What Is Decision Fatigue? And How to Stop it From Ruining Your Productivity

Ever find yourself coming home from working in the office and feeling completely exhausted? If so, then you’re definitely in the majority which hopefully may at least come as some consolation. For most of us there are few things more tiring than a day at the office and few things more alluring than the prospect of collapsing when you get in…

Compared to almost any other activity it seems that going to work really tires us out, but what is it about work in particular that leaves us so exhausted? You could say the concentration but then you probably have no problem concentrating on Call of Duty for long stretched. Likewise you could say it’s the people, but actually the typically office job doesn’t involve that much interaction with other people face to face these days.

More likely what you’re experiencing is something called ‘decision fatigue’ – a scientifically validated phenomenon in which you have literally become exhausted by the constant requirement to make lots of decisions. Ultimately when this gets depleted you can end up being so exhausted in fact that you actually lose your ability to make even simple decisions and this can have devastating consequences for your creativity, productivity and even enjoyment.

Have you ever stood in a DVD rental store trying to decide what to watch and found yourself just staring at the shelf in dumbfounded silence? Have you ever irritated your fellow diners in a restaurant because you can’t pick what to eat from the menu? Have you ever been told to ‘just say what you want to do this evening darn it’? Then you’re probably suffering from decision fatigue. Here’s what you should do about it and how you can become much happier by addressing it.

Removing Decisions

The first thing to realise when discussing decisions fatigue is that you have a fixed, finite amount of decisions you can make in a day before you will run out. The only way you can replenish these ‘decision units’ is to take some time out and preferably to go to sleep for a bit.

As such then you need to start treating your decisions as a limited resource and avoiding ‘wasting them’. Some productivity gurus will go as far as to eat the same thing every week, to wear the same clothes every day and to automate and remove other decisions in this manner so that they won’t tire themselves out having to make those choices. This is why Steve Jobs famously only wore black t-shirts – it was to avoid his having to make the choice about clothes each morning.

You might not want to go that far, but there are certainly decisions you can remove to give yourself a bit of a break. Sometimes this means just ‘going with the flow’, so rather than stressing over which mode of transport you’re going to take to work, you could instead write yourself a rota or decide to go with whichever comes first. You can work out by following a set routine or by using whichever machine becomes available. And when deciding what to watch in the evening, why not just let your partner decide?

Options Paralysis

You can also help to lessen the toll of each decision making moment by removing the number of options you have to pick from. This way you will use fewer ‘decision units’ on each choice you make.

A great way to achieve this with clothes is quite simply to remove the number of clothes available to you by throwing some out. This will also save you work and energy in a lot of other ways while increase the ‘average quality’ of the clothes you’ll end up wearing. Sometimes simplicity is best!

You can also accomplish something similar by setting yourself arbitrary-yet-strict rules. For instance if you’re shopping around for a great remote controlled helicopter, then you could limit yourself to looking at only three options.

While this might sound a little strict, what’s key to remember here is that studies show that we are actually more satisfied with our purchasing decisions when we consider fewer options (and this is true for all decision making). Look at fewer helicopters and you’ll be happier with the one you end up getting and use up less mental energy in the process. Of course there’s a trade-off to be made here: if you are looking at fewer options, then there’s a good chance that the item you pick won’t ultimately be the best that it could have been. But if you’re actually happier with it as a result, the question is whether or not that truly matters. This ultimately comes down to a philosophical question with no obvious ‘right or wrong’ answer.

It’s also worth noting though that more options will also mean you take longer to make a decision. In the extreme you can end up with something called ‘options paralysis’ where you end up unable to make a decision at all because there’s just too much to pick from. This is something that store managers have to be wary of: sometimes by offering their customers more options they can actually end up reducing their sales!

Open Loops

Decisions can tire you out as we’ve established, but what can also tire you out is simply knowing that you have a decision looming over you.

This is what’s known as an ‘open loop’ in ‘GTD’ (getting things done) parlance. That’s any decision you have yet to make but are already ruminating on, or anything else that is making it hard for you to relax or focus that feels ‘unresolved’.

An example of this would be not deciding whether or not to go to a party. You get invited, you know you probably can’t go, but tell your friend you’ll let them know. Now you have this half-made decision to wrestle with when you should be focussing on other things and you have the unpleasant prospect of having to let someone down in the near future.

One of the solutions to this issue is to simply deal with the matter sooner. If you want to keep your ‘options open’ then instead of saying you’ll let them know, say instead that you’re busy but you’ll let them know if that changes. Now you can forget all about the issue, but you’ll be able to go still if you do change your mind. Deal with all ongoing issues as soon as possible and never put off decision making for later.

Another way to avoid these open loops is to avoid exposing yourself to any potential decisions unless you are capable of making them right away. The classic example is checking work e-mail. Many people will check their work e-mail on weekends, see a problem that they can’t solve until Monday, and then stress about that problem for the rest of the weekend.


It’s also worth noting here that regret is ‘past tense’ decision making. If you are feeling regretful about a decision you made previously, then essentially you’re using up resources just in thinking about the other options you could have chosen. Now you’re using up your decision making potential on a decision you can’t even affect!

To overcome a sense of regret you need to use cognitive behavioural therapy and teach yourself not to worry about things you can no longer change. Some people even recommend implementing a ‘no complaining’ rule and wearing an elastic band around your wrist. Now every time you find yourself thinking about a decision you could have made differently, you are to ping yourself with that elastic band as punishment. The same goes for out-loud complaining (you can also get friends and family to enforce this).

Most of all though, recognise that it is largely the emotional investment in the decision that makes it so tiring and resource-consuming. To really save yourself energy on decision making, just try to care slightly less about the outcome and to stop stressing about decisions you’ve already made. There’s an art to letting bad things happen and nine times out of ten any mistakes you make will be reversible anyway.

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Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics.

Follow Adam on Linkedin: adam-sinicki, twitter: thebioneer, facebook: adam.sinicki and youtube: treehousefrog

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