Have you ever gotten to the end of a busy day and felt like your brain was too fried to even decide what to eat? Instead of going to the grocery store and picking up some vegetables to cook, you make a beeline for the fast food drive-through.
If something similar has happened to you, it may be due to decision fatigue — the diminishing capacity to make decisions as the day goes on.
Read on to learn what the decision fatigue definition is, what the symptoms are, and how to reduce and prevent decision fatigue in the workplace.
What is decision fatigue?
Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister coined the term decision fatigue — also known as ego depletion.
Decision fatigue refers to a person’s diminished ability to make decisions as the day goes on. It’s the idea is that making decisions is more difficult after every decision you make. Decision fatigue doesn’t just occur after big decisions — small decisions often snowball to add up to decision fatigue.
What is an example of decision fatigue?
A famous study from the National Academy of Sciences in Israel illustrated decision fatigue by showing how time of day affected sentences. Judges handed down harsher sentences the longer they went without a break. This landmark study lent credence to the idea that decision-making is a mentally taxing activity — and that decision fatigue is a real phenomena.
Decision fatigue can easily happen when you spend all day making decisions. Let’s say you start your day off in the marketing department deciding on the campaign rollout for your new product. After lunch, you’re tasked with selecting five resumés from a pile of fifty to interview next week. You spend hours pouring over the resumés, deciding what qualifications you want on your team and who you think will be a better fit for the company. By the end of the day, you feel exhausted, can barely concentrate, and feel a bit of a headache coming on. Your boss pokes their head into your office and asks if you’re available for a meeting tomorrow morning. You don’t have the energy to look at your calendar, so you automatically say yes, only to later find out that you’ve double-booked yourself.
Sound familiar? Decision-making fatigue is a common occurrence in the workplace, but not all experts agree that it is an inevitable outcome of daily decision-making.
Is decision fatigue debunked?
While the effects of decision fatigue are very real for some, scientists are divided as to whether decision fatigue is an outcome of how brains work, or a cultural response to the exercise of willpower.
Studies like the one with the judges seem to indicate that decision-making has a real effect on performance. Similarly, a study in Healthy Psychology found that healthcare workers made less efficient decisions the longer they went without a break.
What’s the science behind decision fatigue? The hypothesis behind these studies is that after eating, your brain slowly runs out of glucose. A brain that runs low on sugar then starts to discount the future and engage in more short-term thinking, which leads to a diminished ability to make decisions.
More recent studies, however, have cast doubt on the idea that making decisions takes up more mental energy than other tasks. Studies by psychologist Carol Dweck have shown that decision fatigue is tied not to a physical inevitability, but rather cultural belief. The idea is that if you view the exertion of willpower as wearisome, then you will experience decision fatigue. Some studies show that it is mostly Western cultures that view decision-making as tiring, and are therefore more affected by decision fatigue.
So is decision fatigue debunked?
While scientists may not agree about whether decision fatigue is a cultural or psychological phenomena, decision fatigue does affect many people, especially in at work.
What are the signs of decision fatigue?
Decision fatigue may affect people differently, but there are some common signs.
Decision overload can lead you to feel:
- Mental fatigue
- Brain fog
- General tiredness
Mental fatigue and brain fog are the feelings of being unable to concentrate at the task at hand. Brain fog especially can feel like even the simplest of tasks is complex, and you feel like you are walking through a “fog.”
If you don’t give your mind proper time to rest, decision fatigue can negatively affect your mental health and general well-being. Decision fatigue can contribute to burnout, anxiety, irritability, depression, and can even lead to physical symptoms like tension headaches.
Besides affecting how you feel, choice fatigue can lead to worse decision-making.
Decision overload can lead to:
- Impulsivity, especially impulsive buying
- Difficulty in making trade-offs: Decisions between two outcomes that each have pros and cons
- Procrastination and other avoidance behaviors
Decision fatigue can lead to making impulsive decisions or reduced self-control. When you lack the brainpower to think through the different outcomes, you’re more likely to choose something arbitrarily, or choose a default option (the path of least resistance) — like ordering takeout instead of deciding what to cook.
Instead of making a snap decision, decision fatigue can also lead to procrastination as a way of decision avoidance.
People who are more predisposed to impulsivity or making quick decisions are more likely to see these tendencies heightened with decision fatigue. Those who tend to ponder over decisions can experience debilitating delays in making decisions because of decision-making fatigue.
