What is Decision Fatigue? (And How to Avoid Bad Choices)

Imagine you are at the end of a hard exercise routine and you can hardly push your body to do any more work.

Your muscles are suffering from fatigue, and you are ready to give up. Your physical abilities have been depleted.

Have you ever thought that this same concept can be applied to your mental abilities?

Ego depletion refers to the idea that your willpower or ability to make good decisions comes from a limited amount of mental resources.

Once this energy starts to get low, self-control becomes impaired, leading to decision fatigue.

Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist known for a wide range of work on the self, sexuality and sex differences, social rejection, motivation, and aggression, coined the term “decision fatigue” in reference to the decline in the quality of decisions that are made by a person after many decisions have been made in a row.

Understanding the psychological principle of decision fatigue can help you make positive changes to your lifestyle so you can save your mental energy and willpower for making the most important decisions.

Decision Fatigue in Action

Real-life examples of decision fatigue have been described in studies.

Shai Danziger and Liora Avnaim-Pesso of Ben Gurion University and Johnathan Levav of Columbia University studied the various factors affecting the probability that Israeli prisoners who were going before a judge for a parole hearing would be set free.

After analyzing over 1,100 decisions over the course of a year, the researchers found that when it was time to decide if a prisoner should be granted parole, it wasn’t the crime committed, the length of the sentence, or the ethnicity of the offender that determined prisoner's future.

Instead, the biggest influence seemed to be the time of day the prisoner stood in front of the judge. The prisoners who appeared later in the day were less likely to be released on parole than those who appeared in the morning.

The judges were not treating prisoners unfairly on purpose. They were actually experiencing decision fatigue. The mental work required to rule on case after case all day wore each judge down, weakening his ability to make a good decision.

This resulted in quick decisions that would make it easier for the judge at that moment, which was to deny parole to the prisoners appearing before him. Rather than agonizing over decisions, the judges would typically ease their mental strain by resisting change and keeping the prisoners locked up.

quotes on choices and decision making - “Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.” —John C. Maxwell

Decision Fatigue in Your Life

Decision fatigue explains why you may start to look for shortcuts in your decision making throughout the day. You may even decide to give up and do nothing when you are faced with a decision.

For example, you may respond to an email in an angry way rather than taking the time to formulate a thoughtful response. You could also end up driving through a fast food restaurant for dinner if you didn't take the time in the morning to plan out your meals. Or, it could be late at night when you make an impulsive purchase online that completely blows your budget.

This state of decision making routinely warps everyone's judgment. It does not discriminate between executives and non-executives, or the rich and the poor. While most people are unaware of it, decision fatigue can have a lot of lasting consequences.

Why “Fun” Decisions Are Often the Hardest to Make

In Brian Bailey's blog post about living a happier and more productive life by avoiding decision fatigue, he presents several instances of how making a lot of decisions in a short period of time often leads to poor results.

We've all been there. You ask your partner what they want for dinner, and they respond by asking you the exact same question. After going back and forth, you decide to take the easy way out and order a delicious (yet unhealthy) pizza.

You could have avoided this poor decision if you’d created a meal plan and shopped for the necessary ingredients earlier in the week. When we have too many choices, it leads to an overwhelming feeling, causing people to either make bad choices or shut down and do nothing.

Having a routine limits the number of decisions you have to make each day, which increases your odds of doing the right thing.

How to Recover from Decision Fatigue

1. Make your most important decisions in the morning.

Your mind is the clearest during the morning hours because you’re not yet worn out from the day’s activities. You haven't been faced with a plethora of decisions yet, and you are able to stop and think about your situation.

Consider taking some time while you are going over your most important tasks (MIT’s) for the day to make any important decisions that are scheduled to come your way.

2. For less immediate decisions, choose the simpler option.

For the lower priority things on your to-do list that really have no impact in the long run, go for the simpler option. Which option makes you feel less overwhelmed? Which is the easiest thing to do right now?

Depending on how complex the issue is, big decisions often require more time and consideration regarding your long- and short-term goals. For decisions that are more immediate, taking the path of least resistance is probably the better choice.

