If you’re finding it more difficult to make decisions than usual, you might be experiencing decision fatigue.
Put simply, decision fatigue is the idea that our ability to make sound decisions decreases as the number of decisions we need to make increases. This can lead to difficulty making the right decisions, impulse buying and other avoidance behaviors.
Also known as ego depletion, decision fatigue is a psychological phenomenon regarding our ability or capacity to make decisions.
Theoretically, decision fatigue occurs after we make many decisions, our brains fatigue and therefore our decisions get worse. This fatigue applies to all decisions, not just the difficult and large ones. Decision making abilities can be viewed as a finite source, similar to a battery. With each decision we make, we reduce the life of the battery and our available energy to make further decisions decreases.
What Causes Decision Making Fatigue?
It’s difficult to quantify how many decisions we make in a day, but research approximates this number to be around 35 000. And how many times do we switch tasks a day? Approximately 300.
The underlying cause may lie somewhere between the amount of decisions one has to make a day, and our current stress levels. In addition to this, the weight of the decisions also matters.
Typically, we start making decisions from the moment we wake up: what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, and what to listen to on the way to work.
Depending on the type of decisions, whether these are conscious or subconscious, more complex decisions may deplete our energy levels quicker.
Signs of Decision Fatigue
It’s not unusual to feel worse or more drained as the day goes on, after the amount of decisions made has increased.
You may feel tired, foggy, irritable and impatient.
This may lead to behaviours such as avoidance, trade-offs, and impulse buying, to name a few.
Decision Avoidance – You might start to neglect, avoid or ignore decisions altogether when you feel drained. This might look like automatically opting for the default or most socially acceptable option and not necessarily the right option for you.
Or, you might procrastinate and put off making decisions for another day or until the necessity to make the decision alleviates altogether.
Trade-Offs – A trade-off is a decision between two options where each has positive and negative elements. When you experience decision fatigue, you may feel reluctant to make the trade-off or make a decision you later regret. Or, this can manifest as indecision, “when in doubt, just say no”.
Impulse Buying – It’s not uncommon to make impulsive purchases when decision fatigued. This can be most obvious at grocery shops where chocolates, chips and lollies are placed strategically next to the registers. After making a series of decisions in the shop, you may be less likely to resist the quick sales.
You are more likely to experience decision fatigue if you:
- Feel majorly affected by the decisions you make;
- Make complex decisions often;
- Make stressful decisions;
- Make decisions affecting others significantly;
- Make many decisions throughout the day.
However, all is not lost – here are some strategies to help you avoid decision fatigue:
Make fewer decisions – Meal plan, plan outfits the night before (or if you’re like me, buy clothes with neutral colours to take out the dilemma of not only having to pick outfits, but outfits that actually match), use to-do lists, sign up for direct debit for regular bills, use GPS rather than thinking through which route to take.
Delegate decisions – Spread the responsibility of decision-making. Consider all your decisions across your work, home life and elsewhere. Are you currently responsible for making decisions someone else could take responsibility for?
Limit your options – Having too many will stress you out! Decision fatigue can be exacerbated by our desire to “shop around” and get the best deal. Often this shopping around has a negligible benefit of a few dollars, but you end up feeling drained and overwhelmed.
Establish daily routine to minimize decision-making – This can consist of eating a healthy breakfast, meditating, reading a book or hitting the gym. Many of the great minds of our time have almost “uniforms” to conserve their brain space and energy for larger decisions. In the words of Barack Obama: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Make important decisions early – We know that brain fatigue increases as the day goes on. Prioritise making any important decisions before noon.
Get a good night’s sleep (or take a nap if you have to) – Even short bursts of sleep positively affect problem-solving abilities.
The Bottom Line
The more decisions you need to make, the worse you’re going to be at weighing all the options and making an educated choice.
Make shortcuts like the ones listed above and know the signs you might be experiencing decision fatigue.
Author: Tara Pisano, BA (Psych) (Hons), M Psych.
Tara Pisano is a Brisbane psychologist with a special interest in early intervention in adolescents and young adults, as this is when three quarters of mental health conditions emerge. In her practice, she draws on a range of evidence-based therapies such as CBT, DBT, IPT, ACT and Motivational Interviewing, to promote recovery and positive outcomes.
To make an appointment with Tara Pisano, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
- Allan, J. L., et al. (2019). Clinical decisions and time since rest break: An analysis of decision fatigue in nurses.
- Dang, J. (2018). An updated meta-analysis of the ego depletion effect.
- Hirshleifer, D., et al. (2019). Decision fatigue and heuristic analyst forecasts [Abstract].
- Savani, K., & Job, V. (2017). Reverse ego-depletion: Acts of self-control can improve subsequent performance in Indian cultural contexts.
https://dr.ntu.edu.sg/bitstream/10356/89210/1/Reverse ego-depletion-Acts of self-control can improve subsequent performance in Indian cultural contexts.pdf