- Experts say COVID-19 may be causing decision fatigue for many people.
- Decision fatigue is caused by not only the quantity of decisions but also the heavier impact that decisions such as going to the grocery store now carry, they say.
- The pandemic may also be creating adjustment disorder, because of the constant changes that happen during lockdowns.
- Experts advise that you acknowledge the difficulty of today’s decisions and try to take a break between decisions.
Picture this: You don’t want to cook, but you’ve spent a half-hour trying to decide which takeout food to order.
Now, you can’t decide on which movie to watch. Instead of relaxing, you’re stressing out.
If this sounds familiar, you might be suffering from decision fatigue, a kind of mental overload that comes from having to make too many choices too frequently.
“All people, regardless of profession, are subject to decision fatigue,” said Dr. Michael Wetter, PsyD, FAPA, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Los Angeles and the director of psychology at UCLA Medical Center’s division of adolescent and young adult medicine. “It really depends on the number of stressors playing out in their life, the resources available to them to help manage those stressors, and the capacity to engage in appropriate self-care.”
“There has perhaps been no greater stressor than that of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has resulted in economic, health, political, and family-based stressors to almost everyone,” Wetter said.
It’s not simply that people are making more decisions. It’s also that those decisions are resting on more uncertainty with more impactful consequences.
These days, those formerly uneventful decisions can include whether to go to the grocery store or attend a holiday party.
“Making decisions that are based on rapidly shifting data sets, information that keeps changing, and the unpredictability of the nature of the pandemic has most certainly exacerbated people’s difficulty in making fluent and confident decisions,” Wetter told Healthline.
Decision fatigue doesn’t just complicate making decisions, but also making good ones.
“It’s very similar to the physical fatigue experienced after a long workout,” said Dr. Rashmi Parmar, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry, a California outpatient mental health organization. “Once it sets in, your brain will try to compensate by looking for a shortcut, either by making a hasty or impulsive choice or avoiding a choice altogether.”
Those choices can have significant effects.
A 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that judges’ rates of favorable rulings dropped from around 65 percent to near 0 in court sessions preceding a lunch break. Then after lunch, it jumped back up to around 65 percent, and fell again by the end of the day.
In prepandemic life, most people don’t have to make as many consequential decisions as a judge might on a daily basis, but the circumstances of COVID-19 have changed that.
“A seemingly ordinary day in your life today requires you to make a series of decisions with every passing minute,” Parmar told Healthline. “With the uncertainty and chaos that set in earlier this year with the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been forced to make additional choices about their lifestyle and safety, which has added to the dilemma of decision fatigue.”
She said, “this has led to mental burnout earlier than anticipated in the day, further causing reduced functioning at work/home. People’s overall stress levels have skyrocketed, leading to worsening mental health problems.”
Among those worsening health problems are adjustment disorders, which are similar to symptoms of depression and anxiety but directly caused by having trouble adjusting to a new situation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly everyone had to adjust to a jarring new normal relatively quickly, leading to a kind of mental whiplash.
“There were lots of adjustment disorders caused by the inconveniences and added stress of being under a kind of house arrest,” said Charles Figley, PhD, founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans and a professor in their School of Social Work. “Stress is our signal to pay attention.”
“The condition is a preventable and treatable syndrome, fortunately,” Figley told Healthline.
If you’re feeling particularly anxious from the sudden shift, Figley said, you may talk with your doctor or a mental health professional.
Figley recommends following these steps to reduce decision fatigue and lessen adjustment disorders:
- Step 1. Acknowledge that decisions are becoming too difficult mentally.
- Step 2. Establish the criteria under which a decision will be considered.
- Step 3. Commit to reducing the potential decisions to be made during a typical week.
- Step 4. Commit to anticipating decisions that may emerge in the next week and month.
- Step 5. Review all decisions made regarding their ability to be categorized and studied.
And if you’re working from home, make sure to take breaks between meetings to clear your head.
“Virtual calls and pandemic restrictions have altered some of our movement habits,” Alison Henderson, a certified movement pattern analyst, told Healthline.
“At the simplest level, we aren’t giving our brains the chance to task transition between meetings when we would usually move from office to office,” she said. “Our brains take that physical transition to clear thoughts from one meeting and begin to focus on the next. With stacked virtual meetings, we are ending one and starting the next with no physical transition for brains, and decision fatigue can set in.”
Henderson suggests remote workers to walk around their house for a couple of minutes between meetings. This would help counter decision fatigue.
“Change a load of laundry. Walk the dog. Run up and down the stairs a couple of times,” she said.