How to reduce decision fatigue
Whether making decisions is tiring or not, studies show that many leaders try to combat decision fatigue by limiting the number of decisions they have to make. Former United States President Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg cycle between one or two outfits to reduce their daily decisions.
There are two main ways to reduce the effects of decision fatigue:
1. Limit low-stakes decisions
2. Change your pattern of beliefs around willpower
Luckily, these strategies aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s examine further.
Limit low-stakes decisions
There are two parts to this strategy. The first part is to ensure that you’re devoting your brainpower to decisions that really matter. The second part is to remove the distractions of daily, small decisions so they don’t add to decision fatigue.
One way to ensure that you’re giving important decisions your full attention is to make those decisions early in the day. Because decision fatigue worsens with every decision, making the important decisions first thing in the morning can help you make a good decision. Make sure to check in with yourself periodically. Do you truly have the brainpower to make this decision right now? If not, it might be better to do so after resting, instead of making a suboptimal decision.
The brain “resets” after rest, so it’s also important to engage in basic self-care like taking small breaks, sleeping well, and eating nutritionally balanced meals.
Another way to reduce decision fatigue is to remove small, daily, low-risk decisions from the equation. Simplify small choices and take shortcuts when making those decisions.
For example, skip deciding what to wear first thing in the morning by laying out your clothes the night before. Creating a weekly meal plan reduces the brainpower needed to make a nightly decision about what to eat. Setting routines around things like waking up, going to sleep, and eating helps eliminate small decisions, because a routine tells you exactly what to do and when.
Change your beliefs about decision-making
Some scientists believe that decision fatigue affects those who believe that exercising willpower is exhausting. While there may be some cultural reasons why this belief is prevalent in Western society, as an individual you can change your beliefs surrounding decisions.
Instead of viewing the decision-making process as exhausting, learn to find joy in making decisions. Part of why decisions may feel like so much work is the responsibility that goes along with them. Try sharing that responsibility by engaging in shared decision-making — even if that just means asking your partner for input about what to eat that night. By changing your pattern of beliefs around what it means to make decisions, you can start to ascribe decisions less power to exhaust you.
Preventing decision fatigue at work
Preventing decision fatigue at work is key to improving productivity throughout the workday and avoiding making poor choices.
Automation plays a large role in reducing choice fatigue. The more decisions you can offload to an automated system, the more energy you can devote to mission-critical decisions. Daily processes, like scheduling a meeting, are relatively low-stakes decisions that nevertheless take up a lot of decision-making capacity.
Bain & Company found that the typical organization spends 15% of their collective time in meetings. The average employee attends 62 meetings per month. And those numbers are only going up since so many of us went remote for the pandemic.
While there are often big decisions to make during meetings themselves, scheduling meetings adds a lot of additional decisions to the workday. The average employee spends 4.8 hours every week just scheduling meetings, according to Doodle.
It takes an average of eight emails to schedule a single meeting, according to Dennis R. Mortensen, CEO and Founder of x.ai. Once you finish the back-and-forth with every participant and get a meeting scheduled, chances are high it’ll be canceled, forgotten, double-booked, or rescheduled.
That’s 4.8 hours a week and eight emails per meeting spent making small decisions. It’s easy to see how all of these small decisions can then snowball to add to decision-making fatigue.
One of the best ways to reclaim your time and to make fewer decisions is to automate as many manual processes as possible. Clockwise automates the meeting scheduling process, so you can have more brainpower for the decisions that really matter. Flexible Meetings automatically shifts your meeting times to adjust for your changing schedule, without ever having to write a “let’s reschedule” email. Scheduling Links is a one-click solution to share your availability with anyone within or outside of your organization. You won’t have to worry about remembering when you have availability or not — every link shares your availability and preferences.
Decision fatigue can have a debilitating effect on your ability to make the right decisions as the day goes on. Whether it’s the way our brains are wired or a result of the society we live in, many people notice that their ability to make decisions worsens as the day goes by.
You can reduce the effects of decision fatigue by minimizing the number of small decisions you make in a day, as well as changing your beliefs around making decisions. Preventing decision fatigue in the workplace is important so that better decisions are being made. Automating your schedule with Clockwise is a great way to automate some decision-making processes.