Decision-Making Fatigue: How it affects you and what to do about it
You may have heard of something called decision-making fatigue, as it has become a popular term in psychology in the last ten years. It is a way of explaining why, the more decisions we make, the more difficult it seems for us to make good decisions.
Today we are going to answer the questions: What is decision-making fatigue? How does it affect you? And what can you do about it?
What is Decision-Making Fatigue?
Decision-making fatigue is the theory that we have a limited supply of the self-control needed to make good decisions. The more we use it, the less we have.
Just like other muscles, of course, the self-control muscle can get stronger over time. But, just like your biceps, there is a limit to how many sets your self-control muscle can do in a single session.
That is why it is easier to choose to have a healthy breakfast first thing in the morning, than say no to that glass of wine and slab of chocolate the last thing at night. Just like all muscles, the self-control muscle regenerates after a period of rest, but after a long day of heavy lifting, it can give up.
Many studies have looked at decision-making fatigue. But the most famous, and perhaps the most disturbing, is a recent study of parole board judges. The study found that convicts that sat in front of the board at the end of the morning session before lunch, and also at the end of the day, were disproportionately likely to be denied parole. Why? The judges are suffering from decision making fatigue, and so they subconsciously go with the easiest safest answer, which is no, rather than to fully assess the case.
How does Decision-Making Fatigue Affect You?
So, decision-making fatigue makes it more difficult for you to make good decisions, but what exactly does that mean?
First, you will have trouble balancing short-term and long-term rewards. Imagine that you are faced with a tempting but “bad for you” food. You are weighing up the short-term reward of the taste and sugar rush, against the long-term weight loss and health rewards. Similarly, when you are faced with a tempting but expensive pleasure purchase, you are weighing up the short-term reward of having that item, with the long-term reward of saving, perhaps for a car or a mortgage.
Short-term rewards are very tempting for us as human beings as it is something for us. But most of us tend to see our future self as a stranger, so we are less invested in the long-term reward. So it takes self-control to make the long-term reward decision.
Second, you will likely avoid decisions, like our judges, who decided to do nothing (deny parole), rather than undertake a genuine decision on the case. This happens because our brains subconsciously know when we are not in a good state to make decisions. So, when it is suffering from decision-making fatigue, and it is faced with a tough decision, it can do everything in its power to avoid making that decision.
Another symptom of decision-making fatigue is a lack of self-control. Keeping our emotions under control and choosing to abide by social norms are also decisions, and when we are suffering from decision-making fatigue, they are harder to do. You are more likely to find yourself crying for no good reason or getting angry over little things.
How to Manage Decision-Making Fatigue
But while decision-making fatigue is a fact of life, all is not lost. Once you are aware of its effects on you, there are things that you can do to minimize its impact.
Minimize the number of decisions that you have to make
Barack Obama famously wore the same suit every day that he was in the Oval Office. His reason? He didn’t want to choose what to wear, because he already had enough decisions to make.
If you can eliminate the little decisions that slowly siphon off your decision-making strength, you will have more capacity for other decisions.
There are many things that we can make habitual, such as what we wear, when we work out, and what we do in the evening. But if you are unsure where to start, think about putting together a strict meal plan. Research shows that the majority of people make around 200 food and eating-related decisions every day. That is a lot of decision making energy expended.
Read more: Creative Ways to Improve Your Eating Habits
Do the most important things first
Our self-control muscle is regenerated after periods of rest, so it is often the strongest first thing in the morning (or after a nap). This is why you should prioritize the things that will require the most decision-making muscle, and do them first.
This is the logic behind the idea that you should tackle a difficult task first thing when you get into the office, rather than spend your energy on email. It is similarly probably why Beethoven was successful with his ritual of waking up early and working on his creative tasks until midday.
Read more: Five Habits of Morning People.
Give yourself time to rest and recuperate
Yes, our decision-making muscle works better first thing in the morning, but fatigue can also be long term. For example, if you are working on a big project at work, burning the candle at both ends, and making tough decisions every day, your decision making is likely to get progressively worse as the weeks pass.
To recover from this kind of decision-making fatigue, you need to give yourself a break from that atmosphere. This means not working, or even thinking about work, for periods of time each week so that you can recover from that part of your decision making life. This is why it is also recommended that we all take regular, longer holidays to more fully recharge our batteries.
Making Good Decisions
If you can see decision-making fatigue affecting you, there are things that you can do to ensure that you have a bit more will power and self-control “in the tank” for those tough decisions.
First, be aware of how decision making-fatigue affects you, and schedule important decisions and creative work for when you are fresh. Get some ideas for how to do it with our article Five Habits of Morning People.
Second, cut little decisions out of your life so that you aren’t using up your decision-making energy on things that can be routine. For help on how, read Strategic Approaches to Building and Breaking Habits.
Finally, remember that intense periods of stress and pressure wear you out, and so you need to invest time in rest and recuperation to regenerate your decision making batteries. For many, this means finding a balance between work and life. If you need help, read Three Ways Goal Setting Helps You Achieve Work-Life Balance.