What is Decision Fatigue?


Has it ever happened that you’ve been placed with innumerable options and choices? When you’re out at a restaurant and you find it difficult to choose from the plethora of options given on the menu, it’s overwhelming to go over so many choices to make a correct decision. Such is the phenomenon of decision fatigue. A cognitive phenomenon where the more decisions made in a day, the more an individual feels physically and emotionally drained.

Read More: How Does Overthinking Impact Our Decision-Making Power?

Over the day, you might be required to make a large number of decisions, from small ones like what to wear to big ones like whether should you continue being in your relationship despite all the problems, or should you hire this particular person for the job. Sometimes the complexity of so many decisions makes you feel so mentally drained, that later in the day, a simple question like “burger or pizza for dinner?” can be difficult to answer. This article takes us on a journey to understand the phenomenon of decision fatigue.

Defining Decision Fatigue

As we mentioned before, decision fatigue is a cognitive phenomenon that arises when an individual has to make a large amount of decisions throughout the day, which leaves them emotionally and physically drained. The more the decision, the more the exhaustion and the inability to function. Decision fatigue hampers the ability of the executive functioning of a human being. This can impact many things, from tiredness, and overwhelming emotions, to the inability to make correct judgments.

When we study the cognitive aspects of decision-making in psychology, we can understand decision fatigue as when the quality of our decisions deteriorates as we continue engaging in the lengthy process of decision-making. It was John Tierney who has been credited for making this phrase popular. Kathleen Vohs and Roy Baumeister (2022) did a study where it was revealed that the more that subjects of the experiment had made choices with deliberation and did so with consistent frequency, they showed a decline in performance of tasks like maths tasks. This was irrespective of the length of the task or the tiredness the subject was experiencing.

When Does Decision Fatigue Happen?

There are innumerable situations where one can experience decision fatigue. Some of them are listed below —

  • When your decision can impact the lives of others.
  • When you need to make a lot of decisions in a day.
  • When the decision you have to make is during an important life decision such as planning a memorial service for your loved ones, deciding to break up with your long-term partners, etc.
  • When you have to decide in the face of uncertainty.

It is not always that these situations can lead to decision fatigue. However, these changes make you more prone to the phenomenon. There are signs and symptoms you can look for to recognise that you’re going through decision fatigue. We will discuss this below.

Signs and Symptoms of Decision Fatigue
  1. Reduced Self-Control: Individuals may find it more challenging to resist impulses. This leads to impulsive choices.
  2. Difficulty Making Choices: Individuals may experience a sense of overwhelm when faced with multiple options. This would make them indecisive and choosing from options difficult.
  3. Procrastination: To delay the inevitable of making choices and exhausting cognitive energy, an individual may engage in activities of procrastination.
  4. Irritability: Prolonged decision-making can lead to irritability and heightened emotional responses.
  5. Increased Tendency to Follow the Status Quo: Decision fatigue often leads to a preference for maintaining the status quo.
  6. Impaired Judgement: Individuals may struggle to assess risks and benefits accurately resulting in not-so-good choices.
  7. Physical Tiredness: The mental and emotional exhaustion can reflect physical well-being. You might feel nausea, anxiety jitters, stomach aches, and even headaches.
  8. Regret: Individuals might constantly feel dissatisfied with the work they do and regret a lot of decisions they make amidst the decision fatigue. One might keep thinking back on the choice they make, hours after the decision has been made.

Recognizing these symptoms can be beneficial as you navigate your way through how to handle decision fatigue and take steps to cope with it.

Read more: Psychology of Growing Positively Out of Regret: A Guide

How to Cope with Decision Fatigue?

First and foremost, it is important to understand that decision fatigue can happen to anyone. It is okay if you’re experiencing one. Please note that if you identify that you’re experiencing the signs of decision fatigue on a day-to-day basis, it becomes a good idea to seek help from a therapist.

  1. Prioritise important decisions and tackle them during peak mental alertness.
  2. Limit choices and establish routines for less critical aspects of life.
  3. Schedule breaks between decision-intensive tasks to recharge your mind.
  4. Create decision rules or guidelines for routine choices to simplify the process.
  5. Optimise your environment by minimising distractions and maintaining organisation.
  6. Delegate decisions when possible, sharing the cognitive load with a team.
  7. Batch similar decisions together to avoid mental context-switching.
  8. Incorporate mindfulness techniques for stress reduction and improved clarity.
  9. Ensure adequate rest and nutrition to support overall cognitive function.
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