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What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It

Written by Leon Ho
Founder & CEO of Lifehack
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How often have you had the experience of needing to make tough decisions that pull you in different directions?

You go round and round in circles, and, in the end, you either make a snap decision or put off reaching a decision indefinitely because you’re just too tired to think anymore.

The stress and overwhelming emotions compel you to make a decision and yet, at the same time, make you unable to do so is labeled as decision fatigue.

Poor decisions are made not because of incapability but because arriving at one or more choices takes its toll. It also happens to severely weaken our mental energy.

What Is Decision Fatigue?

According to Dr. MacLean, a psychiatrist and featured physician in the American Medical Association:[1]

“Decision fatigue is the idea that after making many decisions, your ability to make more and more decisions over the course of a day becomes worse. The more decisions you have to make, the more fatigue you develop and the more difficult it can become.”

To explain the concept of decision fatigue, let us look at an example:

When determining a court ruling, many factors contribute to the final verdict. You probably assume that the judge’s decision is influenced solely by the nature of the crime committed or broken laws. While this is valid, an even greater influential factor dictates the judge’s decision: the time of day.

In 2012, a research team from Columbia University examined 1,112 court rulings by a Parole Board Judge over ten months.[2] The judge would have to determine whether the individuals in question would be released from prison and granted parole or a change in the parole terms.


While the facts of the case often precede decision-making, the judges’ mental state had an alarming influence on their verdict.

The study has shown that as the day progressed, the chances of a favorable ruling dropped.

What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It

    The research showed that earlier in the day, the likelihood of the judging giving a favorable ruling was around 65%.

    However, as the morning dragged on, the judge became fatigued and drained from deciding. As more time went on, the odds of receiving a favorable ruling decreased steadily until it was whittled down to zero.

    However, right after their lunch break, the judge would return to the courtroom feeling refreshed and recharged, and energized by their second wind, their leniency skyrockets to a whopping 65%.

    And again, as the day dragged on to its finish, the favorable rulings slowly continued to diminish along with the judge’s spirits.

    This is no coincidence, as according to the carefully recorded research, this was true for all 1,112 cases.

    The severity of the crime didn’t matter. Whether it was rape, murder, theft, or embezzlement, the criminal was more likely to get a favorable ruling early in the morning or in the afternoon.


    This is just one of the negative effects of decision fatigue.

    The Detrimental Consequences of Decision Fatigue

    When you are in a powerful position, such as the previously mentioned judges, you can’t afford to let your mental focus and state dictate your decision-making; yet it still happens.

    According to George Lowenstein, an American educator and economy expert, decision fatigue is to blame for poor decision-making among members of high office.

    The disastrous failure among these individuals to control their impulses could be directly related to their day-to-day stresses at work and in their private life.

    When you’re just too tired to think, you stop caring; this is also called compassion fatigue. Once you get careless, that’s when you need to worry.

    Decision fatigue can contribute to several issues, such as impulse shopping, poor decision-making at work, and poor decision-making in after-work relationships.

    Are You Suffering From Decision Fatigue?

    We all suffer from decision fatigue without even realizing it.

    Perhaps you aren’t a judge with the fate of an individual’s life at your disposal, but the small decisions, be it daily and weekly, or monthly big decisions you make for yourself can hinder your productivity if you’re not in the right headspace.


    Regardless of how energetic you feel, you can still experience decision fatigue, leading to poor choices.

    Like every other muscle, your brain starts feeling drained after prolonged periods of overuse, pumping out one decision after the next. It needs a chance to rest to function at a productive rate.

    The chart below may look similar to one of your average days.[3] Considering that this is just a handful of the decisions one has to make throughout the day; it’s easy to see how decision fatigue slowly manifests in your body.

    What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It

      Now that we know the decision fatigue definition and have explored decision fatigue examples, let’s explore some of the primary ways to combat it to enable a stronger mental state coupled with better decision-making.

      How to Beat Decision Fatigue

      Two possible ways how to overcome decision fatigue are either you alter the time of decision making to the time when your mind is fresh or limiting the number of decisions made in a day.

      Try utilizing the following hacks to avoid decision fatigue and make better decisions.

      What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It

        1. Identify and Make the Most Important Decisions First

        If you have a busy personal or work life where many tricky decisions are on the table daily, this can easily and quickly become overwhelming.

