How to Beat Decision Fatigue: 7 Top Tips
Decision fatigue is a phenomenon that many of us are familiar with, even if we don’t know what to call it.
Have you ever been at the end of a really long day of lots of hard work – the kind where you really have to get your brain in gear – and you’re asked to decide something innocuous, such as what to have for dinner or which film to watch, and you simply can’t think of an answer? Then you’ve experienced decision fatigue. The end result in the example above can mean that you end up eating a dinner that you don’t particularly like, watching a movie that you don’t really enjoy, or simply procrastinating over the decision for so long that you don’t even have time for the movie any more. These are minor decisions where the consequences – that your evening was spoiled – aren’t really that important. But you can imagine what might occur if you end up in the same situation with more important decisions to make.
The theory goes that making decisions is hard work, and we only have so much capacity to make decisions on any given day. When we’re low on decision-making energy (not a technical term), the quality of the decisions that we make gets steadily worse. Some people with mental health conditions such as anxiety also find that decision fatigue has an impact on their ability to manage their condition. To make things worse, there are some stages in your life, such as the last few years of school and the start of university where you have to make a lot of decisions that could have a long-term impact on your life – and you’ll want to have enough decision-making energy stored up to do a good job. If all of this sounds familiar, here are our top tips to beat decision fatigue so that all your decisions are good ones.
1. Write down decisions to avoid making them twice
A simple tip to start off with – one cause of stress is mulling a decision over in your head even long after you’ve made your mind up about what to do. That could be any kind of decision, from what order of preference to put your university choices in, to what Christmas presents you’re going to buy for friends and family. You might think that chewing it over will lead to better decisions in the end, but as we’ve seen above, it can actually erode your decision-making capacity.
In some cases, you might find that you’ve made a decision and then forgotten what it was, leading you to need to make the same decision all over again – probably the ultimate waste of your ability to make decisions. In all of these circumstances, a straightforward way to cut down on decision fatigue can be to write down the decisions you’ve made, perhaps with a reminder of what your reasons were as well. That way, if you’ve forgotten the conclusion you came to, you can remind yourself of it; and if you find yourself questioning your own decisions, you can revisit your reasons as well. If you’ve been pondering a decision for a long time, writing down your reasons can also help focus your mind on what’s really important, and make sure that you prioritise the reasons that are really important to you – and that you’re not being led by the preferences or prejudices of others.
2. Decide in moments of calm
A lot of beating decision fatigue is about being aware that it exists. If you realise that decision-making is a cause of stress for you, it makes logical sense to try to make decisions at a time when you’re feeling calm. When that is will vary from person to person; for instance, if you’re a morning person, that might be a good time to think about important decisions. This can be a revelation if you’ve always discussed important matters with your family over dinner, as you might learn that thinking about them earlier in the day results in better decisions.
What’s important to remember is that making decisions is hard work just as much as, for instance, writing an essay is. If you wouldn’t write an essay under a particular set of circumstances – because you don’t have enough time, because it’s too noisy, because you have a headache or any other reason – then that suggests it’s not a good time to be making a tricky decision either. Similarly, if you wouldn’t write an essay last minute (and we’d certainly encourage you not to!) then you shouldn’t be making a decision on the spur of the moment either. You will have some notice of most major decisions that you have to make – if you’re liable to let deadlines sneak up on you, then have a calendar or diary (virtual or print) and make sure you note them down.
3. Eliminate stressful but low-cost decisions
There are some decisions that are considerably more stressful than their possible bad consequences. For instance, deciding what to wear, what to have for dinner or what to do with an evening off can all be exhausting to work out if you’re already suffering from decision fatigue, yet the consequences are minor – you might not look as stylish as you’d like for a day, you might not have the best meal you possibly could, or you might miss out on a good movie or evening with your friends. While you probably don’t like the sound of any of those consequences, you’ll presumably agree that they aren’t serious – and ultimately you could end up wearing a great new outfit you’d never have put together otherwise, having a delicious meal or a wonderful evening, just by chance.
So given that the consequences of making the wrong choice on these small decisions are not so bad, it’s worth trying to eliminate making them if you can, or moving the decision to a different time. For instance, you could decide what to wear the night before, when you might not be under as much time pressure as the next morning. Similarly, it’s often easier to figure out what you want to eat when you’re not already hungry. If you’re deciding what to do on a free evening, it may be easier to defer to your friends rather than trying to make up your own mind. And if none of these options work? There’s always the option of rolling a die or tossing a coin to make the decision for you.
