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7 signs of decision fatigue (and how to defog your brain)

June 16, 2022 - 18 min read

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What is decision fatigue? 

3 potential causes of decision fatigue 

7 signs of decision fatigue 

6 ways to overcome decision fatigue 

Decisions aren’t easy. 

Think about the number of decisions we make in just one day. What time to wake up in the morning, what clothes to put on, what toothpaste to use when you brush your teeth, and what to make for breakfast. 

These are easy decisions. We often tend to wake up around the same time regardless. We only have so many shirts to pair with our favorite leggings. There’s only one tube of toothpaste in the drawer, and we’re out of everything but eggs.

Other decisions are more difficult. Should you accept or turn down the job offer you just received? Should you try out a new medicine to help treat a health condition? What’s the best way to invest money for your retirement

We make thousands (yes, thousands) of decisions. In fact, it's estimated that we make around 35,000 decisions on a daily basis. Researchers at Cornell University estimate we make 226.7 decisions each day on food alone. Some might be compulsive, some might be calculated, and some might be carefully thought out. There are even some decisions we may not be conscious of making. 

In the last couple of years, we’ve also seen an increase in change. While change has become more constant, it’s also not going away. So when things change fast and our new normal is ruptured, it can make decision-making that much more difficult. It’s cognitively and emotionally taxing to plan and make decisions in a time of unpredictability. And without a sense of future-mindedness, it can feel like you’re always one step behind. 

So, what happens when the decisions we are conscious of cause us to feel overwhelmed? What happens when we feel flooded by the number of decisions that we have to make? 

Let’s talk about decision fatigue and what causes decision fatigue. We’ll also outline how you can spot the signs of decision fatigue — and ways to overcome decision fatigue. 

What is decision fatigue? 

First, let’s understand what we mean by decision fatigue. 

Think about the last time you were at a restaurant with an overwhelming menu.

I remember my first time sitting down at the Cheesecake Factory, a place notorious for the many menu options. There must’ve been 8 or 9 pages of food options, things I never would’ve anticipated to be on the menu given the restaurant's name. I don’t think I had enough time to leaf through all of the pages before the waiter came back to our table to ask what we’d like. 

I immediately felt this feeling of overwhelm and stress. How was I supposed to pick something? Did I make the right selection even if I didn’t read the whole thing? What if I saw an option after putting in my initial order?

There are plenty of settings where you might feel decision fatigue. Some friends have talked about decision fatigue around significant milestone events, like planning a wedding or a move. Others have experienced decision fatigue in a new job or job search. Still, others have experienced decision fatigue in small, everyday situations.

Though it's not fully understood, there’s some science behind why our brains are fatigued by decisions. In the late 90s, Dr. Roy F. Baumeister put forward a theory called ego depletion. Together with social psychologist John Tierney, they studied ego depletion.

Essentially, this theory says that humans possess the independence and free will to make choices. But we’re challenged with balancing more responsible and beneficial choices with decisions that may fulfill our urgent needs. 

Let’s take the example of what to eat if you’re still hungry after dinner. You might have some leftover birthday cake from the weekend. You also have some fresh fruit from the farmer’s market. It’s a sophisticated process to make this seemingly simple choice because it’s a process of weighing motivations with priorities. 

For humans, ego-depletion theory tells us that it depletes our energy whenever we go through this exercise. When that energy starts to shrink, our executive function (which resides in the prefrontal cortex of our brain) diminishes. It operates under the assumption that willpower and free will is limited. And as a result, our decisions suffer.

However, some recent science published in the National Academy of Science disputes this theory. Psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues published a study that challenges the ego-depletion theory. Dweck concluded that ego depletion was only observed in subjects who believed willpower was a limited resource. 

So, the science behind why we feel decision fatigue is confusing. But regardless of the inner workings of the brain, we know decision fatigue is real. Let’s talk about some causes of decision fatigue — and how to spot the signs.

New call-to-action3 potential causes of decision fatigue 

As we know, the science behind why we feel decision fatigue is sticky. But we know some factors can serve as causes of decision fatigue. 

Stress 

Let’s face it: added stress doesn’t do us any good. Increased stress has mental, physical, and emotional health implications. But when you’re feeling stressed and faced with making decision after decision, the fatigue can really set in. 

Let’s think about planning a big event, like a wedding. When I was planning my wedding, I was also working full-time, coordinating a cross-country move, and job searching for a new role. At some point, I literally just could not make another decision about things like napkins or linens or the types of chairs. I was too stressed to decide and ultimately asked my family for help. 

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Poor mental health 

At BetterUp, we think about mental health as a spectrum. People exist up and down the spectrum of mental health, with some thriving and some suffering. Most people, however, live in this middle state of languishing. How mentally fit we are does play a role in how we are able to take care of our mental health

If you’re experiencing poor mental health, it’s likely that making decisions is harder for you. Decisions are essentially evaluating risks and rewards. If we’re experiencing poor mental health, science tells us that it can skew our decision-making abilities

General fatigue or exhaustion 

Our bodies and our brains are buddies. When our bodies are feeling fatigued, it’s likely that our brains are, too. 

For example, you might not be sleeping as well as you used to. You might have taken on more responsibility at work simultaneously, which could be leading to early signs of burnout. Because you’ve taken on more responsibility, you realize you’re starting to work later hours. You also have an increased amount of decisions that you’re making. 

So when you do go to sleep, you often find yourselves interrupted with thoughts about work and decisions that need to be made. Overall, you’re feeling generally fatigued and exhausted. Feelings of fatigue or exhaustion can definitely contribute to decision fatigue. 