        In such a case, create mental space for yourself by initially laying out all situations and challenges requiring a decision.


        Use a basic software tool or write them down on paper—a notepad file or word document is sufficient.

        Once you have your complete list, carefully pick out the most important items needing a conclusion sooner rather than later.

        Be mindful that you can’t treat everything as urgent or requiring immediate attention. There have to be some things that are more important than others!

        Prioritize and Declare the Appropriate Options

        Equipped with your most pressing items awaiting decisions, add another layer of scrutiny by prioritizing them further.

        The result should allow you to identify, in order, your most urgent and important tasks without any conflicting priorities.

        The last part of this exercise is to highlight all the options to consider for your most important decision and work through them individually.

        With the visual representation of options and most critical decisions out the way first, you’ll be able to think more clearly and prevent decision fatigue from subtly kicking in.

        2. Implement Daily Routines to Automate Less Important Decisions

        Small or less important decisions can eat away at your time and productivity. When many other decisions need to be made in parallel, it can lead to decision fatigue.

        “Shall I have a healthy lunch today?” “Should I wake up earlier tomorrow?” “What time should I prepare dinner tonight?”


        As trivial as these questions appear, each one still requires a decision. Stack them on top of other straightforward everyday questions and more significant ones, and things can start to add up unpleasantly.

        However, there’s a method to avoid this. It involves streamlining aspects of your life by automating repetitive decisions, which drives the ability to make better overall decisions.[4]

        In fact, you don’t have to choose all the time.

        Breakfast is the day’s most important meal, but it doesn’t have to be an extravagant spread every morning. Make a habit of eating a similar or quick breakfast and cut out that step of your morning short.

        If you can’t decide what to wear, pick the first thing that catches your eye. We both know that after 20 minutes of changing outfits, you’ll go with the first thing anyway.

        Powerful individuals such as Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and Mark Zuckerberg don’t waste their precious time deciding what to wear. They have been known to limit their outfits to two options to reduce their daily decision fatigue.


        By choosing to make fewer decisions throughout the day, you’re choosing to free your mind for the most important decisions.

        3. Put a Time Limit on Every Decision

        Making complex or big decisions increases the risk of draining your energy. This is especially true if you struggle with the fear of making the wrong decisions.

        The doubt and worry bouncing around continuously are enough for most people to become fed up and exhausted.

        Research has shown that you are the most productive in the first three hours of your day.[5] Utilize this time! Don’t waste it on trivial decisions such as what to wear or mindlessly scrolling through social media.

        Instead, use this time to tweak your game plan.

        What do you want to accomplish? What can you improve? What steps do you need to take to reach these goals and make good decisions?

        To make good decisions, you must act in the right position. A tactic to deploy is to force yourself to act by setting a time limit on your decision-making process.

        What might seem a little daunting—given that it can create a sense of added pressure—provides clarity on when you need to conclude since you can see the end.


        Grow in Confidence by Reducing Hesitation

        After making the decision, it’s time to move on. You’ll feel good and build self-confidence knowing that you didn’t linger on the choices available.

        Only consider revisiting a previous decision if something unexpected occurs that impacts it. If that’s the case, follow the same process by ensuring you make the revised decision before a new deadline.

        4. Seek Input From Other People—Don’t Decide Alone

        There’s a time and place to make decisions alone, but sometimes, involving others is appropriate.

        If there’s any struggle in reaching a verdict, then seeking opinions from people in your network can lessen the mental burden of indecisiveness.

        Do you feel comfortable seeking input from other people to help make decisions?

        Trust and feeling secure in relationships are crucial to answering “yes” to this question.

        Gain a Different Perspective From Others

        An insecure business leader likely won’t trust their team(s) to help them make decisions. On the other hand, an assured and secure business leader realizes they don’t “know it all.”

        Instead of going solo on all work-related decisions, they install trust among their team and get the support required to make the best possible decisions.


        The ability to make a great decision can depend on the information related to it that’s at your disposal.

        When faced with a difficult choice, don’t be afraid to lean on the relevant people for help. They can offer valid alternatives that are otherwise easy to overlook or hold the key to you making a well-informed decision.