One basic decision-making flaw is treating easy consumer decisions as if they were difficult and important in the long run. While you likely know that every brand of floss will get the job done, you may still stand in the store and contemplate the pros and cons of the different varieties. This is a waste of time, yet it is very common.

People tend to do this because any wasted deliberation in a store is a metacognitive mishap. The vast array of options confuses you into thinking that this decision is worth taking a significant amount of time to make. Rather than pondering these small decisions, just grab what you know works and carry on with your day.

3. For daily decisions, plan them the night before.

Even better than waiting until the morning is to plan the most insignificant decisions the night before they will happen. For example, maybe you aren't sure what you are going to bring to work for lunch the next day. Take some time to consider your options so you don't end up reaching for a cheeseburger at 11:30 am.

To plan even more in advance, consider making freezer meals to have on hand so you can eat them when life gets a bit busy and you aren't able to take the time that you would like to plan out your meals in advance.

4. For decisions later in the day, eat first. Don’t make any decisions when you’re hungry.

We have all heard about the dangers of going grocery shopping while hungry, but research also suggests that we shouldn't make any important decisions on an empty stomach. When you are hungry, your stomach produces a hormone called ghrelin, which negatively impacts decision making.

This appetite-increasing hormone decreases impulse control and increases the chances of making a bad decision. By studying rats, researchers found that, similar to humans, rodents find it difficult to resist a quick temptation when they have increased levels of ghrelin.

Because of this, it is important to make sure that you have had enough to eat before making a decision, especially if it is later in the day and you are already prone to decision fatigue.

how to avoid decision fatigue - “Decisions are the frequent fabric of our daily design.” — Don Yaeger

5. Limit and simplify your choices: where and what to eat, what to wear, etc.

If you are faced with too many decisions, narrow it down to three choices at a time. If you can't make a decision within the three choices that you have limited yourself to, choose another three options to consider.

So, say you’re going through the menu at a restaurant and you’re trying to decide what you want to eat. Narrow the menu down to three choices at a time until you are able to decide what's best for you. This will help to prevent you from becoming overwhelmed with all of the information in front of you.

6. Go minimalist.

Minimalism is a lifestyle movement that aims to cut down on possessions so you only have the essential items. Life can be lived more fully when small and unnecessary decisions have to be made, so sticking to the essentials for these things leaves you more room to focus on more important decisions.

While a lot of people choose to apply minimalism to their wardrobes by only purchasing timeless and necessary items that can then be accessorized or dressed down, you can also go minimalist when decorating your house or considering the car you want to drive.

Minimalism requires you to determine the most important pursuits in your life, and taking away everything that is distracting you from that. By doing this, you can find a way to live your life that adds richness around life’s key elements.

7. Aim for “good enough” instead of perfection.

If you are working on something that is not helping you achieve your final goal, leave well enough alone. If you keep thinking everything has to be perfect, your perfectionism will turn into procrastination. Complete something until it is good enough, and if it ends up affecting you later, you can always go back and make some changes.

8. Don’t make decisions in places that are full of distractions.

Set aside specific parts of the day to tend to any distractions such as social media and email. Give yourself a limited amount of time to engage in these activities, and get back to work as soon as that time is up.

When shopping, don’t enter a store unless you know specifically what you are there to purchase. Otherwise, you will present yourself with a lot of little decisions on whether or not you want to buy something on impulse. Don't allow these little distractions into your life.

9. Focus on making decisions for items on your to-do list only.

While we all have some sense of fear of missing out, when it comes to finishing your most important tasks, you will have to turn down some things. If you put too much on your plate, it is likely to get in the way of accomplishing your main priorities.

In conclusion, decision fatigue may be one of the many underlying reasons why you have not been able to build positive habits and daily routines in the past. Once you are aware of decision fatigue and understand how to overcome it, you’ll be able to take the necessary steps to stay consistent with your daily habits.

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What is Decision Fatigue? (And How to Avoid Bad Choices)
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