Decision Fatigue, The Twenty-first Century Ailment?


Nov 24, 2014 by British Blog

Modern life may offer us more opportunities than ever, but in doing so it also generates more choices. As a result, all of us have to make tens, if not hundreds, of decisions - some important, some trivial - every single day. That process can leave many mentally exhausted, and increasingly unable to exercise self-control and make rational decisions; a situation known in psychology as 'decision fatigue'. Fortunately, being aware of decision fatigue may make us more able to control or allow for it.


Limited resources

The concept of decision fatigue rests on the assumption that our ability to make carefully considered decisions, and thus to resist the 'easy option', is a finite resource that can be used up or may run out if it is not managed properly. In other words, as we make more and more decisions in the course of a day, our stock of mental decision-making energy runs lower and lower, and our brains try to take shortcuts, either by avoiding decisions altogether or by taking the path of least resistance. 

That is why supermarkets put sweets by the till - they know that customers, worn out by an hour or so of choosing between endless different brands of washing powder and baked beans, will be less able to resist their own (or their children's) craving for a sweet treat by the time they stagger to the checkout.

An alternative view is that self-control is like a muscle, and thus that the more we exercise our (sensible) decision-making skills, the better they will be, but even supporters of this approach generally accept that the mental energy needed to do this can run out if we're not careful.

There is some scientific data to back this up. In one study, judges were found to be more likely to refuse prisoners parole as the day wore on (the suggestion being that while they considered cases carefully on their merits earlier in the day, as time passed they lost energy and took the 'safest option', which in this case was to keep the prisoners locked up). However, when the judges were given a break and a meal, their decisions returned to normal levels. Similar effects have been seen in doctors, chief executives and professional football players.


How to beat decision fatigue 

Fortunately, there are ways to tackle decision fatigue, for example:

  • Take regular breaks. Mental fatigue may not be very obvious, in the way that physical tiredness is, so it is a good idea to schedule breaks into the day, regardless of workload.
  • Eat healthily. Glucose can alleviate the effects of decision fatigue, but it works best when used alongside good time management.
  • Make 'day to day' decisions the night before - e.g. lay out clothes for the day ahead. Interestingly, some high profile people, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, have gone to the extent of wearing the same basic outfit, day in day out, to eliminate one decision from their daily lives.
  • Make difficult and important decisions early in the day.
  • If a decision is not important to you, don't waste time on it - reserve your energy for the things that really matter.