Ever responded to a loved one’s question of what to have for dinner at the end of the day with, “I don’t care – whatever”? Us too. Most of us have certainly had days where, by 6pm, we’re either feeling apathetic towards the rest of our day’s activities, or we’re make choices we regret later on. Maybe we’ve had a stacked day full of meetings, forced to make decision after decision. At a certain point, we just don’t have an opinion anymore – and if we do, we’re too exhausted to stand our ground on it. This is called decision fatigue, and it’s a rapidly-growing area in psychological research.
Decision fatigue is the simple idea that the more decisions we have to make in a day, the more likely we are to make poor or irrational choices as the day wears on. The quality of our decisions (e.g. our ability to make sound, rational choices) decreases as we make more and more of them. This explains why our normally-rational selves will make choices that we might regret later (think impulsive shopping, dining out, or irritable, snarky remarks towards our loved ones). We’re not always conscious of it, either – when our brains start to get tired, they take one of two shortcuts. They either act hastily or rash and make choices without rationally considering all the options or their individual consequences, or they simply reach a standstill and refuse to decide. Resenting having to make a decision in the first place is a good sign that you might be dealing with decision fatigue. Every time we make a decision, we use a sizeable amount of mental energy. Eventually, that energy runs out and we’re simply not able to weigh our options as effectively as we could when our brains are “fresher.” We might not necessarily be feeling physically tired, but the more decisions we make in a day, the lower their quality as the hours tick on.
So – how do you minimize decision fatigue in your life and trust the quality of your choices? We’ve got some simple tips to help you set your best “brain” forward.
Trim down how many decisions you make in a day, period
Streamline what you can and save yourself the mental energy expended from less-important choices, such as what you’re going to have for lunch or wear to your big work presentation. Make a habit of figuring out which of your daily activities you can plan for and decide ahead of time how and when you’ll do them. This could be as simple as laying out your outfit the night before or packing all your lunches for the week on a Sunday afternoon. Plan with your partner who will pick the kids up from school before the day-of, and set a time to catch up with your friends a few days before you plan to meet up. When you can, decide before the time comes and save your mental energy for choices that matter more to you and have more important consequences.
Do your hardest tasks in the morning
We’ve all heard this before – get your most challenging, complex tasks out of the way in the morning so that one, you start the day with a feeling of accomplishment, and two, you don’t begin to dread them as your energy wanes throughout the day. Tackle your most taxing responsibilities head-on in the morning, when your brain is fresh and you’re likely not dealing with decision fatigue. You are much more likely to feel confident in your decisions made in the morning because you will have had the time and energy to rationally consider all the options and their implications.
Put off making decisions when you can (especially when they’re big)
You’ve probably rarely been advised to “procrastinate,” however there are times when you just know that you’ll make a better decision with a fresher mindset and are rested. When you’re struggling to make a decision, you might be dealing with decision fatigue. If you can, especially if this is a “big” decision with long-lasting consequences, put it off by a day or two, or even by a few hours. Let your brain rest, and come back to reevaluate later when you can more confidently trust your decision-making abilities.
Be ok with changing your mind
Ever struggled to decide what you want at a restaurant and then panic-ordered when the wait staff came around? Only then to realize that you actually wanted the other item you were deciding between? Sometimes the simple act of making a choice helps us realize what we want – and that’s perfectly ok. Sometimes we subconsciously think that changing our minds and admitting we were wrong in serious environments like work or family situations is a sign of mental or intellectual weakness. It’s actually quite the opposite – admitting when we are wrong is a sign of strength, rationality, and intellect. We should be able to be un-convinced of our beliefs as we become aware of new information.
Decision fatigue will continue to rise in our society as we gain more autonomy over our daily lives. In a time where many of us are working from home regularly, we might have much more control over our daily schedules than we’re used to. We might be making more choices than we ever have, and not understanding why we just can’t seem to find a rhythm. Streamline your daily schedules as much as you can – decide ahead of time when possible, and tackle your most complex tasks in the morning. Ask for more time to make a decision when you need it to avoid impulsive choices that you regret later – and don’t feel bad for changing your mind. We’re all human, after all – and we have the will power and autonomy to reconsider as we continue to learn and grow.