If you’ve ever reached a point where it felt like you couldn’t make even one more decision, then you’ve experienced a condition known as decision fatigue.
Chances are you already associate willpower and self-control with making good decisions, but what you may not have considered is how your level of mental energy can affect the quality of your decisions.
Willpower Isn’t Enough to Avoid Decision Fatigue
Every day we make dozens of decisions. Many of them are made as unconscious elements of your daily routine … what to wear, what to have for breakfast, whether to exercise, and scheduling your day.
These decisions generally require little energy, but the effect is cumulative.
So as you move into your day if the decision making continues there will come a point where your mental energy level begins to diminish.
This is where you start to feel challenged because no matter how disciplined you are, no one can make decision after decision without paying a biological price.
The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts. One shortcut is to become restless, the other is the ultimate energy saver – do nothing. ~John Tierney, New York Times
Decision fatigue isn’t the same as physical fatigue, in fact, you may not even be consciously aware you’re running low on mental energy.
But all the decisions you have to make during the day add up, eventually reaching a point when it’s tempting to look for shortcuts or procrastinate in order to avoid having to make a decision.
How We Reach the Point of Decision Fatigue
Researchers Mark Heitmann, Andreas Hermann, and Sheena Iyengar demonstrated how we reach the point of decision fatigue in their experiments involving the purchase of a new car.
The car buyers – real customers – had to make dozens of choices including styles of gearshift knobs, different kinds of wheel rims, various configurations of the engine and a palette of 56 colors for the car interior.
At first, customers carefully weighed their choices, but over time they began settling for whatever the default option happened to be. The more tough choices they had to make early in the process the quicker they became fatigued and began settling for the default option.
By manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would settle for different kinds of options, with the average difference amounting to more than $2,000.
Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy wheel rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered and how much willpower was left to the customer at that point.
There will always be decisions that you can’t plan for. But for most of us, the decisions that drain us are the ones that we make over and over again. Taking time to plan, simplify, and design the repeated daily decisions will give you more mental space to make the important choices each day. ~James Clear
Decision fatigue helps to explain why otherwise reasonable people inexplicably get angry at colleagues or family, buy junk food at the market and can’t resist splurging on impulse buys.
Some ways we try to combat the “my brain is on overload!” feeling include changing our focus, taking a break or even eating something to bring our energy and glucose level up, all with mixed results according to research studies.
The Bottom Line
Going back to the example of buying a new car, the chances of making a decision you’ll later regret can be reduced by researching options ahead of time so you can reserve your willpower to avoid impulse buys.
Studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who intentionally structure their lives so as to conserve energy and willpower.
They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings or attempt to restructure a company at 4 pm. They try to make critical choices when they’re at their highest energy level and if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach.
Another trait of effective decision makers is they establish habits and routines instead of having to force themselves to make daily choices like what to eat and whether or not to exercise, and even what to wear.
You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I don’t want to have to make decisions about basic things like what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make. ~President Barack Obama
What all of this means is that with a measure of self-awareness and effective planning, you can learn to make better choices and avoid decision fatigue.
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