4. Be mindful of it kicking in
Can you recognise the symptoms of your own decision fatigue? Here are some tell-tale signs: you know the right decision to make in a particular circumstance, but your willpower is lacking; you’re making decisions that you vaguely know to be bad based on impulse; you’re feeling stressed or anxious over a really basic decision, such as whether you’re going to walk home or take the bus; days when someone else is telling you what to do all the time feel much easier and more straightforward than days when you have to use your own initiative.
It’s worth practising spotting these signs in yourself. If you do notice them, be mindful of the decisions you’re making and the point at which you reach decision-making overload – is there a typical time of day, for instance? Or is there a particular type of work that’s especially quick to propel you to your decision-making limit? Once you’ve learned these things about yourself, you’ll be better equipped to act to avert the effects of decision fatigue; for instance, you’ll know that if there is a particular type of work that wears out your decision-making muscles, you shouldn’t plan any important conversations for the same day.
5. Limit your choices
Possibly one of the best-known ways of beating decision fatigue is to limit the options available to you. This is famously the tactic used by Barack Obama, who famously wears only grey or blue suits so that one potential source of decision stress – getting dressed – is reduced to a binary choice. As a result, he has more decision-making energy available for the important things on his to-do list. Mark Zuckerberg wears a similar daily ‘uniform’ (albeit less stylishly) for the same reason, and has commented in the past that he tries to cut down on other decisions as well.
Creating habits is a natural way that we limit the choices available to us. For instance, we might have habits about food, some of which are culturally ingrained, such as the British tradition of fish and chips on Friday and a roast dinner on Sunday. If you have a pattern of meals that rotates every week or two, you still get to have variety in your diet while eliminating a large number of decisions – so the question might not be the more challenging one of ‘what do I cook?’ but the easier one of ‘roast beef or roast lamb?’ You could apply the same principle to clothing choices, too. The danger is that all of your weeks will start to feel the same, but hopefully your extra decision-making energy that you have from removing or reducing mundane decisions will lead you to be able to make some more exciting choices too.
6. Be the decisive one among your friends
A lot of this article has been about avoiding decisions, including the specific recommendation to cede decision-making to your friends so that you can cut down on the number of choices you’re making yourself. But it nonetheless makes sense to become the decisive one among your friends where you can. We’ve already noted that decision-making is an effort. If you’re trying to decide something among a group of people, then that effort is multiplied, as you have to take an increasing number of people and their circumstances into account. We’ve all seen the consequences of this – group conversations that run into hundreds of messages before anything gets satisfactorily resolved, with people changing their minds halfway through or being vague about their preferences.
And you’ve presumably also seen the most straightforward way to speed up this process; instead of spending hours with everyone being indecisive, if one person steps up and makes the decision on behalf of the group, it becomes much more straightforward. Then everyone else just has to say yes or no – and if you know your friends well enough, they’ll probably say yes, because (as we’ve said) it’s easier to have the decision made for you. From your perspective, a hundred-message debate in order to make a decision can be much more wearing than just stepping up and making the decision yourself, quickly, clearly and decisively – and hopefully there’ll be someone else willing to step into the role at times as well.
7. Figure out what’s good enough
At the root of decision fatigue is often perfectionism. For instance, you might know that you’ll have a good time any one of board games club, the cinema or football practice, but each one has advantages and disadvantages, and you’re not sure which one would be the best time. This is where you might start getting twisted into knots with perfectionism and fear of missing out making the decision more high-stakes than it needs to be.
So one final thing that you can do to combat decision fatigue is to work out what’s good enough. Does your evening need to be perfect? Well, it probably won’t be no matter what, so it makes sense to settle for good. Similarly, if you’re anxious about choosing a meal, it can help to remember that not every meal needs to be both nutritionally ideal and delicious – reasonably nutritious and reasonably tasty is usually good enough.
If you can’t avoid or simplify the decision, consciously reducing the stakes helps take the pressure off. It may well be that you’ve invented stakes that are much higher than the reality – for instance, getting dressed well can seem vital, but chances are that no one will notice if your outfit clashes a bit more than usual. After all, the key thing to remember is that even minor decisions contribute to decision fatigue, so you should save your energy for the things that really matter.
Image credits: paths; man thinking; making notes; relaxed; fancy dress; lightbulb; skate group; woman thinking;