are familiar with physical fatigue. Mental fatigue receives far less attention, yet the effects of decision fatigue can be just as severe.
In our busy lives, we make around 40,000 big and small decisions every day. It’s easy to see with this number of decisions how decision fatigue sets in
As trade-off decisions are the most mentally taxing there is an argument that decision fatigue is a factor in trapping people in poverty.
Individuals from 20 different villages in India were offered the opportunity to purchase bars of soap at a discounted price. Their willpower for a series of tasks was then tested.
Although the soap was heavily discounted it was still a significant financial burden to the 10 most impoverished villages and the mental strain of evaluting this choice affected their willpower in the tasks that followed.
In contrast, the more affluent villagers who could easily afford the soap were less affected in subsequent tasks.
Economist Dean Spears argues that lower-income households are forced to make more financial trade-off decisions and therefore have less willpower to dedicate to other activities.
How To Identify When You Are Being Affected By Decision Fatigue
It’s important to recognise when decision fatigue is creeping up so you can be wary of making poor decisions with potential long term consequences.
Here are some key signs to watch out for:
You Show Poor Emotional Control
Bitten your partners head off because they’ve dared to ask you a question when you get home from work?
When small mistakes cause a red mist to descend you may be suffering from decision fatigue.
Acknowledge this and communicate with your partner.
If this is a regular issue why not sit down together and work through this post. What changes can you make to your household today to reduce overall decision fatigue?
You Become Resistant To Change
Change often involves unknown variables and lots more decisions.
It’s unavoidable in both daily life and business. Many people find it difficult, but decision fatigue can exacerbate that further.
You may shut down a new idea without giving it adequate consideration, or be reluctant to keep up with new technology advancements, or market shifts.
Refusal to change in an ever-shifting world puts you at risk of being left behind
You Start To Become Reckless
Reduced ability to exercise self control is a hallmark of decision fatigue and can lead to more reckless behaviour.
Carefully considered or comparison decisions are more mentally exhausting than impulsive or instinctive ones.
When your mental energy is low you will start to make choices that prioritise quick wins even if this goes against your core values.
You Start To Feel Analysis Paralysis
While choice is a good thing a study by Columbia University showed too many different options can impair our ability to take action.
When 24 samples of jam were available to chose from only 3% of shoppers went on to make a purchase.
In contrast when this was stripped back to only 6 jam options the purchase rate rose to 30%.
When shoppers had too many options they were overwhelmed and struggled to contrast options effectively.
Analysis paralysis caused them to opt for the easy decision, or path of least resistance, which was not to purchase jam at all.
If you are feeling overwhelmed with choice the best way to combat this is to cut down the number of options.
Instead of evaluating everything at once cut your choices down to a more manageable number like blocks of 3.
Reduce The Effects Of Decision Fatigue
Here are some simple steps you can start taking today to reduce the impact of decision fatigue on your life.
Don’t try to implement everything at once. Start small and commit to making one change today.
1) Give Your Brain A Break
Learn when to stop and don’t be afraid to say no.
You can’t push your way through decision fatigue. You will end up making rushed and compromised decisions.
When you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed and mentally drained it’s time to take a break.
Stepping away to recharge won’t drop productivity, in fact you’ll likely be more productive because of it.
Have you ever had a good idea come to you in the shower or on a walk? It’s more common than you might think.
Allowing yourself to decompress and your mind to be free from decision making means it’s free to be creative and think outside the box.
2) Limit Your Social Media Use
Social media constantly craves our attention.
Even if we aren’t actually posting or scrolling, our smart phones bleep and buzz to let us know we’re missing out and drag our attention back.
Not responding to notifications takes willpower.
Willpower is a finite resource and using it to ignore social media causes decision fatigue and impairs our ability to make quality decisions.
This has been shown in a study by Roy Baumeister using chocolate chip cookies. Students were lead into a lab smelling of freshly baked cookies.