        5. Simplify and Lower the Number of Available Options

        You’re standing in the store, facing an aisle of more than 20 varieties of peanut butter. You have no idea which one to choose, and although there are subtle differences, they all look fairly similar.

        No doubt you’ve been in this situation at least once in the past.

        This is a classic example of having too many choices—an event that makes you decide to do nothing or waste time by continually pondering on which product to buy.

        According to the psychological concept known as ‘choice overload,’ having too many options can be disruptive and overburdening, causing decision fatigue.[6]

        Using the example above, you might make the easiest choice of avoiding further thought, which often results in purchasing the wrong item.


        Extract Meaningful Information and Evaluate Options With a Binary Outcome

        To simplify and lower your range of options, leverage the information available and extract what’s most important for you to make a decision.

        Is it the price? The protein content? Whether it has sustainable packaging or a combination of multiple details?

        Keep a tight lid on having too many important components. Prioritize, if necessary, and implement a binary outcome (of “yes” or “no” / “true” or “false”) to help arrive at decisions earlier, such as defining a limited price range that the product must fall within.

        6. Eliminate Unnecessary Distractions

        Arguably, attention is the currency of the modern world. Concentrating better than the next person can mean the difference between a successful student, a thriving business, a happy parent, and a great decision-maker.

        So, how can you improve your attention span to make better choices and avoid decision fatigue?

        There are many strategies, and one of the most optimal ways is to eliminate distractions.

        Today, the easiest distractions result from technology and the devices running it—all of which are at your fingertips 24/7.

        Create Extended Periods of Time to Increase Focus

        These distractions might be small or large, but the broader issue is their frequency, and they repeatedly cause a break in your focus. Dealing with this while trying to make the right decision can be mentally debilitating.

        Technology distractions commonly relate to email, instant messages, push notifications from mobile apps, and scrolling through social media feeds.

        Access to all of these technologies and tools must be limited to scheduled time blocks (ideally, using a calendar if it’s during a working day).

        Switch off notifications entirely to all of the above to prevent distractions (where possible) when it’s not time to look at them. This enables you to think more deeply and focus for prolonged periods, ultimately boosting the chances of making good decisions.


        7. Take Frequent Breaks for a Clearer Mind

        You are at your peak of productivity after a break, so to reap the benefits, you need to take lots of breaks to improve your mental energy.

        Judges make better decisions in the morning and after their lunch break, and so will you.

        The reason is that the belly is full, the hunger is gone, and you likely have a bit more energy. Roy Baumeister, Florida State University social psychologist found that low-glucose levels negatively affect decision making.[7]

        You can focus better and improve your decision-making abilities by taking a break to replenish your glucose levels.

        Even if you aren’t hungry, little breaks are still necessary to let your mind refresh.

        Structure your break times. Decide beforehand when you will take breaks, and eat energy-sustaining snacks, so your energy level doesn’t drop too low.

        The time you “lose” during your breaks will be made up in the end, as your productivity will increase after each break.

        One study found that the ideal work day consists of work periods lasting around 50 minutes, followed by a 15-20 minute break.[8] Try to follow this pattern for a more productive day.

        What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It

        How to Combat Decision Fatigue

        5 Action Steps
        5 Actions
        What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It
        Prioritize Your Tasks Beforehand: When you have organized your tasks by priority, sorting them and making decisions become quite easier. 
        What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It
        Automate Your Routine: Decision fatigue does not start from making big decisions. It starts with small and seemingly insignificant decisions like deciding what to wear. By automating your routine, you can avoid spending energy on making small decisions. 
        What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It
        Seek Assistance: You cannot always make every decision on your own. Relying on people around you is important, sometimes. Take help in decision-making when necessary.
        What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It
        Limit Your Choices: One prime factor that overwhelms your decision-making is having an excessive available choice. Limit your choices and always go for the first available option. Do not waste time selecting.
        What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It
        Take a Break: Always remember to take a pause from mentally straining tasks. Go out. Get some fresh air. Have a good lunch. Give your brain some time of impassivity. 

        Final Thoughts

        Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon that can deplete energy levels and increase stress. It can affect anyone who has to make decisions, whether they are minor or major ones.

        Overcoming decision fatigue needs patience and dedication. By applying the best practices discussed in this article, you’ll be on the path to implementing valuable changes. These changes will increase your productivity and drastically improve your consistency and ability to make the right choices.


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