Who cares if you have decision fatigue?

Who cares if you have decision fatigue?

Do you have decision fatigue? Is it really possible to recognise it in yourself while it's happening? Decision fatigue is the zapping of energy that results from repetitive decision making. Each decision requires processing time, and energy. After making decisions all day (both significant and insignificant), our ability to apply as much concentration and focus to the process of good decision making (weighing up the options) declines as the day progresses. 


What does this mean? In the morning, we have our maximum willpower quotient for the day.  At this time it is easier to make decisions in line with our sense of purpose or new goals.  As the day progresses, and we have used up our decision reserve and self-control muscle; we then have the potential to make less wise decisions.

When decision fatigue sets in, we are both: (1) potentially less aware that we are currently decision fatigued, and (2)  less resisting (but remember - it's not that we can't resist bad decisions if we plan and learn well).   

When we are at our most alert we may not struggle with influences that go against our desires or goals or plans. But when we are in decision fatigue mode, we are at our least resistant for making bad decisions that target:

  • Poor thought processes (I can't actually afford that);

  • Our old habits (I don't smoke any more);

  • Strong marketing campaigns (I don't actually cook.... so why would I buy....); or

  • An urge you have been resisting (I really shouldn't buy that now, I'm getting it for my birthday in two months time.... but suddenly now I just can't wait).

At first it was thought that the loss of energy associated with decision making only occurred if we were concentrating on making decisions that required willpower (whether or not to eat the chocolate donuts for morning tea).  It is recognised that willpower is a muscle that requires training and can get tired the more we use it to resist something.  It was assumed therefore that 'resisting' decisions were the only reason for that tired feeling that lead to decision fatigue later in the day, which resulted in less resistance or poor decisions.

Not so! It turns out that we can actually make any kind of decision, but lots of them, and still get decision related fatigue. So if you have busy days, being called upon to make more than the usual number of decisions requiring your constant attention, by the afternoon it is possible you may have a case of decision fatigue. 

A University study published in 2011 examined the consistency of rulings made by judges. Throughout one day for similar cases, Danziger and Avnaim-Pesso found that Judges were less likely to parole a prisoner in the afternoon than in the morning. In the afternoon they were more likely to accept the status quo (keep the prisoner in jail; accept less risk when they were getting tired) than they were in the morning for a similar claim (when they felt more able to examine all the elements of the claim, apply more thinking to the problem and make a balanced judgement). 

Therefore, in your case, it is possible you will lean towards familiar choices, old habits or easy routes (that you might live to regret) if you are approached about a request in the afternoon (about 4:30pm), than if you are approached in the morning. When you are fresh you may seek a more creative resolution and try something new.  This could be something like navigating away from the snacks in the kitchen.  You could use this to your benefit: You could potentially get someone to volunteer to help out for that committee meeting if you ask them in the afternoon when they are tired (if they haven't read this blog and they don't put the decision off until tomorrow). That's how decision fatigue can work for you, or against you (depending on who is doing the asking).

HOW CAN THIS HELP YOU? In an every day sense, people who are aware of decision fatigue organise their day in a number of ways to minimise the errors made by decision fatigue. One of the key strategies is to not spend all day in 'decision making mode'.  Start to look at your calendar a little differently.  If you have control over your day, divide your time between the type of tasks you do: decision making, routine, and listening/receiving information.  Where possible, keep decision making to the morning.  If you make the worse 'shopping after work decisions', you could change your routine and do it before work, or make a rule to do it on the weekends from now on; If you can't move all decisions to the morning, do routine takes before hand to save up your decision making power so you will be at your best.  Share around the listening and receiving information moments as they are less taxing on your willpower. If you are coming into the end of the day, and a big decision is looming, maybe you should put it off till tomorrow

The more you learn about decision fatigue, the more you start to recognise when you are 'in the moment' and are able to remove yourself from the situation and put it off till tomorrow

ARE THERE HEALTH FACTORS HERE? For people with major health challenges or goals, awareness of the significance of decision fatigue should have an impact on the way you manage your day or the way you manage the week as a whole.

People who have health challenges are making more decisions everyday than the average person, taking into account the complexity of your circumstances. This means your decision-making energy is being drained faster because you may be starting from a position of poorer well-being and adding more daily decisions (Have I taken my medication?; Will I be able to walk up those stairs? Is there time to rest before I go out tonight? Should I even go out tonight? Where can I get food that doesn't have preservatives?).  For this reason, it is even more important that you recognise the role that decision fatigue plays in your life, and begin to restructure your day and your week to maximise your decision making power. 

A WAY FORWARD. If you find that you are not achieving your goals or living the life that you are seeking - and you have complex health issues, or you have a busy complex life, you may find you regularly experience (or are constnaly in) decision fatigue. 

Some things for you to consider -

  • You need to put off till tomorrow some of the bigger decisions that you are faced with later in the day, as you may have exceeded your 'decision quota'.

  • You quality of health may be impacted by the cumulative effect of afternoon decisions you have been making that are not as well thought out as you think they have been.

  • You may need to start planning your day differently to remove some decision making moments from your life (put off till tomorrow - forever). Stay tuned for blogs on how to go about that.

Do you want to know a little more about www.putofftilltomorrow.com, decision fatigue and our mission? 

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Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash