Decision fatigue is the decline in energy and focus you experience after making too many decisions. This mental drain causes your brain to abandon your willpower in order to seek more immediate rewards, which leads to poor decision making and irrational behavior in the workplace and at home.
In this article, we’ll share what decision fatigue is, how it is affecting you daily, and steps you can take to outsmart it. By learning how to save your energy for the important stuff, you’ll set yourself up to be a high-achiever. Jump to our infographic to learn seven quick ways to outsmart decision fatigue, or you can read on to find out more.
Have you ever felt mentally drained after a morning meeting, or made an impulse purchase after a long day of shopping? Decision fatigue impacts everything from the meals we eat to the profits we make.
On average, Americans make between 10,000 to 40,000 choices a day. During a normal workday, you may switch tasks over 300 times. These decisions don’t go unnoticed by your brain. Like other muscles in the body, the brain is subject to exhaustion, which is how decision fatigue wears down your self-control and willpower.
Sometimes referred to as ego depletion, this theory was first uncovered by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, and it states that the quality of our decisions declines as we are faced with more and more choices throughout the day. Psychologists believe that it’s because our self-control and willpower draw upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up. Once the energy depletes, our self-control becomes impaired, leading to poorer decision making and irrational resolutions.
This mental fatigue can take a big hit on your finances. In addition to decreasing productivity in the office, which can translate to low performance reviews and lower profits, decision fatigue also clouds your judgement on big decisions such as purchasing a house. If your brain is faced with too many decisions, it will avoid making one altogether or make an impulse decision that can hurt your wallet, all because of your depleted willpower.
One of the most popular studies on decision fatigue looked at parole hearings in Israeli court rooms. The study found that the biggest determining factor for whether inmates would receive parole or not wasn’t based on reasoning or facts, but on the time of day the hearing took place. In fact, prisoners with early morning court appearances received parole about 70% of the time, compared to prisoners late in the day who were paroled less than 10% of the time. The study concluded that this was because judges were so sick of making choices by the time the afternoon cases rolled in, that they chose the easier, less risky decision: denying parole.
Decision fatigue affects everyone. This is because the human brain needs fuel to function properly. Specifically, your prefrontal cortex needs glucose, a simple sugar you get from food. The prefrontal cortex is the area of your brain that gives you the power to think, decide, and control your impulses, and it’s also the same area of the brain that becomes depleted after lots of decision-making takes place.
This study done at the University of Kentucky found that when glucose is low, it doesn’t make the brain stop working altogether – it just makes a different area of the brain kick-in, which makes you more likely seek immediate rewards and pay less attention to long-term prospects.
This can impact you in a number of ways. Decision fatigue impairs your ability to make trade-offs. For example, after spending hours at a car dealership, you’ll be more likely to agree to add-ons right before you complete your purchase because your mind is fatigued and wants to escape. This also causes you to make impulse purchases.
Too many choices can also lead you to procrastinate on deciding altogether. One study found that when shoppers at a mall were faced with 26 flavors of jelly, they got overwhelmed and only 3% of shoppers took home a jar. On a different day, when shoppers were faced with just 6 jam flavors, 30% purchased a jar.
Perhaps most importantly, decision fatigue impairs your self-regulation, as seen in the case of the Israeli judges. Their job requires them to make unbiased decisions based on law and fact, yet decision fatigue causes them to treat offenders differently based on time of day. Decision fatigue can make you irrational and even turn you against your own guiding principles, so learning how to outsmart it is essential to living a life you can be proud of.
Learning how to avoid and outsmart decision fatigue is vital to productivity and smart financial decisions. Use these tips to avoid making impaired judgements on big decisions:
1. Make Fewer Decisions
Most people don’t realize just how many decisions they are making, and how all of these choices are impacting their energy and mood. With the average American makes 36,000 choices a day, it’s no wonder some of us are mentally drained before lunchtime.
Automating repeating tasks is a great way to limit decisions. Set up autopay for recurring bills to remove bill paying decisions from your routine. Delegate unimportant decisions at work to maximize your time at the office. The more decisions you can automate, the more willpower you can save.
For this reason high achievers such as Steve Jobs, Former U.S. President Barack Obama, and Mark Zuckerberg actively limit the amount of decisions they make. Steve Jobs, who wore his trademark blue jeans with a black turtleneck and white sneakers every day, said that, “Deciding what to do is as important as deciding what to do.”
Both Zuckerberg and Obama have also adopted this wardrobe tactic: for Zuckerberg, it’s gray tees, for Obama, it’s gray and blue suits. Obama also eats the same thing for breakfast every morning, eliminating yet another decision from his day.
