Decision-making can be hard work. So much hard work in fact, there’s even a condition that reflects the strain caused by the mass of decisions we have to make on a daily basis. If you’ve not heard about ‘decision fatigue’, now’s the time to listen up and make your mind up about it...
What is decision fatigue?
The average adult makes around 35,000 decisions every day. Each one of those decisions – whether big or small – involves weighing up a number of possible courses of action. That’s a lot of data that needs processing and the result of this daily process can leave you wired towards the latter part of your day. This leads to decision fatigue and it is defined as an inability to make balanced decisions, or even an inability to make any decisions at all.
Why is it a problem?
We all know what it’s like to make a decision that we later come to regret. It might be a small thing: ordering a food delivery when our social diary is full of evenings out, meaning our fresh food goes to waste. Or it could be a big decision, one that impacts your own livelihood or the working lives of those around you. When you’ve got decision fatigue, the likelihood of making these bad decisions – big and small – increases.
How does it work?
As the New York Times puts it, humans pay a “biological price” every time we make a decision. Therefore, the more choices and decisions we make throughout the day, the harder it gets for our brains, until we reach a point where we look for “shortcuts”.
These shortcuts tend to take two forms: lazy decision making, or decision avoidance. Lazy decision making occurs because our mental energy is running low so we look for whatever decision is easiest. That might mean that at the end of a long day of interviewing candidates for a job, an HR director chooses the applicant who sticks in the mind the most, permitting them to skip that final review of the CVs or resumes on their desk. Avoiding making a decision is just as common, and just as detrimental. In a recent interview with Harpers Bazaar, psychologist Lee Chambers says this is “a natural way as humans that we protect ourselves from mental strain and cognitive fatigue.”
It may be in our nature but choosing to procrastinate doesn’t count as a decision. The issue will still be there tomorrow, adding to the next day’s decision fatigue.
Is decision fatigue on the rise?
It seems so. With consumer choice at an all-time high, even escaping the day’s stresses by watching television comes with a multitude of decisions that need to be made. Netflix, Amazon Prime, or linear TV? What’s on now, or catch up on that show from last week? Comedy, drama, action, sport or romance; what mood are you in? It can be endless.
The pandemic hasn’t helped either, as our routines – one of the best antidotes to decision fatigue – were thrown into disarray. As we emerge globally from the effects of the pandemic, we’re also encountering different rules to life which, again, require constant decision making: whether to shake hands with someone; how much space to leave between fellow passengers on a train or whether to wear a mask even if it’s not mandated.
What can I do to avoid decision fatigue?
The first step is identifying it. If you’re excessively hasty making a decision, or actively avoiding it, there’s a good chance your decision making faculties are temporarily impaired.
Don’t let your fatigued brain control you. Instead grab something healthy to eat or drink that will boost your blood sugar level and keep your brain charged. Then see if you’re thinking more clearly.
As well as mitigating decision fatigue, you can prepare against it. Planning ahead is often referenced as the best way to combat decision fatigue. The theory being that if you plan for tomorrow, it will take less cognitive power to execute that plan when the time comes, reserving your mental capacity for other, bigger decisions.
Part of any planning process should be prioritising. Don’t get side-tracked by making decisions on topics that aren’t your priority for that day.
Regular planning and prioritising will help give you a routine, so stick to it. Over time, this will take more decision-making out of your hands.
Finally: look after yourself. Being a good decision maker relies on you having time away from the decision-making treadmill, so give yourself proper rest and time away from work.
 New York Times Magazine - Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?
 Forbes - How to Identify When You're Experiencing Decision Fatigue
 Harpers Bazaar - Decision fatigue is real and this is what you can do about it