We face hundreds of decisions on a daily basis, such as what to wear or eat for lunch, which route to take to work, whether or not to go out tonight, and more difficult choices that include our emotional, financial, and physical well-being.
Regardless of how strong you are, decision fatigue can eventually overcome your judgment. The term “decision fatigue” is used in psychology to describe the deterioration in decision quality after a long period of decision making. For example, choosing which cereal to eat – corn flakes or raisin bran – may not seem important, but every time you make a decision throughout the day, it takes some mental energy.
As if choosing your breakfast cereal each morning isn’t hard enough, imagine having to choose between forty different cereals in the grocery store. After seeing all of these options for what seems like forever, you are overwhelmed and must leave without buying anything because you cannot make a decision. Decision fatigue can greatly impact your daily life- from your food choices to your outfit – when every decision is difficult.
This mental block is good news for marketers, however, because it causes people to spend more money on brands that they trust. For example, coffee consumers who suffer from decision fatigue may purchase the same cappuccino brand or flavor each time instead of trying something new.
Signs and effects of decision fatigue
A person suffering from decision fatigue may feel exhausted, have brain fog, or experience other indications of physical or mental tiredness. As the condition worsens with time, the individual might feel worse or more exhausted as the day goes on.
Depending on how it affects a person, decision fatigue may manifest itself in a variety of ways, such as:
Impulse buying is a typical kind of decision fatigue. Candy, baked goods, and special offers are commonly placed near the registers in grocery stores, which many people can recognize. A person may be less inclined to resist quick deals and items closer to the end of shopping after making a series of decisions in the store.
A trade-off is a decision between two alternatives, with each option having both positive and negative aspects. A person undergoing decision fatigue might be hesitant to make decisions, take longer to do so, or simply choose something that later makes them unhappy.
How to avoid decision fatigue
It’s easy to assume that you’ll be able to summon your willpower at will, like Bruce Banner hulking up when he needs to. But research suggests it works differently – constant decision-making depletes mental energy and makes us tired, unfocused, and less creative. So here are some tips on how you can avoid it:
Be aware of the burden of your decisions. The more decisions you make during a day, the harder each individual decision is for your brain. This inefficiency continues over weeks and months until eventually your mental capacity will be sapped by all these little burdens. Like a muscle with no room to develop strength, your brain’s capacity to make good choices fades with each new bit of information it carries along its way. To avoid this situation get rid of every unnecessary task and responsibility from your life.
Be aware of your biological clock. When the sun sets, your eyes send information about this fact towards your brain, which in turn activates its “preparations for sleep” mode. This mechanism affects both the body and mind, slowing down or even completely stopping many actions such as thinking or making decisions. To avoid feeling tired at night – when we usually want to relax – we can reset our internal clocks by exposing ourselves to bright lights. However, a slowdown after 6pm is the best option.
Avoid distractions and temptations. New information is exhausting for the brain and it takes a lot of effort and time to process everything. Therefore, if you don’t want to be tired after dinner, don’t use your phone when you are at lunch with somebody. Don’t read emails or text messages while talking to somebody face-to-face. Close every unnecessary tab in every browser you are using.
Say “no” more often. Remember that friend who always has something planned? He not only has no clue about how taxing decision-making can be, he also lacks the ability to say “no”. I think this is related. Saying no sometimes can be a wonderful thing that allows you to accomplish more with less effort.
Don’t overschedule yourself. We all have the best of intentions but don’t overdo it. A full calendar has a similar effect on your brain as constant distractions do. The more options you have, the harder it is to choose what you are going to do next.
Do tasks that don’t require much mental resources during times of increased mental capacity. Most people, for example, find early mornings the perfect time for doing things they don’t want to do, such as paying bills or tackling complicated work issues that have been bothering them all week long. I personally enjoy my most productive hours between 7am-10am after which point my decision-making capabilities become increasingly impaired by fatigue. This is why I try not to schedule anything important after 10am and before 6pm.
Try to get enough sleep. You might have heard that lack of sleep can hamper your decision-making skills, but did you know it also causes memory loss? A study at UC Berkeley found out that decisions made after being awake for an extensive period of time are not only sub-optimal, they are also forgotten more quickly compared to decisions made after sleeping. Despite what people say about “cat naps”, I think getting a full 8 hours is optimal for good decision making.
Have clear goals in mind before taking action. This way you won’t waste any mental resources on deciding what to do next and you will instead be able to focus all your energy on the task at hand, which should lead to better results.
Remember that you are not Superman – or Superwoman – and don’t try to multitask. People who multitask cannot filter out irrelevancy, leading them to overload on information and become confused about what is important. This type of behavior leads people to lose focus easily, interfering with their decision-making abilities even further.