Decision Fatigue – Guide to Focusing on What Matters Most

Whether you’re thinking about it or not, you’re making multiple decision, even by the second.  These decisions, however mundane, can lead to decision fatigue and a diminishing ability to make good choices.  Decision fatigue is real, so let’s discuss what causes it.

Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon caused by our busy lives and the many decisions we make each day; it can lead to a diminished capacity to make the right choices after a certain point. By Making smart, small to complex daily choices, we can life more simply, more relaxed, and be happier.

Have you ever stood in front of a store shelf and been unable to choose from the multiple options?  You were probably a victim of decision fatigue.

What Is Decision Fatigue?

Decision fatigue is when you start losing the ability to make decisions.  So after you’ve made multiple decisions, you start losing the ability to make useful and even right decisions.  When we lose the ability to make the right decision, we avoid making decisions, we impulse buy, or we make risky decisions.  This is a sign of low mental energy especially when we start choosing the easiest path.

Sign pointing in different directions - Decision Fatigue - Gone Minimal
Sign pointing in different directions

What Causes Decision Fatigue?

The causes of decision fatigue can be unique to the individual but often revolves around the deterioration of decision-making quality due to having to make too many decisions too often. It’s the mental load that often grows heavier and heavier before we realize how significant the weight is to hold.

Our busy lives lead us to have to make decisions multiple times a day.

  • What to make for breakfast?
  • Hot coffee or cold?
  • Who’s taking the kids to school?
  • Which meeting do I attend at work?
  • Do I finish this project or actually eat lunch?
  • Do I accept that promotion or not?
  • What do I make for dinner-or what should I pick up?
  • Do I take the dogs for a walk or go to bed early?
  • Should I have an adult beverage or not?

Are you starting to see how these decisions could lead to feeling tired, overwhelmed, and perhaps like you don’t even care anymore?  Let’s talk about what decision fatigue actually looks (or feels!) like.

Examples of Decision Fatigue

You know the decisions you make every day, but there may be some you’re not even aware that you’re making.  Here are some examples of the decisions we face every day and what fatigue looks like:

  • What do you want for dinner?  That Thai place is closest…
  • In the grocery store-you know you need cheese, but there’s so many to choose from…
  • At a staff meeting-your group needs to decide on a new process for something, and 12 people have different ideas on how to do it.  Jim’s been here the longest, so we’ll choose his idea.
  • Your spouse tells you there’s an issue with one of your kids’ behavior.  I can’t do this right now.
  • I can’t make up my mind on whether I’d like to go for a bike ride or not.
  • So much I need to do-I’ll do it later.

Any of this sound familiar?  Especially with meal planning-it’s not that we’re indecisive, we may just be experiencing decision fatigue! 

Here is a video with helpful tips on overcoming decision fatigue:

Types of Decision Fatigue

While different experiences might be perceived in various ways, here are a few of the most common types of decision fatigue that many folks experiences in day-to-day living.

Shopping Decision Fatigue

If you’ve ever been in a supermarket or grocery store and had a difficult time deciding between brands of potato chips, there’s a good chance you too have experienced shopping decision fatigue.  So how do we overcome (or even prevent) shopping decision fatigue?

  • Take an inventory of what you have on hand.
  • Make a list and stick to it.
  • Set a budget and don’t go over.
  • Choose your coupons before you go.
  • Don’t be swayed by special displays or clearance bins.
  • Stick to the brands you know.
  • Eat a meal or a snack BEFORE you go shopping.
  • Don’t go shopping if you’re tired.

This applies to any kind of shopping: school supplies, clothing, shoes, makeup, anything.  But guess what?  The same steps above still apply!

You know the decisions you make every day, but there may be some you’re not even aware that you’re making.

COVID Decision Fatigue

Let’s face it.  COVID has changed everything.  Every.  Little.  Thing.  our normal, everyday decisions have been impacted by COVID – should I go to the grocery store or should I order online and have it delivered?  Should I send the kids to school or should they stay in online learning? 

We’ve all experienced it.  And it’s been HARD.  Even with vaccines available, we have no idea when things will get back to “normal”.  So how do we deal with COVID decision fatigue?

  • Recognize that the decisions you have to make are getting difficult.
  • Set up new criteria to help make decisions easier.
  • Decrease the number of decisions that need to be made each day.
  • Recognize that things change, and new decisions will need to be made.
  • Take breaks whenever you can and rest.

