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Do I want to work out today? Should I go to the gym? Should I take a class? Do I have time to work out?
More than a year ago, what sounded like one simple decision for Renée Fishman ballooned into an overwhelming series of questions.
“All these questions came up. Then before I knew it, I didn’t have time to work out anymore,” said Fishman, a New York City resident.
Whether you’re making breakfast or deciding what to wear in the morning, your brain is making upward of 35,000 decisions each day, according to Eva Krockow, lecturer at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. By the evening, you’re exhausted, but you can’t quite put your finger on why.
Chances are, you may be experiencing decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue is when it feels overwhelming to be faced with decisions, regardless of how large or small they are, said Lynn Bufka, the American Psychological Association’s associate executive director for practice research and policy.
“I don’t think many of us necessarily thought about the effort that is behind thinking and being in the world, but the pandemic perhaps has prompted us to do that because we’ve had to incorporate lots of new information that evolves,” she said.
Over the past couple years, people have been told they don’t need to wear masks, that they do need to wear them, and later what types of masks are best, which is a lot to keep up with, Bufka said.
“Trying to reconcile all of that takes a substantial amount of effort, which then makes it harder to handle other kinds of decisions,” she said.
When you experience decision fatigue, it can impair your judgment and encourage you to make a decision in haste or avoid decision-making altogether, said Grant Pignatiello, instructor and Clinical Research KL2 Scholar at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
“What people worry about is that they’re going to make decisions that they end up regretting simply because they either did not think through all the options close enough and chose impulsively, or chose the default option,” he said.
Do you have decision fatigue?
Decision fatigue can be tricky to spot because it builds up over time, but there are a few warning signs, Bufka said.
If you find you’re more irritable and are struggling to deal with certain situations you wouldn’t ordinarily have trouble dealing with, you may be experiencing decision fatigue, she said.
Additionally, you could find yourself having trouble processing incoming information such as phone notifications or the latest news updates, Bufka said.
You may also be lamenting choices that you wouldn’t ordinarily think twice about, Pignatiello said.
“If you’re feeling more emotionally overwhelmed or burdened by life, that could be a sign that your inner resources are depleted, and you may be at a greater risk (of decision fatigue) as a result of that,” he said.
Automation is the answer
One of the best ways to reduce the amount of decision fatigue you feel is to automate the number of choices you make each day, Pignatiello said.
There is a reason some tech CEOs wear the same types of clothes every day, he said.
“When you’re making many decisions each day that impact lots and lots of people, you want to make sure you have all the available resources to put into making those choices,” Pignatiello said.
That’s how Fishman eliminated her morning question and answer session. Rather than contemplate whether or not she’s going to work out, she already knows she’s going to the gym after she wakes up in the morning.
“I’ve been doing this now for over a year, and I haven’t missed a workout,” Fishman said.
This strategy can be applied toward other areas of your life such as mealtimes, Bufka said.
“If you’ve got a breakfast you know you like, it’s nourishing and it meets your basic needs, stick with it,” she said.
Divide and conquer
Another strategy is to try and anticipate times of high emotional and cognitive load to reduce the number of decisions you need to make during that time, Bufka said.
Make what decisions you can in advance or allocate them to someone else, she explained.
If you live with someone else, split up some of the decision-making responsibilities so you don’t need to think about certain tasks, which then reduces the load on your brain, Bufka said.
And remember to go easy on yourself — adopt these measures gradually to reduce decision fatigue, one step at a time.