2. Establish Daily Routines
From the moment you wake up until you drift off to dreamland, all of the decisions you make impact your willpower. The more decisions you make, the more mental exhaustion you will feel, so the more decisions you automate, the more energy you can save for the important stuff.
Establishing both morning and evening routines will set you up for success by automating some of your processes. For example, if you always start your morning with a meditation and short exercise followed by eggs for breakfast, your mind doesn’t have to decide to do that when you wake up each morning, it will just do the routine on autopilot.
While financial decisions should not be made at evening, working a financial review into your nighttime routine will help you achieve better money habits. Set aside a few minutes to review any purchases you made throughout the day. Are there any unnecessary, repeating purchases – like a $5 coffee – that are killing your budget overtime? A budgeting app makes it easy to stay on top of your spending and also keep track of any upcoming bills.
Following a strict daily schedule will help you maximize both work and leisure time. Set a start and end time for tasks and split up your day into time block categories for work, exercise, family time, and bed-time.
3. Tackle Big Decisions Early in the Day
After you’ve completed your morning routine, it’s time to start being productive. Make your biggest decisions early in the day so you can utilize your strong willpower before it starts to deplete. Go through your to-do list focusing on the most important tasks first to increase rational decision-making and productivity.
Even if you think you make your best decisions later in the day, you are probably wrong. A study revealed that even people who consider themselves night owls make their best decisions in the morning and their worst ones late at night.
Saturday mornings are a great time to make purchases. That way, your financial decisions are not interfering with your professional decisions and you can focus all of your energy on finding the best deal. Do your research before you head to the store so you already know which item and brand you intend to purchase. This will keep you from getting overwhelmed and avoiding the decision altogether, and it will also keep you away from budget killer impulse buys.
As the day goes on, remember that not every project you work on or decision you make should use all the energy you can muster. In fact, trying to perfect an unimportant task is a waste of mental energy and time. Sometimes, a task just needs to get done. Prioritize your willpower for the big tasks and give yourself a tight time frame for the small ones.
4. Eat Right, Eat Often
Most high-achievers make healthy eating habits a priority. This energy is what gives our brain fuel – in fact, a new study linked low glucose levels with worse decision making. Sugar can help increase glucose levels and fuel short bursts of energy, but we get more long-term energy from healthier foods such as most vegetables, raw fruits, cheese, meat, fish, and good fats.
Meal-prepping is a great way to keep your mind healthy and free from decision fatigue. It’s also a great way to make budget decisions around eating. Decide how much you are willing to spend on meals each week, and then work a grocery store visit into your Sunday routine. When you get home, prepare your lunch and dinner for the week so you never have to decide where your next meal is coming from.
Resistance also takes a toll on our mental state. Baumeister, in his ego depletion study, found that participants who had recently resisted freshly baked cookies were less able to persevere through the puzzle than their peers.
That’s why limiting temptations helps reduce decision fatigue. For example, if you leave a candy bar out on your desk but restrain from eating it, you are adding a decision into your day. If there is no candy bar at all, you don’t have to decide whether or not to eat it.
5. Time Block Your Schedule
You can maximize your time, and limit your decisions, by time blocking your schedule each day. By committing ahead of time to a designated task, you are setting priorities and deadlines for yourself as well as eliminating decisions on how to spend free time.
The idea is that filling out every minute of your calendar makes you prioritize and leaves you feeling more in control of your own time. Your schedule becomes less-decision based, and more action-based.
Being unproductive is a roadblock to financial and professional success. In a recent FPA study, just 13% of financial advisors felt like they had complete control over their time. Taking back control of your day will translate to better performance and bigger profits.
Elon Musk and Bill Gates are both big proponents of time-blocking. From the moment Must wakes up at 7 a.m. his day is planned out into five minute increments. He also does not take unscheduled phone calls, and only responds to emails when it’s designated on the schedule.
This method can seem robotic and cold, but if you do it the right way, with blocks set aside for family and leisure time, you’ll probably find that you’re actually getting more time to do what you love simply by scheduling it.
Decision fatigue is impacting all of us, but high-achievers recognize that the key to a productive day is learning how to outsmart it. You can make your days full of high-level decisions and productivity when you focus on what matters most.
Deciding how and where to spend your energy is the key to unlocking your full potential. Take control of your willpower and self-control by using these 8 tactical approaches in the infographic below to outsmart decision fatigue.
Sources: Live Like Pros | Medium | Intelligent Economist | Consumer Affairs | Rescue Time | CNBC | Gallup