Do you eat well all day but can’t resist dessert? Post comments online before you go to bed that you regret sharing the next morning? Find yourself going along with whatever the salesperson recommends? You might be suffering from decision fatigue.
Recent research has shown that our willpower is a finite resource. As we make decisions throughout the day, our willpower runs low and our decision making suffers. We are less able to resist our impulses and desires (e.g. more likely to buy something we want but can’t afford, or blurt out what we’re really thinking), and more likely to look for shortcuts that mean we don’t have to make decisions – e.g. letting a salesperson decide what we should buy. Decision fatigue can help explain why, despite our best intentions, it’s difficult to stick to behaviour changes like diets and budgets.
It might help to think of your day as a tug of war between what you know is good for you long term, and what is convenient for you short term, but has poor long term consequences. Every time a decision has to be made, a tug of war ensues. Early in the day, willpower wins often. But as the decisions keep being presented, it starts to tire. Winning the tug of war takes a lot of energy. At some point, too many battles have taken place. Willpower has exhausted all its strength. It can’t exert much influence anymore, and desire starts to win instead.
The importance of the decision doesn’t matter either: even if you’re not the CEO of a major company, decision making is tiring. A muffin or cereal for breakfast, stay in bed or go for a walk, comment on this post or not, click this link or not, get my work report done or check my personal emails, give in to my child’s crying or stick to my guns, say what I really think or keep the peace... each choice is a decision and each tests your willpower.
How to avoid decision fatigue
The best way to protect yourself from decision fatigue is to have less decisions to make. The less choices you have to make, the better chance you have of making the right choice when you do have to make a decision. We’re aiming to limit the number of games of tug of war that take place.
If you’re going shopping or researching, clearly define what you need in advance – and then don’t get side tracked by other items. Consider the difference between writing a list, going to the supermarket and buying what’s on the list, compared to going without a list and having to choose whether or not to purchase each item you encounter. This goes for any kind of shopping too, not just food shopping. Know exactly what you need before you leave home so the only decision you’re making is: does this fit with my list, yes or no? This is also good for students who get distracted by interesting but irrelevant websites when trying to finish assignments.
Stick to a Schedule
Simplify your life so that you save your energy for decisions that require willpower. Get up at the same time each day, have a set morning routine, bring your lunch to work rather than choose from all the available fast food options every day, set time aside in the evening to check social media rather than making the decision whether or not to check it many times throughout the day.
Ask an Expert
If making lists or developing a schedule still involves too many choices for you, enlist an expert and use them as your guide. E.g. if you’re a parent, choose one book about parenting and use its advice to guide all the decisions about how you parent your child. There are professional services which will buy your car, find you a mortgage/ health insurance/plumber / cleaner, plan your wedding/book your holiday/ plan your exercise, if you find those decisions overwhelming.
Break it up
If you have a big task with many decisions to make, e.g. planning a holiday, don’t plan to ‘get it over with’ in one big hit unless you’re happy going for a lot of default options. Instead, start earlier and plan different parts of the task over the course of a week or so: book flights on one day, hotels on another, until all your decisions are made.
Use your mornings well
Make your important decisions in the morning, after breakfast. Your willpower has had a chance to replenish after a night of no decision making and your brain has been re-fuelled. This may explain why ‘sleeping on it’ helps many people make decisions they are happy with – they are delaying the decision until they can think more clearly and have access to increased willpower.
If you’re starting a new habit such as studying, playing an instrument or exercising, use the morning to practice your new behaviour so your high willpower increases the likelihood you’ll pick up the book/ guitar/ bike. Once the change is an established habit you can move it to the most convenient timeslot for you.
Replenish your Willpower Regularly
Take a break from making choices and use the time to re-fuel your brain. Approximately 20% of our body’s resting energy use is related to brain functioning. Keep the fuel flowing by eating regular meals, and do nothing else while you eat, to give your willpower a rest.
Christmas time brings with it lots of extra decision making - what presents to buy, how much leave to take, when to travel, what to take, what food to make. I hope you can use these tips to enjoy a more relaxed holiday period with less decision fatigue.
For more information about decision fatigue, check out this great New York Times article:
Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.