7 signs of decision fatigue 

Now, let’s talk about signs of decision fatigue. With this guide, you can spot the early signs and put together a plan to overcome your decision fatigue. 

Inability to focus or concentrate 

One sign of decision fatigue is a lack of focus or concentration. If you’re faced with making a decision, is it hard for you to focus on the decision at hand? Are you easily distracted by other tasks? Do you find yourself avoiding trying to focus or concentrate on the decision? 

Lack of emotional regulation 

You might notice some mood changes when it comes to decision-making. For example, let’s go back to the wedding planning example. I was completely annoyed when I had to make a decision about table placements. Reflecting back, this is a fairly small and easy decision to make. But at the time, I was annoyed, frustrated, and irritable that I had to make the decision in the first place. 

Take a minute to scan your emotions. How do you feel when you’re making decisions? What changes do you notice? Are you regulating your emotions? Or are your emotions getting the best of you? 

Increased procrastination 

Decisions can also bring that feeling of dread. You might just keep putting off the decision. Week after week, it’s fallen to the bottom of your priority list. This is also known as decision avoidance. 

Are you procrastinating? Are you noticing that you’re procrastinating more than you might usually do? As humans, we all procrastinate. But take note of any significant changes in your habits. 

Acting impulsively 

Decisions aren’t always rational because humans aren’t always rational. When you’re experiencing decision fatigue, you might see an increase in your impulses. 

For example, are you making decisions off-the-cuff? Are you surprising yourself (and others) with the decisions you’ve made? Are you noticing a lack of self-control

Feeling overwhelmed

This is a common sign of decision fatigue. That feeling of overwhelm is probably one of the easiest to identify, in my experience. 

You might feel like you simply can’t handle one more decision. Some might call this a brain fog, where you feel emotional fatigue and overwhelm that clouds your ability to make better decisions. You might stick with a default option instead of truly making a decision because the default option is easier than choosing. 

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Spending too much time making decisions, especially small ones 

 The mental fatigue of decision-making can add up. Sometimes, you might find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time on a single decision. 

Of course, big decisions are expected to take time. But if you’re finding that you’re spending a lot of time on small decisions, it could be a sign that you’re suffering from decision fatigue. For example, you might struggle with something small like picking out groceries while grocery shopping. 

Dissatisfied once you make a decision 

Once you’ve expended the mental energy to make a decision, you might question yourself. Did you make a good decision? Are you worried that you made poor choices? Are you doubting your decision-making process? 

Second-guessing yourself will happen (and it’s normal). But at the end of the day, if you’re constantly dissatisfied, it could be a sign of decision fatigue. 

6 ways to overcome decision fatigue 

Making good decisions is a part of taking care of your well-being. And part of becoming a better decision-maker is overcoming decision fatigue. If you’re experiencing decision fatigue, here are six ways you can overcome it. 

Work on your process

There are three life-changing habits that can help make you a better decision-maker. First, make sure you leave space to reflect on your mistakes and successes. Did you evaluate the decision to the accurate level of importance? What went well? What didn’t? 

Second, analyze your self-confidence. This requires a level of self-awareness to understand what role your confidence plays in your decision-making. For example, if you’re overly confident, you might find your decisions don’t always pan out to what you’d hoped. 

And third, be aware of your mental heuristics. Heuristics are shortcuts. They’re ways that you can essentially program your brain to help make quick decisions. 

Once you have your process refined, you’ll be better equipped to make more effective and confident decisions — without the fatigue. 

Delegate decisions  

Take inventory of the decisions that you make. No, not all 35,000 of them. But perhaps just a handful of ones that are at the bottom of your priority list. Or ones that you’ve put off or avoided. 

Now, look at your support system and social network. Where can you delegate decisions? For example, if you’re picking what to have for dinner every night, can your partner make dinner decisions every other day? 

Or let’s say you're a people manager. You make team decisions pretty frequently. But are there work-related decisions that you can delegate to your colleagues or team members? 

Delegating can alleviate a lot of the stress, overwhelm, and fatigue that you may be feeling. Consider ways you can offload some of your decisions and free up your mental load

Reduce the number of decisions you have to make 

President Obama shared why he decided to wear the same clothes every day: it helped with decision fatigue. By only wearing gray or blue suits, Obama could focus his mental energy on important decisions instead of burning mental energy on little things. 

See where you can reduce the number of decisions you make daily. By doing so, you’ll waste less time, save brainpower, and invest your energy in what matters most. 

decision-fatigue-young-person-grocery-shopping

Prioritize your well-being 

Good decisions are made when you feel good about yourself. That means it’s important to take care of all aspects of your well-being. 

For example, what’s your sleep schedule like? Can you make small changes to your sleep hygiene habits? Are you nourishing your body with nutrient-rich food? Are you moving your body in ways that feel good? 

Your well-being has an impact on nearly every aspect of your life. Start identifying ways to better take care of yourself and prioritize your well-being. 

Work with a coach 

Whether it’s important decisions or dealing with the effects of decision fatigue, a coach can help. With BetterUp, a coach will serve as your personal guide to navigating decisions. 

Try virtual coaching. By working one-on-one with a coach, you’ll have the opportunity to work through your decision-making process. From there, you can gather feedback and put together a plan. And, as a result, you’ll strengthen your mental fitness. 

Do Inner Work®

The practice of Inner Work® can help improve your decision-making skills. The science behind Inner Work® tells us that we need to give our brains that break from being “on” all the time. 

When we rest, we’re better positioned to make decisions (big or small) that will propel us forward. It helps you fight burnout, build mental fitness, and achieve more clarity. 

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Published June 16, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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