They were split into two groups with one group allowed to indulge in the cookies and the other asked to resist.
Both sets of students were then given a series of puzzles to solve.
The students who had resisted the temptation of the cookies showed frustration and gave up on tasks significantly earlier than the students who had not depleted their willpower.
What does limiting social media look like?
The first step is to turn off all those notifications.
When you aren’t getting alerted every single time something happens it takes less willpower to resist social media.
While we all have a fear of missing out, its vital to keep focused on what’s actually important in your life.
The second step is to set specific time brackets to check your social media and stick to them.
This will depend on your level of engagement, but once or twice a day are good starting goals.
If you’re finding it too difficult to stick to your set parameters try using an app to track your use for a week or so.
The cold hard facts about how much time you spend on social media (and the other things you could be doing with that time) may help boost your motivation.
Finally, and this might seem too extreme for some, delete social media entirely from your phone.
Remove all those apps.
Go back to the old days of logging on through a browser on a desktop.
You may find that extra barrier is enough to curb your scrolling addiction.
3) Reduce Your Daily Decisions
Daily routines reduce decision making.
If you get up at the same time every morning and go to bed at the same time each night your brain no longer has to think about those decisions.
It goes through the motion on auto pilot.
Don’t be fooled into thinking an automated life is a dull one. By automating mundane tasks it will give you the time and energy to focus and be present on the areas of your life that are meaningful to you.
Here are some daily choices for you to remove:
Work Appearance – Unless you are in a job that requires you to wear different clothes consider a work look.
This is a strategy that comes up time and time again with highly successful people.
- There’s Mark Zuckerberg and his iconic gray Brunello Cucinelli T-shirt.
- Saatchi & Saatchi art director Matilda Kahl who wears black trousers and a white silk shirt.
- Steve jobs was renowned for his black turtlenecks and jeans.
- Barack Obama only wore gray or blue suits while in office.
Creating a work wardrobe may be a high initial cost, but it will save you a considerable amount of money in the long term.
If changing your whole wardrobe seems too much at this stage what about your appearance can you streamline? Your hair? Accessories
Bills – Automate all of your bills to come out of your account on payday so you don’t have to think about them.
For some providers such as gas and electricity this may even save you some money.
Diet – Meal planning is a great way to ensure you eat a healthy, balanced diet while reducing your daily decisions.
I would recommend creating a rolling meal plan, for example over 3 weeks rather than a single week.
This way you will still have weekly variation in your diet and are less likely to become bored with the plan.
Meal planning is also great for budgeting and reducing food waste.
Food Shopping – If you are meal planning you should be able to automate your shopping as well as you will know in advance what you will be eating for each meal.
Most online supermarkets allow you to make lists.
If you have a 3 week rolling meal plan you can make a list for each week.
Then when it comes to shopping you will simply select which week you are ordering for and check out.
Not only will this stop you from being overwhelmed with choices in the grocery store it is also a huge timesaver.
Once you have put the initial start up time into creating the lists doing the weekly shop will literally take minutes each week.
An added bonus is you won’t be able to smell delicious junk food and so you’ll be less tempted to add it to your trolley.
4) Take Advantage Of Your Mornings
We have made the fewest choices in the morning.
Whether you consider yourself a morning lark or a night owl studies have demonstrated our best performance is in the morning.
It, therefore, makes sense to prioritise this time for our most valuable and complex decisions when our mental state is at its freshest.
The New York Times reported on a study of parole hearings which showed the time of day a prisoner appeared in front of the parole board had the greatest impact on their chance of a favourable ruling.
Irrelevant of sentence, crime or ethnicity, morning prisoners received parole around 65% of the time, whereas afternoon prisoners were freed less than 10% of the time.
Repeated hard decisions caused mental exhaustion for the judges and this resulted in them being more willing to follow the status quo and keep prisoners locked up.
The stakes of your decisions may not be so high, but you will make better decisions when you have made fewer decisions already.
