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Can’t Choose Between Thai and Italian for dinner?


Last week one of my clients was talking about how worn out she was from making decisions. The decisions themselves might seem small to you. Cathy had to decide between frames for her latest pieces of art, choose a brand of paints to use with a new project, find a photographer to shoot headshots for her website, set a time for an appointment for a potential gallery showing, and consider whether or not to book time for an art retreat. Now it was time to choose an outfit for her gallery opening.

Cathy had made lots of decisions and wasn’t ready to make another. She told me she was opting for an old outfit from the back of her closet. It didn’t fit that well and didn’t showcase her artistic brand in its best light. She said that she just didn’t have the energy to go the store and get something special to wear.

Seems kind of silly on the surface. She had made what we might think of as everyday decisions for her business. The final decision about her outfit was an important decision in her ongoing quest to build a brand, yet she was stuck. I told her she was likely suffering from decision fatigue.

What is decision fatigue?

Decision fatigue is a real malady. The term was popularized by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. The theory is that the more decisions we have to make throughout the day, the harder it becomes for our brains to make them. As a result we avoid decisions, make poor decisions or make quick impulse decisions.

It’s also connected on one level to our willpower. Studies show that self-control is depleted as a result of decision fatigue. That’s why the plate of chocolate chip cookies looks especially tempting after a long day filled with decisions.

How does decision fatigue show up?

There is a reason for all those items placed right next to the cash register at the store. What mother can’t identify with having made decisions throughout a grocery trip, only to have to make another one when her child asks for the candy at the checkout?

You can also see it at play when at the end of a long week, your spouse asks if you’d like to go out for Thai or Italian. Instead of choosing, you say, “You pick.” You are just too tired for one more decision.

Those are seemingly innocuous examples of decision fatigue. It can also shows up in larger, more serious situations. Cases are recorded where criminals are up for parole hearings and the resulting ruling was tied more to how tired the judge was than it was to the crime. Researchers found that the rulings tended to be less favorable for the criminal as the morning went on. The rulings started out favorable after lunch and after an afternoon break, again becoming less favorable as time went by. The researchers concluded it was because of decision fatigue.

How do you combat decision fatigue?

It’s easy to see how my client Cathy was worn down from her day and just didn’t want to make one more decision. Here are some ways you can combat this.

Plan what you can ahead of time. This could be as simple as deciding what you will wear the next day. I have a friend who hosts a television show and when she is packing to travel she creates a master sheet of all the clothes for each day with the appropriate jewelry. She numbers the outfits and bags the jewelry with the same number. The decision is made ahead of time and won’t wear her down to start her day. You can plan the family meals ahead of time. Even planning the errands you’ll run on the way home from the studio ahead of time can make a difference.

Make important decisions early in the day. If the example of the judges at the parole hearings is any indication, you want to make your important decisions when you are fresh. That means early in your day. If the decisions must wait, then eat something first or take a break so you can be fresh. It’s important that you understand when you are at your best.

Limit your options. You don’t have to investigate all the options before you make a decision. Set out to look at a limited number, say three, and then give yourself a time frame within which to make a decision. Otherwise, you will continue to get caught up in the decision loop and just add to the fatigue.

Simplify your life. This might just be another way to say no. You do not need to make every decision that confronts you. Some decisions do not add to the quality of your life, so choose to not decide. Deciding not to decide is a decision.

Help others out. You are not the only one suffering from decision fatigue. Don’t contribute to it in others. For example, if you are someone too tired to decide if you want Thai or Italian, I’m guessing perhaps your partner is too. Instead of passing off the decision, offer a suggestion of two specific restaurants and ask him/her to pick one. Next time swap roles. One of my friends says this technique helps her feel less overwhelmed with the decisions. It’s also let her try some fabulous new restaurants she wouldn’t have on her own.

Your turn!

How do you handle decision fatigue?



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