We face hundreds of choices everyday — from what to eat for lunch (pasta or sushi?) to more complicated decisions that involve our emotional, financial, and physical well-being.
Regardless of how strong you are, your ability to make the best choices can eventually run out due to decision fatigue. That’s the official term for that feeling when you’re overly stressed by the endless amount of decisions you’ve had to make throughout the day.
“Recognizing it can be tricky because it will often feel like a deep sense of weariness,” says licensed counselor, Joe Martino, who adds that it probably affects us more than we ever realize.
Learning how to manage your decision-making can help you avoid feeling drained and conserve your mental energy. Here’s what you should know.
Coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, decision fatigue is the emotional and mental strain resulting from a burden of choices.
“When humans are overstressed, we become hasty or shut down altogether, and that stress plays a huge role in our behaviors,” says Tonya Hansel, PhD, director of the Doctorate of Social Work at Tulane University.
She explains that this type of fatigue leads to 1 of 2 outcomes: risky decision-making or decision avoidance.
In other words, when your mental energy begins running low, you’re less able to override basic desires and more likely to go for whatever’s easiest.
Decision fatigue can manifest in a range of ways. Here’s a look at 2 common scenarios:
Few things are as stressful as constantly thinking about what to eat every day. This is partly due to the sheer number of decisions involved (thanks, internet).
For example, maybe you scroll through dozens of recipes, waiting for one to stand out. Except… they all look good. Overwhelmed, you randomly select one without taking a close look at what’s involved.
After making your list, you head to the grocery store, only to stare down 20 or more options for milk alone.
You get home and realize you won’t have time to get through that recipe until this weekend. And that milk you bought? It’s not the kind the recipe called for.
Managing decisions at work
“Searching for answers can turn a simple decision tree into a maze of stress and burden,” says Hansel.
Let’s say you’re interviewing people to fill a new role. You get a ton of qualified candidates and find yourself struggling to cut down the list to a manageable number.
By the end of the day, you can’t keep them straight and just select the 3 applicants whose names you remember for an interview. Making your selection this way, you might overlook some of the strongest candidates.
Remember, decision fatigue isn’t always easy to spot. But Hansel offers some tell-tale signs that might suggest you’re heading for a burnout.
Decision fatigue signs
Classic signs of decision fatigue include:
- Procrastination. “I’ll tackle this later.”
- Impulsivity. “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…”
- Avoidance. “I can’t deal with this right now.”
- Indecision. “When in doubt, I just say ‘no.'”
Over time, this kind of stress can lead to irritability, increased anxiety, depression, and physical effects, such as tension headaches and digestive issues.
The best way to avoid energy-sapping decision fatigue is by consciously directing your thoughts and actions.
Here are some tips to get you started:
Focus on self-care
“As with any stress response, when the human system becomes overly taxed, self-care is extremely important,” says Hansel.
Take time to rest by setting aside 10-minute breaks between tasks throughout the day.
Recovering also means making sure you’re getting enough sleep at night, making sure you’re getting some nutrition from your food, and watching your alcohol intake.
Make a list of which decisions have priority
Cut down on needless decision-making by jotting down your top priorities for the day and ensuring you tackle those first. This way, your most important decisions get done when your energy is at its highest.
Have a personal philosophy for major decisions
According to Martino, a good rule of thumb when confronting major decisions is to ask yourself how tired you are in the present situation. Are you making a decision to simply solve the thing in front of you?
“I think the best question to ask is: How much impact on my life will this decision have?” he says.
If the answer is that it’ll have a high impact, develop a philosophy of decision-making that only allows you to make those decisions when you have to make them or when you feel refreshed.
This might mean setting aside a block of time each month to evaluate the pros and cons associated with major decisions.
Minimize low-stakes decisions
Reduce decision drain by planning ahead and taking relatively minor decisions out of the equation. For example, take your lunch to work to avoid having to decide which restaurant to order from. Or lay out your clothes for work the night before.
“What people don’t realize is that things that have very little impact on our lives can actually take a lot of decision energy,” Martino explains. “Try to limit those by choosing them the night before.”
Maintain unchanging routines
Set up your day so that you have to make the fewest decisions possible.
This means having strict and clear rules about certain things, such as:
- when you’ll go to sleep
- specific days you’ll hit the gym
- going grocery shopping
Opt for healthier snacks
Having the right nutrition can help conserve your energy. Research shows that eating a quick, glucose-rich snack improves our self-control and keeps your blood sugar from dipping low.
Not sure what to snack on? Here are 33 on-the-go options.
Allow others to help
Sharing the mental load of decision-making can help prevent feelings of overwhelm.
Here are a few examples of what you can delegate:
- If you’re having a hard time meal planning, allow your partner or roommate to come up with a menu. You can help out with the shopping.
- Ask a close friend to help you decide which plumber to call.
- Let a colleague choose which images to use on your next work presentation.
Keep tabs on your mental and physical state
“Realize that everyone gets overwhelmed with decisions at times,” says Hansel. Pay attention to your emotional and physical responses.
Are you repeatedly making poor choices because you feel overwhelmed? Do you find yourself making a habit of snacking on junk food to avoid making decisions about dinner?
Keeping track of your reactions can help you understand which habits need improvement.
Celebrate your good decisions
You make so many small decisions during the day without even realizing it. And that’s on top of all the big, noticeable ones.
Hansel recommends purposefully celebrating the work of making a well-informed or good decision.
If you nailed your presentation or managed to fix that leaky faucet, pat yourself on the back and celebrate your ability to problem solve and perform under pressure. Head home 15 minutes early or allow yourself some extra time to unwind when you get home.
If you’re feeling irritable, overwhelmed, or without energy, you might be dealing with decision fatigue.
Take a look at all the big and small decisions you make every day and think about how you can take them out of the equation.
By changing your habits and setting up the right routines, you can decrease anxiety and conserve your energy for the decisions that really matter.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.