Decision Fatigue: How It Works and How to Beat It

We all know, intuitively, that physical exhaustion can take a toll on our ability to think clearly, making even the simplest decisions seem momentous. It turns out there’s a name for that: decision fatigue. And it’s a little scarier than you might think.

It’s bad enough that decision fatigue can make it difficult to reach decisions, even about simple things. The real problem is that it can lead us to make bad decisions, researchers say.

“Decision fatigue causes us to make poor decisions, because, as we reach mental exhaustion, our brains take illogical shortcuts to aid us in our decision-making,” according to experts at the Decision Lab, an applied research firm. “These shortcuts result in less deliberate decisions.”

A shortcut can go in one of two directions. Because exhaustion tends to diminish our willpower or impulse control, we might say yes to something that we ought to decline. Or we might just say no out of hand simply because we don’t want to think about.

“Sometimes it’s just easier to say no rather than to weigh the choices and make an appropriate decision,” according to researchers at the Carson College of Business at Washington State University. “This can lead to lost opportunities. That automatic no is as bad as an impulsive yes.”

In a blog post for Ladders, an executive-level career site, Taylor Tobin identifies some other symptoms of decision fatigue:

  • Feeling overwhelmed by options
  • Making decisions without consulting others
  • Not trusting your gut
  • Worrying disproportionately about the consequences of a decision

How to Combat It

Karlie Kramer, a contributor at the Mindful Leader, suggests four ways to minimize its impact at work:

Make fewer decisions. For example, use automatic bill payment whenever possible. “The more decisions you automate, the more energy you can save for important stuff [at work],” Kramer writes.

Tackle big decisions early in the day. Research has found that we make our best decisions in the morning, and our worse ones at night.

Eat right and eat often. It’s basic biology: The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that is key to decision-making, requires glucose, a sugar found in food.

Time-block your schedule. It’s another way to reduce the volume of decisions. “By committing ahead of time to a designated task within a specific timeframe, you’re setting priorities and eliminating the need to decide how to spend free time,” says Kramer.

For more research on decision fatigue, check out this paper published in Frontiers in Psychology but available through the National Library of Medicine.

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