Decision Fatigue: What Is It and How to Overcome It

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You know that moment of relief and exhaustion when you sprawl on the couch at the end of a hectic day? You flick on the TV, then proceed to numb your brain with an episode of “Parks and Rec.” You’ve seen a million times, but it doesn’t matter. Here in this low-stakes sitcom world of small town municipal government, you can watch fictional characters make all the decisions, instead of having to choose a particular lane for yourself. 

Feel Relatable? You Could Have Decision Fatigue.

If this scenario sounds all too familiar, welcome to the reality of decision fatigue. Research estimates that an average person has to make about 35,000 decisions on a daily basis. Some are as minimal as, “Should I exercise before or after work?” While others are as monumental as, “Should I turn my side hustle into a full-time business?” But with so many choices competing for everyone’s attention, it’s no surprise that decision fatigue is on the rise. And the events of these last two years aren’t helping the situation either. 

As a report from the American Psychological Association found, one-third of Americans are so stressed about the continuous impact of COVID-19 that they feel paralyzed to make even basic decisions, such as which cereal to eat for breakfast or which clothes to throw on for a Zoom meeting. This is especially true for Millennials and Gen Zers, the data reveals. 

The pressure to choose a direct course of action in the midst of such an uncertain, fluctuating landscape takes an emotional, mental, and energetic toll. So if it’s all you can do just to pick a show to binge on Netflix (much less, plan out your entire schedule for the week), blame it on decision fatigue. Also be aware that, if left unchecked, decision fatigue can have repercussions on your judgment—which is why it’s crucial to overcome this hurdle. 

How to Combat Decision Fatigue: Action Steps

Once the inertia of decision fatigue sets in, it can wear you out to the point of reckless and irrational behavior, lack of impulse control, procrastination, or complete inaction, according to the Journal of Health Psychology. That’s because decision fatigue will short circuit neural pathways in the brain responsible for your reasoning and flexible thinking. So how can you beat decision fatigue and streamline the amount of choices you’re faced with at any given time? Below are some practical ideas to help you out.

1. Establish Consistent, Simplified Routines.

Ever stop to question why the late Apple founder Steve Jobs wore the exact same black sweater and jeans on a daily basis? The answer is straightforward—because he understood the power of routine. Jobs was one of many successful leaders who simplify their lives with consistent routines to conserve brain space for the decisions which actually matter. 

Former President Obama has even stated, “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. I have too many other decisions to make.” Chances are, you don’t have a whole nation to govern, but you can ease some of the choices that fall on your own shoulders by using this presidential rationale. Create daily routines to help automate the smaller actions, so you can focus more time on larger decisions that will move your career, finances, goals, or relationships forward. 

2. Walk into Decisions with a Clear Strategy.

Picture it: you enter the grocery store without a list in hand, then leave awhile later with a cart full of random snacks and a receipt for twice the amount of your normal food budget. If you can relate to this experience, then you know the value of planning ahead. The same is true with decisions—when you strategize on the frontend, you’ll be able to chart out an informed course of action, rather than making an impulsive choice that might backfire.  

Of course, some circumstances are unpredictable, which requires you to make a snap decision without much forethought. But when you do have time to process, take advantage of this and consider all viable options. This doesn’t mean you need to overthink, but it does mean you can pause to evaluate the situation, run a cost-benefit analysis, account for possible risks, gather relevant information, then own your final decision with confidence.   

3. Be Aware of When Your Brain Is Sharpest.

In some cases, decision fatigue will occur because you’re attempting to make a decision at the wrong time of day—this might sound like an overly simplistic reason, but it’s true. The brain’s energy reserves peak and slump at numerous intervals in the day, so take note of when you’re in a clear, alert frame of mind for optimal decision making.  

For instance, Japanese researchers found that, in the morning, it’s easier to respond to stressful events without panicking or acting rashly. This is because your cortisol (stress hormone) levels are more concentrated in the morning, which helps to stabilize your blood pressure and regulate other internal functions that keep you energized, calm, and present. So if there’s a situation on the horizon, which needs a thoughtful, intentional response, make this decision earlier in the day if possible when your brain is at peak focus.

4. Don’t Waste Energy on Second Guessing. 

Why agonize over a decision in the first place if you won’t trust your own instincts enough to stand by that choice once it’s made? Decisions require commitment, so be responsible and accountable for whatever action you choose, even if it leads to some unexpected obstacles along the way. Doubt is an enemy of progress—you’ll never take the next resolute, meaningful step forward if you second guess yourself into decision paralysis. 

If you often feel immobilized to make even the most basic decisions, chances are, it’s because you question, waver, or straddle the fence, instead of just committing. This is such a waste of valuable, expendable energy (no wonder you have decision fatigue!). So tune out those inner voices that fill your head with whispers of doubt, and believe in yourself to choose the right path. There could be roadblocks or detours, but you will figure it out. 

Decision Fatigue Is Real—But You Can Overcome It. 

If all the stress and pressures of life have you feeling too exhausted to make rational, firm decisions, there are simple ways to combat this. Don’t be a victim of decision fatigue—harness these action steps, and you’ll be back in the driver’s seat once again. Life will always present challenges, but the power of choice is still yours.

About Author

Mary-Elizabeth Meagher is a freelance writer, social media marketer, travel enthusiast, musical theatre nerd and self-described bohemian. She lives and seeks adventure in the Arizona desert, and she also blogs over at Health Be a Hippie—her personal contribution to making the internet a more authentic, vulnerable and empowering place.

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