What is Decision Fatigue?

Have you ever noticed how the quality of your decisions worsens as you reach the end of a long and tiring day? Perhaps in the past, you already made choices that left you baffled as to why you even considered them to begin with, and they were choices that you usually would not make at all.

What is decision fatigue?  Decision fatigue refers to the unconscious proclivity to make poor quality decisions after an extended period of decision making. Making too many decisions in succession, whether trivial or non-trivial, may lead to decisions that are less than optimal even for people who consider themselves to be rational and high-minded.

You said yes when you should have said no, and you said no when you should have said yes.

If you have, rest assured that you are not alone. At one point, all of us had been victims of decision fatigue – a silently lurking enemy of decision-making and productivity.

“Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.” John Maxwell

Decision Fatigue and Willpower

Some people credit strong willpower for high-quality decisions and blame the lack of it for poor-quality decisions. Willpower gives people the ability to delay gratification to enjoy greater rewards in the future, resist temptations today to meet essential goals tomorrow, and override paralyzing negative thoughts, feelings, and impulses. 

Willpower is thought of as something that can be improved, yet bestowed disproportionately, and is infinitely at your disposal. But the landmark study of researchers from the National Academy of Sciences back in 2011 suggests otherwise, and the results may surprise you.

The research that spanned over ten months showed an interesting pattern between the judicial rulings given by over one thousand judges and the time of the day that the verdicts made — a trend that was unrelated to the prisoners’ ethnic backgrounds, crimes committed, or the number of years in sentences. The researchers found that the judges in a parole board who heard the prisoners’ appeals early in the day were more likely to give a favorable ruling about 65% of the time. There were wild fluctuations that occurred throughout the day. Still, as more and more decisions were made, with the judges drained by deliberations done over and over again, the chance of prisoners receiving parole in their favor dropped to almost zero.

The researchers also recorded the judges’ two daily food breaks. They found that after the percentage of favorable rulings drops to nearly zero, and it abruptly returns to about 65% after each break. 

It is interesting to note that there was nothing malicious or unusual with the behavior of the judges. It was all about the time when the rulings were made. Criminals were given more favorable rulings if the hearings were scheduled early in the morning, or at the beginning of a session, than if their hearings were scheduled at the end of a session, after which the judges were already past the point of decision fatigue. 

The research analysis hinted that the apparent mental depletion manifested by the judges was due to the act of making a decision rather than the duration of time taken to arrive at a decision.

Judges are some of the most intelligent and rational people, and they are expected to give judicial rulings based solely on laws and facts, and yet even a seemingly inconsequential and extraneous factor as making too many decisions in a row that should have no relevance on legal decisions denied freedom or shorter prison terms even to those who were deserving. 

“Clutter is the physical manifestations of unmade decisions fueled by procrastination.” Christina Scalise

Effects of Decision Fatigue

Few people are aware of decision fatigue and the effects on their psyche. If bad calls when deciding can happen to the best and brightest through no fault of their own, it can happen to any of us. 

Here are some of the ways decision fatigue can get to you:

1. Poor Negotiation

An average adult makes around 35,000 choices every day, ranging from banal to exciting, and an average of 227 decisions on food alone. Hundreds, if not thousands of decisions are made on clothes and money. Now that is a cognitively demanding task for the human grey matter. 

This is especially of importance to people who either negotiate for a living or are in key positions within organizations. Many successful people figured out an effective way to maximize brain power, and that is by reducing the number of decisions they have to make. No wonder they simplify their routines by wearing the same thing every day, like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Barack Obama. They save every ounce of their brainpower for critical decisions, and they understand that being bogged down by choices of clothes is not in their best interest.

2. Decision Avoidance

On the extreme side of things, decision fatigue can cause some people to avoid making decisions and leave everything to chance. Avoiding decision making can be troubling behavior, and yet, even when you know better, and you know what the consequences of your indecision will be, you still end up paralyzed and waiting for cognitive closure.

A brain is an energy-efficient machine. Every decision made has a consequence. If you do nothing, avoid making a decision, then for the brain, it’s the ultimate act of saving energy. Doing nothing is a shortcut that may ease mental strain for a moment, but often leads to undesirable consequences.

“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.” Bruce Lee

3. Impulsive Purchasing

Take a trip down memory lane and try to remember where candy is displayed in supermarkets. Did you ever wonder why candies and other sugared items are stacked close to the cash register? While walking down several aisles with thousands of brands and products to choose from, shoppers need to make snap decisions about price, quality, and necessity. By the time they are in line at the cashier, little to no willpower remains to keep them from grabbing calorie-inducing snacks. This is good for the supermarket but bad for the shoppers who don’t know what made them do it.

Experiments after experiments demonstrate that people only have a finite supply of willpower to make it through a day full of choices. Repeated judgments or decisions deplete willpower, just like how a muscle can be fatigued by overwork. 

The good news, willpower can be replenished with rest and breaks.

Related Questions:

How Do You Beat Decision Fatigue?

1. Plan Ahead. If you are worried about what to eat or what to wear tomorrow, plan ahead of time, even if it only takes you 3 minutes to think about it, remember, the less choice you make now, the more willpower is left for you to spend on what matters.

2. If you only have one thing to do today, what would that be? If you identified what it is, stop picking random tasks and use the results of the research on decision fatigue to your advantage and put your best decision forward. Other less important things can wait or even eliminated.

3. Make commitments, not decisions. If your goal is not in your calendar, then it doesn’t exist. Do you want to lose weight or increase your income? Put it in your calendar so you won’t have to make choices on whether to hit the gym or work on your business idea.

Eliminate the need to decide on every goal by marking your calendar and just show up when it is time.

4. Take several breaks. 

In a world where the appearance of busyness is applauded, it may look unproductive to interrupt your work for a couple of minutes and take a sip of coffee or go for a walk before you get back to work. Breaks help shake off decision fatigue and clear your mind for another productive session of decision-making. Viewing scenes of nature, watching feel-good movies, and increasing glucose levels in your body can also amp up your fill of willpower.

What are some signs of decision fatigue?

Analysis Paralysis. Are you staring at the ceiling for much longer than intended when it comes to crunch time? You may very well be under decision fatigue.

Impulsiveness. Do you notice your spending spiraling out of control after a negotiation? No, that new door paint is not a stressbuster.

That is decision fatigue at work.

Procrastination. Did you plan on completing a task a month ago, but it was left undone because you said you didn’t have the time? Take a break so you can think clearly, and get on it


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