A promoter of this concept is Jeff Bezos, who is known for never making big business decisions in the afternoon.
Use this knowledge to your advantage and schedule your diary appropriately.
5) Use Time Blocking
Time blocking is a productivity technique where you assign specific tasks to blocks of time and focus on them exclusively in that block.
Both Bill Gates and Elon Musk are advocates of this technique.
Elon Musk schedules his entire day from the moment he wakes up in 5 minute increments.
He does not accept unscheduled calls or answer emails outside the allotted time.
While this may seem a little cold to implement around family time, most business owners do not limit their working hours to 9-5.
How many times have you quickly checked your emails or social media during downtime with your family?
Time blocking, including family time, helps you have the discipline not to do this.
If your evening consists of structured blocks where you are with your family and other blocks in which you work, then it gives you the freedom to be fully present for each.
Planning these blocks in advance reduces decision fatigue as you no longer need to keep choosing between family and your business.
Time blocking during your working hours helps you stay on track and increases your productivity.
6) Try Batch Working
Batch working goes hand in hand with time blocking.
When you are fully present and focused on one activity you will accomplish much more than when you are flitting between several things.
For example a common distraction is to keep checking your emails.
To combat this set blocks of time to batch check and reply to emails.
Every morning give yourself 15 minutes to get your inbox to zero.
Have another session maybe mid afternoon to bring yourself up to speed on things that have emerged through the day.
Do not check your emails outside of these two times.
Batch working removes decision fatigue as you are no longer relying on willpower
If you are struggling to manage batch working, try implementing the Pomodoro technique where work is broken down into intervals.
7) Set Micro Deadlines
When working on big projects often as the final deadline approaches lots of last minute decisions start being made at the same time.
Decision fatigue may cause you to make snap decisions resulting in poor choices.
This is exceptionally undesirable where large amounts of time and money have been sunk into the project.
Circumvent this by creating small achievable deadlines within your project plan.
This forces you to make incremental choices along the way, rather than bottlenecking at the end.
8) Eat Your Frogs
There’s an old saying that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s probably the worst thing you’ll do all day.
This metaphor is the basis for Brian Traceys book Eat That Frog which deals with productivity and procrastination in business.
While I would recommend you use the book as an ideas springboard rather than a bible the basic message is sound.
Eat your frogs first.
There’s a temptation to delay difficult tasks and decisions as long as possible.
However by doing this they are constantly at the back of our mind and this chips away at your mental energy.
Stop procrastinating the difficult.
Eat your frogs as early as possible in the day and reduce your mental load.
This will also improve your mood as you won’t find your mind constantly straying back to that unwanted task you don’t want to do.
Declutter, and declutter brutally.
Clutter in your environment competes for your attention.
You are distracted by tidying and jobs you have yet to do.
By living with clutter you are forcing yourself to live with constant visual reminders of decisions you have yet to make.
10) Evaluate Your Diet
Decision fatigue and diet are wrapped in a spiralling circle.
Decision fatigue increases our temptation for junk food and a poor diet, however a poor diet starves our brain of essential nutrients making it harder to function and therefore more susceptible to decision fatigue.
To demonstrate this students were offered either a piece of cake or bowl of fruit after completing different mental tasks. Those who had completed a more taxing task were significantly more likely to choose cake.
Low blood sugar has also been identified as exacerbating decision fatigue.
The key here is to eat well and eat often. A balanced diet is a key player in the fight against decision fatigue.
11) Prioritise Your Decisions And Delegate Where Possible
Not all decisions are of equal importance.
Try not to overthink lower priority decisions that really have no impact on you in the long run. Go for the simplest, easy option.
Where possible delegate decisions as you would tasks to reduce the responsibilities on your plate.
This will be ineffective if you start micromanaging those around you, so you will need to have the confidence in your delegate to relinquish control.
I hope you found this post interesting and there’s advice in here you can use in your own life.
Let me know in the comment below what you’ll change first