From the moment we wake up each day, we’re faced with a continuous stream of choices. Many are minor (which route to take to work), others are major (whether to accept a new job) and they all add up. When there are too many options, we tend to feel overwhelmed, anxious, stressed or otherwise out of sorts. This is decision fatigue, a state of mental overload that can impede our ability to make additional decisions.
Even if you’ve never heard of decision fatigue, you have probably experienced it, especially during the pandemic, which has added a new layer of complexity to the everyday choices we face. “There’s no aspect of the pandemic that has not thrown decisions at us that we haven’t had to make before,” says psychologist Barry Schwartz, a visiting professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley and author of “The Paradox of Choice.” “Things that used to require no thought or effort now require a lot of planning. In the covid world so much is uncertain — we haven’t had practice making decisions under these circumstances.”
Indeed, on a regular basis, many of us now wonder: Is it safe to go to an athletic event or eat indoors at a restaurant? Should we get together with friends or have people over? Is it okay to travel or go to the gym or ____ [fill in the blank]?
Furthermore, “The information we need to make decisions keeps changing,” says Lynn Bufka, a practicing psychologist in Maryland and senior director for practice transformation and quality at the American Psychological Association. “And with the pandemic, some decisions are fraught with some level of risk, which can lead to anxiety, which can impair our ability to take in information and make decisions.”
Decision-making is challenging under any circumstances, because there are a lot of moving pieces to the process. “People have to consider their preferences and how they’re linked to their goals and values, they commit themselves to a course of action, and there are evaluative steps including cost-benefit calculations,” explains consumer psychologist Kathleen Vohs, a professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. “In combination, this makes it a very taxing psychological experience.”
And some things make it more taxing: “The more complicated a decision is, the more it wears you out,” Schwartz says.
When decision fatigue kicks in, you may feel like you just don’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with more decisions. This can lead to decisional paralysis or depleted self-control, causing you to avoid making certain choices entirely, to go with the default option or to make ones that aren’t in line with your goals or values, experts say.
Decision fatigue is more than just a feeling; it stems in part from changes in brain function. Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging has shown that there’s a sweet spot for brain function when it comes to making choices: When people were asked to choose from sets of six, 12 or 24 items, activity was highest in the striatum and the anterior cingulate cortex — both of which coordinate various aspects of cognition, including decision-making and impulse control — when the people faced 12 choices, which was perceived as “the right amount.”
Decision fatigue may make it harder to exercise self-control when it comes to eating, drinking, exercising or shopping. “Depleted people become more passive, which becomes bad for their decision-making,” says Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia and author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” “They can be more impulsive. They may feel emotions more strongly. And they’re more susceptible to bias and more likely to postpone decision-making.”
In a series of laboratory studies, researchers asked people to choose from an array of consumer goods or college course options or to simply think about the same options without making choices. They found that the choice-makers later experienced reduced self-control, including less physical stamina, greater procrastination and lower performance on tasks involving math calculations; the choice-contemplators didn’t experience these depletions.
Having insufficient information about the choices at hand may influence people’s susceptibility to decision fatigue. Experiencing high levels of stress and general fatigue can, too, Bufka says. And if you believe that the choices you make say something about who you are as a person, that can ratchet up the pressure, increasing your chances of being vulnerable to decision fatigue.
While you may not be able to avoid this phenomenon entirely, you can take steps to minimize or manage it both during the pandemic and after. Here’s how:
Put sleep on your side. “Sleep is tremendously important for willpower and decision-making,” Baumeister says. “Quality sleep matters more than the quantity of sleep.” If you’re struggling with a difficult decision at night, rather than rushing to make it before turning in, you’d be better off sleeping on it and reconsidering how you feel about it in the morning. “Decision fatigue tends to accumulate over the day,” Baumeister notes. “Sleep restores energy, so you’re better able to face things. It’s not that those things are better [in the morning] — it’s that you’re better.”
Make some choices automatic. People make thousands of decisions each day, Schwartz says. “There’s a meta decision we can make about how many decisions we’re willing to make in a day or week. The trick is to automate a lot about your life so you don’t have to make so many decisions.” Some easy ways to do this: When you go grocery shopping (or order grocery delivery), use a master list that has the same staples, and buy the same brands each time. If you like having oatmeal for breakfast, stick with it on a daily basis. And if you’re trying to exercise regularly, dedicate a consistent chunk of time for it every day.
Enlist a choice adviser. When it comes to making important or particularly challenging decisions, “it helps not to be in it alone,” says psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “Ask someone you trust who cares about you to check your thinking. It can be helpful to share your uncertainty and anxiety” about which way to go on the matter and to get another perspective and opinion. It also may help to review the pros and cons together.
Give your expectations a reality check. “Remind yourself that good enough is almost always good enough,” Schwartz says. If you need a new mobile phone or TV, it doesn’t have to be the best model out there. So don’t cast too wide a net when considering the options. Remember, too: “Most decisions are not going to be 100 percent irrevocable or going to determine the path of our lives,” Bufka adds. If you’re not happy with the results, you can often choose to change course.
Pace yourself. When you make one decision after another, it’s easy to end up with cognitive fatigue. That’s why it’s important to “give yourself time to rest and recover throughout the day and break up activities so you’re not mentally on all the time,” Bufka says. This will help you replenish your cognitive resources so that you can make more thoughtful decisions.
Tune into how you’re feeling. Be alert to signs of decision fatigue and act accordingly: If you’ve had a demanding day that was filled with lots of decisions, put off making another one, if you can. If things that wouldn’t normally faze you start bothering you, consider that a sign that you may not be in the optimal state of mind to make a major decision. “People may not realize that they’re experiencing decision fatigue,” Baumeister says. “It’s something to watch out for.”
Stacey Colino is a writer in Chevy Chase, Md., specializing in health and psychology, and co-author of “Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times.”