Decision Making on Empty: How to Combat Decision Fatigue and Make Smarter Choices

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Have you ever found yourself dreading even simple choices, like what to eat for dinner,  after a long day? You’re not alone. This frustrating experience is a classic symptom of decision fatigue, a state where our ability to make good choices gets depleted by an overload of decisions.

Just like our muscles get tired after a workout, our brains experience fatigue after expending mental energy on decision-making. Every decision, big or small, uses up a bit of our willpower. Whether it’s picking an outfit, choosing what to eat for breakfast, or tackling a complex work project, these constant choices take a toll on our cognitive resources. When our decision-making battery runs low, we enter a state of decision fatigue, where even simple tasks feel overwhelming.

This article dives deep into the world of decision fatigue, exploring its causes, consequences, and, most importantly, how to combat it and make smarter choices throughout the day.

Understanding Decision Fatigue

The concept of decision fatigue isn’t just a modern woe. Psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for decades. One influential theory comes from research by Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist who explored the concept of ego depletion. His studies suggested that willpower is a limited resource, and each decision we make uses some of it. Imagine your willpower as a battery – every choice you make drains it a little bit. By the end of a long day filled with countless decisions, your battery is running low, making even seemingly trivial choices feel like a monumental effort.

This decision fatigue manifests in several ways. We might experience:

  • Analysis Paralysis: Stuck overthinking even simple choices, unable to decide at all.
  • Impulsivity: Ditching thoughtful decision-making and resorting to quick, often regrettable choices.
  • Procrastination: Putting off tasks that require us to make decisions, leading to stress and missed deadlines.
  • Poor Choices: Our ability to weigh options and make optimal decisions deteriorates when our willpower is depleted.

Triggers: What Drains Our Decision-Making Battery?

decision fatigue from having too many choices

So, what exactly depletes your decision-making battery and leads to decision fatigue? Several factors contribute. 

  • Information Overload: We live in a world overflowing with options, from the endless choices at the grocery store to the millions of streaming services at our fingertips. This constant barrage of possibilities can be overwhelming and lead to decision fatigue.
  • Lack of Clarity: Uncertainty and unclear goals force us to make more micro-decisions throughout the day. For example, a messy workspace might prompt constant decisions about where to put things, leaving us mentally drained.
  • Pressure and Deadlines: High-stakes choices or tight deadlines increase the cognitive load associated with decision-making. The pressure to “get it right” rapidly depletes our willpower reserves.
  • Unmet Basic Needs: When we’re sleep-deprived, hungry, or stressed, our willpower is already low. In these states, even basic decisions feel difficult, leading to decision fatigue.

The Phone Call Paralysis: A Real-Life Example of Decision Fatigue

Imagine you have a long list of people you’ve been meaning to catch up with – a friend you haven’t spoken to in ages, a relative with a recent birthday, a colleague you owe a call about a project. You open your phone, ready to connect, but then…nothing. Scrolling through the list, you feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options. Who should you call first? What should you talk about? Suddenly, the seemingly simple task of making a phone call feels daunting. The decision fatigue you’ve accumulated throughout the day has reached a critical point, leading to paralysis.

This scenario perfectly illustrates how decision fatigue can impact the most basic interactions. In this case, choosing who to call first becomes a burden, ultimately leading to inaction.

Strategies for Smarter (Faster) Decisions, Less Fatigue

overcoming the idea trap and decision fatigue depicted by a cartoon of people picking writing ideas from a box and rushing to execute

The good news is that decision fatigue isn’t a life sentence. By understanding its causes and implementing some practical strategies, we can conserve our willpower and make better choices throughout the day.

Here are some key strategies to combat decision fatigue;

  • The Power of Routines: Establishing routines for everyday tasks helps automate decisions and frees up mental energy. For example, having a designated “work outfit” eliminates the daily struggle of choosing what to wear. (Stay tuned for a future post that dives deeper into the power of routines!)
  • Outsource Where Possible: Can you delegate tasks to free up your decision-making resources? Use the Eisenhower matrix to identify what can be delegated and then do just that. 
  • Decision Templates: For recurring choices, create simple mental frameworks. For example, if deciding where to eat causes stress, have a few go-to factors in mind (budget, cuisine type, location). This streamlines the process without endless comparison.
  • Prioritize Self-Care: Sleep, healthy eating, exercise, and managing stress are crucial for replenishing willpower reserves. Make time for activities that recharge you, making it easier to handle necessary decisions.
  • Schedule Strategically: If possible, tackle important or complex decisions when you’re at your cognitive peak. Are you a morning person? Block out focused decision-making time during those early, clear-headed hours.
  • Limit Options: Paradoxically, having fewer choices can sometimes be liberating. Instead of browsing every restaurant in town, curate a list of 5 go-to spots for different situations.
  • Batch Decisions: When practical, group similar choices together to reduce mental load. Choose all outfits for the week at once, or answer emails in a dedicated block instead of sporadically checking your inbox.

Track Your Triggers, Strategize, and Take Back Control

The first step to combating decision fatigue is awareness. Take some time this week to notice when you feel overwhelmed by choices, or find yourself procrastinating on decisions. Is it usually at specific times of the day? Are certain types of decisions more draining than others? Identifying your triggers allows you to pinpoint the most effective strategies. Choose one or two of the strategies above and implement them for a week. Notice how they change your decision-making experiences.

Remember, Progress over perfection! Beating decision fatigue takes time and practice. There will be days when willpower runs low, and that’s okay. Aim for small wins, gradually building up your “decision-making muscle” over time. The more mindful you become about your mental energy, the easier it gets to make choices that align with your goals and reduce decision-related burnout.


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