Understanding & Managing Decision Fatigue

We all know the feeling: that dread when we face a seemingly endless sea of choices, from what to cook for dinner tonight to which career path to pursue. Decision fatigue hits us all and can have an even greater effect on neurodivergent individuals. As some of my clients share, they often process information more deeply, analyze every angle, and can get easily overwhelmed by external stimuli.

So, what is decision fatigue? The concept describes the mental and emotional drain that occurs after making numerous decisions throughout the day. This can lead to impaired decision-making abilities. In other words, after making many decisions our ability to make more decisions over the day becomes worse.  

Decision fatigue is characterized by:

  • Reduced motivation: Feeling less eager to make choices, even trivial ones.
  • Impulsive decision making: Rushing through decisions or opting for "easy" choices, regardless of long-term consequences.
  • Mental and physical exhaustion: Feeling drained, lacking energy, and experiencing brain fog.  

Researcher Jonathan Levav of Stanford University studied judges’ parole decisions throughout the day and noticed that as the day progressed, the decisions became more erratic due to the mental work required to rule on each case. Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,108(17), 6889-6892.

An earlier influential study found that judges make harsher sentences as the day progresses and face more decisions. (Isen, Alice M., and John Carroll. "The negativity bias in decision making." Psychological Review 99.3 (1992): 490.)

Research using fMRI scans has shown increased activity in the prefrontal cortex during decision-making. The prefrontal cortex, a key player in our decision-making process, is heavily involved in tasks requiring focus, planning, and self-control. Research suggests that making numerous choices throughout the day can tax this region.  While the exact mechanisms are still under investigation, it appears that the prefrontal cortex's efficiency can decrease as the day progresses, potentially leading to poorer decision-making and increased susceptibility to biases. This highlights the importance of strategies that can help us manage decision fatigue and maintain clear judgment. Here are some tips to combat decision fatigue:

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!

  • Reduce options: Establish routines for small decisions like what to eat for breakfast or what clothes to wear (Mark Zuckerberg wears a grey T-shirt every day avoiding spending time deciding what to wear.). Feeling paralyzed by cereal choices? Stock up on a few favorites. The less you have to weigh, the less your brain has to focus on.
  • Routines are our friends: Establish daily routines like morning rituals or meal prep. This frees up precious mental energy for the more significant decisions.
  • Batch similar decisions: Need to pick outfits for the week? Do it all at once instead of deliberating every morning. Group similar choices together and tackle them in one go, like responding to emails or choosing groceries for the week.

Get to know what works for you:

  • Embrace downtime: Schedule regular breaks to recharge and de-stimulate. Meditation, nature walks, or even daydreaming can work wonders. Take a break at least every hour. Even micro breaks count!
  • Practice mindfulness: Be present in the moment and avoid ruminating over past decisions, which can further drain your mental energy.
  • Listen to your body: Feeling overwhelmed? It's your brain saying, "Slow down!". Delegate, postpone, or say no.
  • Schedule essential decisions for when you're well-rested and alert.

Tech Tools Can Help!

  • Planning & organizing apps: Utilize calendars, to-do lists, and reminder apps to manage tasks and reduce choices and mental clutter.
  • Sensory aids: If you're sensitive to noise or visual stimuli, use noise-canceling headphones, blue light filters, or fidget toys to create a calmer environment for decision-making.
  • Use decision-making tools: Utilize structures like decision matrices or checklists to organize and simplify complex choices.

And don’t forget to get enough sleep, and eat a well-timed healthy snack to improve your brain function.

By understanding and managing decision fatigue, you can make better choices and avoid the negative consequences of mental depletion. Remember, prioritizing your well-being and setting boundaries around decision-making empowers you to navigate a world filled with options.

With gratitude,

Ana Isabel Sánchez