Tl;dr: Decision fatigue is that worn out, run down feeling we get when we have too many choices to make. As we become overwhelmed with choices, our ability to make decisions gets worse. We can minimize decision fatigue by reducing the number of decisions we need to make every day, having routines, and resting.
Ever found yourself staring at an open fridge and utterly paralyzed? Suddenly, the choice between milk and orange juice has become this mind boggling, impossible choice and the fate of the world seems to hang in the balance. This is probably the result of decision fatigue. Decision fatigue occurs when our mental processes become overwhelmed with too many choices throughout the day or too many options all at once. We can feel tired, burned out, foggy, or incapacitated with indecision. When this happens, our brains take shortcuts to aid in decision making and help us muddle through. We might find ourselves making snap judgments that may not be the best choice (Forget milk or orange juice! Ice cream it is!) or avoiding a decision altogether (called decision avoidance).
Decision fatigue can have real effects on our day to day lives. Didn’t make a grocery list? When your decision-making ability is worn down, you might find yourself impulse buying tabloid magazines and family sized bags of candy. Folks who are experiencing decision fatigue are much more likely to give in to impulses and may feel a decreased sense of self-worth.
Decision fatigue can also impact our jobs, social functioning, and health. During times of stress and high stakes decisions, we can make choices that are illogical, counterproductive for our goals, or avoid the choice until a deadline has passed. When folks have serious illness, for example, people may avoid medical decision making until they face significant health consequences.
We all make thousands of decisions every day, most of which are small and inconsequential. But sometimes big decisions are required, and we want our brains to be ready and able to face those tough calls. To help us avoid decision fatigue, we can streamline and reduce the number of decisions we need to make every day. Having a routine reduces the number of choices we make during a day and saves that energy for more consequential decisions. When possible, you can delegate decisions to others. Avoid micromanagement and demonstrate your trust by allowing others decision making authority.
When big decisions are needed, try to make those decisions at times you feel most energized and ready to put some real thought into the matter. For many people, that is in the morning. If you are not a morning person, that’s ok! Find a time that you feel most ready to engage and think critically.
Lastly, and most importantly, allow yourself to rest. If you find yourself overwhelmed and in the middle of decision fatigue, take a break from choosing! Do something that you find soothing or restful, such as participating in a hobby, exercising, taking a nap, watching Muppet Treasure Island, or whatever gives your brain a moment to recharge and refocus! Scheduling time for yourself (even in small chunks) can help stave off burnout and decision fatigue.
Stay safe. Stay well.
Those Nerdy Girls
The Decision Lab: Why do we make worse decisions at the end of the day?
AMA: Decision Fatigue
Carson College of Business: What is Decision Fatigue?