Decision Fatigue: You May Even Have it Right Now

If you’re reading this in the afternoon or later, I’d bet you have decision fatigue. Especially if you’re reading this while you’re meant to be doing something important. Lets check: when was the last time you experienced any or all of the following:

  • Irritable or angry
  • Fuzzy or vague thinking
  • Lacking in confidence
  • Impulse decisions
  • Bad spending choices
  • Decision avoidance

Depending on the time of day, your job, and the situation you’re in at the moment, this could mean that you have decision fatigue. But don’t worry, you’re not alone and there are ways to minimise it.

When Roy Baumeister researched this in a variety of studies, he typically found that when participants were asked to make a decision they were worse at tasks that required self-discipline later. This was particularly the case when they needed to exercise their willpower; for example if they needed to keep it together while watching a tearjerker, they struggled to complete puzzles requiring determination after. Before you dismiss this as a silly laboratory example of behaviour, you should know about some real life examples of this. Judges on a parole board are 70% likely to award parole on a hearing at the start of the day, and only 10% likely to give parole to equal cases later in the day; it’s as if the continual decision-making makes them worse at it. Think this is a one-off pattern? Later studies have found similar patterns across over 1,100 cases.

How many decisions do you think you’ve made within the first two hours of getting out of bed? Come on, lets be silly with it – I’m thinking “which coffee pod should I choose?”, “can I get another day out of these socks?” and “should I pee now or when I get to work?”. We take all of our normal cognitive processing for granted, but the number of decisions we make is huge. Here’s the problem; our minds see all decisions as important, whether they’re about the Big Things or not. Each time we make one of these, a little bit of our mental capacity gets chipped away. Ever wondered why you’re reduced to dribbling in front of Netflix by 8pm? This is it. Do you start off feeling like you’re going to make healthy choices… but after a trek around the supermarket weighing up all of the special offers and thinking about what to have for dinner, you just want to stick your face in a bag of Doritos? This is it.

The problem with this is that we’re all prone to decision fatigue. Are you in a stressful job? This is you. Are you in a job where you need to be creative on-demand? This is you. Moms: add a small child and its father into the mix and your number of decisions is going to go through the roof. This is definitely you.

How to minimise decision-fatigue

Minimise your decisions. Do you tend to want to choose and control everything in your day? That’s not helping. If it’s not important, just act. Embrace the power of a routine. I used to be crippled with indecision about which mug to pair with a movie. I even remember the discomfort of the wrong mug choice while watching Rosemary’s Baby over 10 years ago (I know. Don’t judge me). Now? I just grab one and go. What can I say? I’m living my best life.

Do important things early in the day. A little insight into the quirks of our mind is a useful thing. Knowing we’re going to be more fallible later on, if there’s something important to decide, do it first. Make a to-do list when you first get up. Chances are your motivation to get stuff done or decide what to do next is going to get worse throughout the day.

Prepare, prepare, prepare. It’s no secret that I’m organised. It’s also no secret that I love planning. But seriously, this is so important. The more you can automate, the smoother your day’s going to be. Set a timer for your morning pot of coffee. Plan your meals in advance. Make an electronic shopping list of items as you run out of them. Pick out your clothes the day before; ever wondered why people like Albert Einstein, Barak Obama and Steve Jobs always wore the same styles?

Sleep on it. If a late-in-the-day important choice is unavoidable, be a little more intentional. Realise that you’re probably mentally spent and postpone the decision. Sleeping will allow you to recharge and make the most rational decision. Think about it: how many regrettable late-night online purchases have you made?

Go grab lunch. In the case of those judges who experienced a dip in their decision making skills, having a lunch break increased their ability to choose wisely. Are you someone who works through their lunch? Stop. You probably need a break more than you think.

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