Our brains and lives have been altered by the events of 2020 (and beyond) with pandemic restrictions, working and going to school online, and not being able to be with the ones we love outside of our households.  This has made things exhausting, difficult, and even scary.  Use the steps above and above all else, take care of yourself and practice caution.

Relaxing on a hammock outdoors - Decision Fatigue - Gone Minimal
Relaxing on a hammock outdoors

Is Decision Fatigue a Real Thing?

I just can’t decide…  Absolutely it is a real thing!  There are even studies to demonstrate its existence, to a point.  It’s difficult to prove the effects of decision fatigue, since it’s a pretty abstract thing.  So what makes it real?  Let’s look at some examples:

  • You just got back from the grocery store after work where you bought the healthiest of the healthy food: produce, lean meats, nothing pre-packaged.  Now what meal do you create with it?  I’m not up to making that choice so let’s order pizza.
  • Work required a great deal of meetings, think tanks, emails, and consultations.  I’ll put off that errand until tomorrow because I’m too tired.
  • The kids had school, soccer practice, doctor’s appointments, and the dogs need heartworm medication refilled.  When you arrived at home, the neighbor’s child was doing a fundraiser so you bought 3 chocolate bars, just to get inside quickly.

Sound real to you?  How many decisions have you had to make today?

Decrease the number of decisions that need to be made each day.

How Many Decisions Can a Person Make In a Day?

That depends-how much time do you have?  It’s been suggested that average people make about 35,000 decisions daily!  This was based on 7 hours of sleep per night, so imagine if you sleep less than that?!

Of course these decisions range from simple to complex, so it’s a little easier to see where it might be possible to do this-especially since our minds are running all of the time!  What are some of the things we’re deciding on to make that up?

  • Food-about 227 decisions alone!
  • Whether or not to get out of bed when the alarm goes off
  • Whether or not to exercise
  • Shower or bathe or not
  • What to wear
  • What to listen to on the radio
  • What to watch on tv
  • What to read
  • Smartphone notifications-ignore or respond?
  • Hot or cold coffee

And that’s just first thing in the morning!  Make sense that one could make so many decisions each day now?  It’s mind boggling, but you probably do it subconsciously!

Everyday small decisions - Decision Fatigue - Gone Minimal
Everyday small decisions

Studies on Decision Fatigue

We each have personal experiences with decision fatigue. I thought, let’s see if any research has been done, to understand some of the science behind it. And aha! There was some great stuff out there. Here are a few of the more significant and influential studies on decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue among clinical nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic

Pignatiello, G., Tsivitse, E., O’Brien, J., Kraus, N., and Hickman, R. (2021)

Researchers surveyed clinical nurses to investigate the effects of the COVID pandemic and nurses’ ability to make decisions in their clinical practice.  The study is ongoing, however what they have found so far is that nurses are suffering not only from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but are struggling to a fair degree with making decisions at the bedside at times.  This study also uses a new tool, the Decision Fatigue Scale (DFS), and has proven its validity and reliability with the findings thus far. 

Decision fatigue, choosing for others, and self-construal

Polman, E. and Vohs, K. (2016)

Researchers compared decision-making for self and decision making for others and the effects on people.  They found that it was depleting to make decisions for self and actually enjoyable to make decisions for others. 

The influence of time of day on decision fatigue in online food choice experiments

Olsen, S., Meyerhoff, J., Morkbak, M., and Bonnichsen, O. (2017)

Researchers found that online surveys regarding food choices varied when taken at different times of day, indicating different levels of decision fatigue.  Findings were also linked to food intake and blood sugar levels.

Examples of Decision Fatigue – From Real People

I asked 5 family/friends what top 4 daily tasks they believe contribute to their decision fatigue. Here is what I learned and what they shared:

Task# of People
Meal planning5
Daily commute/avoiding traffic4
Free time activities2
Home repairs/renovations3
Caring for aging parents2
Caring for animals4
What to watch on tv/movies2
Where to eat out2
Paying bills2
What to wear2

Other Resources:

Decision fatigue is real, and it affects almost all of us.  From daily tasks including what to wear and what to make for dinner all the way to accepting that new position at work, all of these choices can wear us down after a while.  The more tired we are, the more we risk making poor decisions for ourselves as well as others.  Don’t you think it’s time to delegate that task to someone else?

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