Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dealing with Decision Fatigue


Are you trying to decide what color to paint your room at the same time you are having to decide when to get to the library and start that research paper, while also deciding how to prepare for the birthday party that you are throwing for a friend or family member? 

Feeling the pressure of having to make multiple decisions at once or in sequence can lead to “decision fatigue”, a condition that results from the mental exhaustion that results from having to make too many important decisions at once.  These are not the kind of decisions such as what flavor ice cream to eat, but rather, whether or not you should eat the ice cream or not.  You may be trying to moderate junk food in your diet and may have the choice of  a) eating a small portion of ice cream, b) saving it for another day, thereby delaying gratification and giving you something to look forward to later, or c) giving into the temptation to eat it now, knowing that you will diffuse future cravings by addressing the problem in the immediate moment. 

Imagine all of the laborious thought that went into that decision and how it would be if you had to make many decisions that involved the same amount of mental effort in a short time span, like what to take on your vacation in light of unpredictable weather or studying for your exam a month in advance versus 2 weeks in light of the possibility of burning out too quickly.  What if you were having family from out of town visiting for 5 days and you had to plan an activity for each?  According to researchers, the brain fatigue that results from multiple decision making can lead to making forced choices that might result in poor outcomes.  You may decide, “I’m tired of thinking about whether or not I should eat the ice cream, so I’ll just eat it to relieve myself of the mental energy that is required to make this decision." 

To avoid the consequences of decision fatigue, try the following strategies:
• When you are trying to make a decision that can have serious consequences, remove yourself from the situation and do nothing.  Listen to some relaxing music or go for a walk in an effort to clear your mind completely.  This will alleviate the exhaustion and burnout that you may feel that may contribute to excess mental clutter.

• Talk it out.  Talk to a friend or a family member about something totally unrelated to the decision as another technique to diffuse the ruminating thoughts about the decision.  Then, if you do need a second opinion, you can always call the person (or another friend or relative) to get some constructive advice.

• Write it down.  Journal about the thoughts and concerns you have about the decision; getting it out on paper will help to get it off of your mind; write down the pros and cons of the decision.  Then, take a brisk walk to get your mind off of it for awhile.

• Help someone else who is struggling with a difficult decision.  This will help you fine tune your decision making skills, while removing yourself from the conundrum on your plate.  You can then return to your decision with objectivity and bolstered problem solving skills.

In general, the best way to prevent decision fatigue is to remove yourself from the situation and return at a time when your mind is more open and less stressed.  Be it exercise, listening to music or talking with a friend, finding an activity to get your mind off of the decision will help you revisit the decision with a more objective and refreshed mindset.  Ultimately, you don’t want to make the decision when you are in the midst of decision fatigue or in haste that might interfere with good prioritizing.

For more information on this topic, visit this link.


  1. Great technique. Although I have always thought that turning away from a difficult or stressful situation is not the best way to solve it. I have always been taught that when facing a difficult situation, the best thing to do is to face it right at the spot and find a solution to get the issue over with, but I am glad that researches and professionals recommend this as a technique to ease down uncomfortable situations. I will definitely try it out and see how I do. Thanks.

  2. If it is a major life decision, like whether to change majors, or something like that, I always try to wait for a week or two to make sure that I make the decision when I am not stressed or fatigued. I also want to keep track of what I think about the change in multiple moods, so that I can tell if I really want to make a change at all.

    I also find it helps to write the decision down. Then I can mentally let go for a while before making the decision without worrying that I will forget or procrastinate too long. Good article!

  3. I had decision fatigue a few months ago when I was juggling joining the air force reserves, signing up for classes at NOVA, applying for financial aid, and dealing with a new work schedule. I was easily agitated at the time and would stress over the smallest decisions involving those things. I found that getting exercise helps me with decision fatigue. Going for a run can clear my mind and make me have a more positive attitude. My wife also helps me when I'm feeling overwhelmed by just talking things over with me. Reading and writing is also a great tool. Thanks for the article! - Thomas Seeley