Your day is made up of thousands of choices. Some of these are conscious decisions, while others are made automatically. Many of these are so small, you might not even be aware that you’re making them. But when you are overwhelmed or are faced with making more choices than usual—such as starting a new job or moving to a new city—suddenly the decisions you make every day can become difficult to make.
Decision fatigue affects everyone at some point in life, even if you aren’t aware of it. Things like deciding where to eat or what to wear might take longer than normal, and can result in unusual emotional reactions. That’s because when you’re suffering from decision fatigue, you’re actually struggling with mental overload where your cognitive processing is tapped out, and it requires a lot of focus, concentration, and effort to decide something that should only take seconds.
It isn’t only your decision making that’s affected when you have decision fatigue. You might notice lower levels of self-control, too. If you’re trying to watch what you eat, choosing healthy snacks becomes harder because you aren’t able to reason through why you should make the healthier choice. And your willpower suffers, leading you to agree to things or participate in events that you normally wouldn’t want to. You might feel more impulsive, react more emotionally, and physically tire easily. It can also lead to putting difficult tasks off, which can increase your stress, and possibly cause real-world consequences, as well.
The good news is that there are ways you can overcome decision fatigue when it hits, and hopefully develop tools to avoid it from setting in at all.
Get plenty of sleep
Sleep is one of the most powerful resources you have when it comes to your mental state. Studies show that reducing sleep by even as little as an hour can significantly impact your decision-making capabilities. But to make things even worse, lack of sleep also increases your impulsive decisions and the likelihood that you’ll make a riskier decision than if you were well rested.
When you’re tired, the area of your brain tied with anticipation—nucleus accumbens—becomes elevated. Instead of seeing the risk, your brain focuses on the reward, and emphasizes it so that it appears larger than it really is. This makes it more likely that you’ll make the riskier decision expecting the higher reward. And because you’re not looking at the risk, you’re also not looking at the loss or any consequences that may occur.
Just because you’re getting a certain amount of sleep doesn’t meant you’re well-rested. You want to focus on quality sleep, where you’re getting deep, restorative rest.
Prioritize your day
You might notice that you make decisions faster in the afternoon or evenings, and that might lead you to believe this is the best time of day for doing so. But your energy levels fluctuate throughout your day which means decision fatigue gets worse as your day progresses. If you know you have a difficult decision to make, schedule your day so that you can make it in the morning, when you’re fully rested and your energy is at its highest.
Studies show that it isn’t just that you make poor decisions when you’re tired. Your entire decision making matrix shifts as the day progresses. When you first wake up, you tend to be more methodical and cautious, taking the time to examine a decision with far more detail. But as your energy wanes, so does your caution. While the decisions you’re making during these times come faster, so does the impulsive nature of the decision. Are you really going with your gut? Or are you simply not weighing the risk-reward equation properly?
That doesn’t mean you have to make all your decisions in the morning. But it does indicate that you should understand which decisions should be made more carefully, and to schedule those early in the day.
Use a decision matrix
A decision matrix is essentially a grid with potential problems, obstacles, and solutions. This is a tool you can use to help you make decisions that feel overwhelming or require analyzing several factors.
Start with a grid. On the left side, list your options and along the top place each factor that is important or relevant. If you’re using this to figure out which car to buy, for example, you’d list the cars you like down the left side and what features are important along the top. You might consider things like price, amenities, and gas mileage. You’ll give each car a score from 1–5. You may want to add a weighted score if certain features are more important than others.
Decision matrixes can be simple or complex, depending on how it works for you. While this may seem like it’s time consuming, it helps you focus on what you want without feeling overwhelmed or emotional. If a score doesn’t turn out the way you wanted, you can reevaluate your scores to see if some things might actually be more important than others. This tool can help you identify what you truly value in specific situations, and that will help you make more complicated decisions faster in the future.
Automate your routine
You already automate most of your habits. Research shows that up to 40% of your daily routine is habitual—meaning you engage in the task with little to no active thought. You probably aren’t thinking about how to brush your teeth or tie your shoes. Those actions are automated. You just do them.
It might not seem possible to make your day habitual, but you can make your decisions easier by making them ahead of time. Meal prepping means you that don’t have to think about what to take to eat every day. Setting your clothes out the night before means you don’t have to think about it in the morning. Have an open grocery list in your kitchen so that the moment you run out of an item you can add it to the list.
You can go even deeper with this by narrowing down purchases to brand or price. Stay organized so that whenever you need to grab something, you know exactly where it is. The more automatic you make tasks and decisions throughout your day, the easier they’ll be.
Reduce choice wherever possible
Research shows that people tend to make faster, better decisions when they have fewer choices. Anyone who’s shopped at Costco has experienced this. But how do you apply this throughout your day?
Instead of shopping around to find the best price, stick with one retailer you trust and make your purchase there. You might save money somewhere else, but the time and stress you spend in the meantime may not be worth it in the end. If you have a brand you love, stick with it. Have a small variety of meal choices or work clothes and rotate through them. When you go grocery shopping, know what your main staples are and buy them every time.
Make a decision checklist of yes and no questions to help you narrow your options fast and efficiently. By simplifying your choices, you free up the mental bandwidth to focus on other more cognitively demanding tasks.
Be aware of your state
Your state matters. In the same way that being tired impacts your decision-making skills, so does your state. Do check-ins with yourself before making important or major decisions.
If you’ve made a lot of decision throughout the day, you may be reaching your decision-making max. Be honest with yourself about if you’re in the right state of mind to make another one. If you can put it off until the morning, that might be the right call. If you can’t, maybe take some time to meditate and rest so that you can recalibrate.
Don’t make decisions when you’re hungry. Hunger makes it more likely that you’ll settle for a smaller, more immediate reward than the one you really want. It increases your impulsivity and can make you increasingly impatient, as well.
Finally, when it comes to state, stop procrastinating. If you’ve been putting a decision off, evaluate your emotional state. Are you avoiding making a choice because you’re worried about everything being perfect? Do you doubt your ability to make that choice? Rarely are decisions permanent, so centering your emotional state can help ground your decision-making. Conversely, if you’re trying to cram too many decisions into a short period of time to get them over with, do the same. There’s likely an emotional block keeping you from evaluating them properly.
When you hear the word delegate, you might think in terms of work. But you can delegate throughout your personal life, too. If you’re the one who always cooks dinner, you can assign meal choices to everyone in the house. They can help prep and cook that night, while the rest of the household contributes to cleaning up. Assign chores, errands, and tasks, and keep track of them on a calendar.
Delegate the grocery list based on meal planning, down to preferred brand. Eliminate choice by asking them to be specific, and if they aren’t, go with your own decision checklist. If someone in your family or friend circle is an expert in a topic, ask what their choice is when weighing different options.
This can also include delegating someone to be your emotional guide. If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, ask someone you trust to be your decision maker for the day. This can be encompass anything from simply reviewing pros and cons together or having them ask if you can delay the decision for another day. They might also have your decision checklist, so they can walk you through each step.
Even if it’s just one other person, knowing that you aren’t alone in weighing the thousands of small choices you have to make every day can alleviate stress and anxiety.
It’s impossible to eliminate decisions from your life entirely. But you can use multiple tools to help make them easier. By automating your small choices and using a detailed decision matrix to assist with large ones, you can free up your cognitive energy to increase your productivity and focus in all other areas of your life.