Decision fatigue is that moment in the day when the brain seems to say “no more, I’m done”. It’s the sense that you can’t even choose between a drink of tea or coffee – you’re spent.
You can’t figure out what to cook for dinner, and even the idea of picking something to watch on Netflix seems like a chore. We all experience them, and the more taxing your job is, and the more you’re required to make decisions throughout the day, the more you find yourself suffering from decision fatigue.
It shouldn’t come as a big surprise. When we spend all day walking or running around, we feel tired in the evening and our muscles fatigue. If you’ve ever participated in any endurance sports event (or gone for a long run after a period of inactivity), you’ve experienced muscle fatigue.
Why shouldn’t we experience the same when we tax our mind with lots of decision making?
Not only does decision fatigue impair our ability to make decisions altogether, but it also affects the quality of our decision making and our willpower. In short, after a long day of making good choice after good choice, we tend to start making bad ones.
There’s a reason we see a lot of “Made for TV” products and infomercials on TV late at night and it isn’t just because of the cheaper advertising rates. It’s because that’s the time of day we’re most prone to making impulse purchases. It’s also when we give up on our diets and healthy eating intentions.
Keep this idea of decision fatigue in mind when you try to get a few last minute tasks done at the end of a long day. That may not be the best time for important choices or tasks that require well thought out responses or clear decision making.
Similarly, you should expect your team members, coworkers, bosses, and loved ones to experience the same. Asking your boss for a raise right before quitting time on Friday may not be a good idea. Your chances of getting a yes significantly increase if you wait until first thing Monday morning.
Don’t expect your family to make healthy dinner and snack choices in the evening. Instead, plan your meals early on in the day and have them figured out well before lunchtime.
So: Don’t tackle important or difficult decisions late in the day, particularly if you’ve made a lot of decisions in the hours leading up to it already.
Ways to avoid decision fatigue
In principle, the answer is simple. We need to tap into ways to actually reduce the number of decisions we make on a daily basis. Here are some simple ideas for cutting some of them from our lives.
Let’s consider something we already know how to do. This is about creating routines and habits to cut back on the decisions we have to make, and actually getting more done in less time. Look, we don’t have to decide to brush our teeth every morning, drink coffee, or talk ourselves into deciding to go to work. Instead, it’s a habit, and something we do without having to think about, and more importantly without having to waste one of our precious and limited decisions.
So the principle is simply this. As we go about our day and make decisions, particularly if they are decisions that we make on a regular basis, stop and see if there’s a way we can turn that decision into a habit or routine.
Instead of spending the first minutes of our day figuring out what to wear, it’s simpler to establish a kind uniform. Find things that coordinate and rotate through the outfits.
If there is a recurring task at work, it’s better to schedule that first thing in the morning or right before lunch. That gets it out of the way without having to decide when to take care of it.
Another solution is to batch decisions and plan ahead. Let’s use food choices as an example. We all eat, and we make quite a few daily decisions about what to eat.
We can cut those out of our daily routine by creating a weekly or monthly meal plan.
Start with dinner. Sit down and come up with dinner ideas for the week. Write them down and post them on the fridge door. Grocery shopping involves picking up everything that’s needed. That way there’s no need to agonize about what to fix for dinner after a long day at the office.
From there, it’s a case of expanding and including breakfast and lunch plans as well. Once the meals are planned, there’s no more decision making involved, meal wise at least.
This same principle can be applied to other areas of life and work.
For example, making out a to-do list first thing in the morning or before heading home in the afternoon. A whole bunch of decisions can be pulled together this way.
Cutting down on choices
Not every decision has to be made by me or you. If you’re working in a team or have people under you, don’t be afraid to delegate. Yes, in the beginning, it’s a little extra work to explain what needs to happen and what’s involved.
But as you start to delegate and give these people more and more responsibility, your decision making tasks will be considerably cut back. That allows you to focus on the critical stuff.
Another great strategy is to simply cut down on the number of choices you give yourself (and others). Get in the habit of trimming the list before you even attempt to choose.
These tips may seem like little things, but they will quickly add up. It doesn’t take a lot of decision cutting back to notice a big difference in when and how hard decision fatigue hits. Give it a try.
Decision making ability replenishes
I thought we should end on a high note. The good news is that our decision-making abilities replenish and they do so regularly. In general, our decision-making ability replenishes with rest and with relaxation. Since we’re getting less and less of that in these busy times, it’s no wonder decision fatigue is becoming a big issue.
Decision making replenishes overnight
No point in panicking when we find ourselves unable to make another decision at the end of a long day. Sleeping replenishes our ability to make smart choices overnight. Next morning we’re back to a clear head and able to make important decisions .
This is useful to know. If we feel decision fatigue is setting in it means we should rein things in for the rest of the day. It means, don’t schedule important meetings in the evening and use mornings more strategically.
It pays to take a day out
We all get busy, and we all get stressed out from time to time. When a good nights sleep doesn’t seem quite enough to bring our decision making batteries back to full strength, it may be a good idea to take the day off.
It’s time to break into the cycle by doing something fun, relaxing, de-stressing, and most importantly, making as few decisions as possible.
But, if taking the day off, or waiting for the following morning simply isn’t an option, go outside, get some air, and clear your head before making your decision. While this won’t work as well as sleep or a day off, it may be just enough to give you that little boost of energy and willpower you need to make the right decision.
Time for a vacation?
Last but not least, let’s talk about taking a few days off and going on vacation. You know from experience how invigorating and restful a trip can be. Take advantage of this and come back ready to make those important decisions about the future of your company, your family, or what projects you want to tackle during the next quarter.
Learning to recognize the signs of decision fatigue is probably far more important than any important decisions we may need to make. There are negative implications trying to withdraw some decisions, and sometimes we simply can’t do that. Better to avoid the problem in the first place by going at decision making with a clear head.