You might suffer from decision fatigue – without even knowing it


We stumbled upon a very interesting article in the New York Times. In this article, scientist John Tierney describes the effects and causes of the so called “Decision Fatigue”. Roughly speaking, that is a state of mind, in which a person is no longer able to make good decisions. Suprisingly, it is very probable that all of us end up in this state of mind almost every day – without even noticing.

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car.

How come we all get trapped in decision fatigue? The essay of Tierney points out two important reasons:

  1. Scientists believe that anytime we decide something, we consume a certain amount of energy. Making a decision takes away energy from you. The act of deciding is more tiring than screening of options or implementing a decision. Because in decision making, you need to compare different options and very often need to make trade-offs. For the brain, this is a difficult and thus tiring calculation.
  2. The amount of energy to make decision is not endless. Decision making is not only consuming energy, but the energy we can use for it is limited and will sooner or later be used up.

These findings have serious implications. As soon as you are running low on energy for decision making, your brain tries to make short-cuts in order to save energy. To that end, it relies on one of these two strategies:

  1. To use less energy, decisions become one-dimensional or even irrational. You just pick one option in order to avoid the tiring process of deciding.
  2. Even more energy can be saved by not deciding at all. The decision is postponed or just ignored.

People who depleted there mental energy are an easy target for manipulators. Tierney describes various experiments with shoppers who end up spending more than they intended. Just because of being bombarded with many options and little decisions, after a while they tend to choose the “default options” or ask the sales man “What would you recommend?”.

What makes decision fatigue so tricky is the fact that it is so hard to detect on yourself. As Tierney puts it:

It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.

Although there is no cure against decision fatigue, there are a few ways to cope with it: First of all, keeping the energy level high by eating and taking breaks more frequently. It is recommendable to avoid fast-food and sugar-snacks which result in sharp drops of glucose level after a brief high.

Having in mind, that all decisions and rejected temptations add up and consume your mental energy, you might consider trying something else: Avoiding unnecessary decisions. Tierney derives from studies of Roy F. Baumeister that “people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower.” We tend to deplete our minds with thoughts of whether to surf the Internet for one more minute or get back to work, whether to got to the gym or just go home, what to wear and whether to eat dessert or not. Adhering to strict rules and following strict schedules – just having a routine – saves energy by avoiding some decisions all together.

The most simple but nevertheless effective hint is to just be aware of decision fatigue:

That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach.

And certainly you can save some decision making energy by sharing the process with others, for example using tricider to brainstorm and vote on any question. ;)

Images: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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