The other day, I was standing in the supermarket after work trying to figure out what to make for dinner. As I stood there, staring blankly into the depths of the dairy section with an empty basket in my hand, all I felt was exhaustion and a complete inability to make a call on anything. After a long day of having to make high-pressured decisions — about my wardrobe, which route to take to work, what to order for lunch, what tasks I needed to work on, whether or not I had the time to meet a friend for a drink after work, whether to fill my car up with gas now or tomorrow morning — I felt completely overwhelmed and had absolutely nothing left in me to make this final choice for the day. And this isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened to me — it's called decision fatigue, it's very real, and you've likely experienced it at some point too.
When people look for a way to explain decision fatigue, a psychological term coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, they often use the "cup of water" analogy. Imagine you start each day with a full cup of water, representing your energy levels. With each decision you have to make, a little of your water tips out. As the day goes on, the more decisions you make, the emptier your cup will be. And if you've had a particularly hard or busy day that's required you to use your decision-making skills over and over again, you might end up with an empty glass.
It might not feel like it at the time, but each relatively minor decision stacks on top of each other as the day goes on, until the collective stress wears you down and causes both physical and mental fatigue. The hosts of the Shameless podcast recently referred to it as "a very specific type of evening burnout" — an experience most of us can relate to.
This also means that with each decision you make throughout the day, your ability to make the next decision becomes more irrational and impulsive, or just plain impossible. “Depleted people become more passive, which becomes bad for their decision-making,” Baumeister says in an article published by The Washington Post. “They can be more impulsive. They may feel emotions more strongly. And they’re more susceptible to bias and more likely to postpone decision-making.”
It's important to note that there's a difference between a chronically indecisive person and someone experiencing decision fatigue. While decision fatigue can impact anyone, if you find yourself habitually feeling indecisive about everything and concerned about making "wrong" or "bad" decisions to a degree that impacts your daily life, this could be better attributed to fear-based avoidance anxieties. Ultimately, even the best, fastest and most level-headed decision-maker in the world can end up becoming overwhelmed by decision fatigue without having any other signs of ill mental health.
In order to counteract this phenomenon, powerful figures like Steve Jobs and a former American presidents would choose to wear the same outfit every single day (like Jobs' iconic black turtleneck and blue jeans) to reduce their chances of getting decision fatigue. If what to wear was one less thing on their list of things to make a call on each day, they would be better equipped to use that energy elsewhere. Even one of our favorite internet girlies, Flex Mami, has said that she wears the same makeup look almost every day so she can write it off as a stress-free process, removing excess deliberation and time-wasting from this part of her daily routine.
While the term decision fatigue is specifically designed to be understood in the day-to-day, it can also be applied to bigger, more life-altering decisions. When you come to a stage in your life (most likely your twenties or thirties) where you have to make big decision after big decision — where to live, what career to pursue, who to date, who to be — this can set in a deeper, more intense kind of fatigue. Because of this mental exhaustion, we might find ourselves procrastinating, shirking responsibility, and making some terrible choices occasionally because we just can't quite handle all the pressure. If you also get the sense that your decisions, big or small, are saying something about you as a person, this can make you more vulnerable to decision fatigue as the stakes feel so much higher.
What decision fatigue interestingly makes obvious is that people often like decisions to be made for them, either by others or by repetitive routines we put in place. As much time and energy we put into becoming independent beings and having agency over our lives, from time to time, being that self-sufficient can be exhausting. It actually makes you start to miss the days when you were a helpless little kid, because at least nothing was really up to you. When we realize just how much we have to do for ourselves as adults every single day, it dawns on us that if we don't make these calls, no one else will — and the weight of our lives suddenly feels so much heavier.
So what can we do about it? If you find yourself getting the everyday kind of decision fatigue, you can make like Jobs and Flex Mami and find things you can routinize, to minimize the low-stake decisions you have to make each day. This can include setting out outfits for each day the night before, prepping your meals, and choosing specific days for going to the gym, doing grocery shopping, seeing family etc.
Carly Dober, psychologist and the Headspace app's mental health expert, also has a few tips on how to handle decision fatigue. "[Try] making a decision list and figuring out which decision requires more time," she says. "We have limited cognitive resources, and we need to use them wisely. This means not taking hours to decide on what to eat for dinner, and not taking minutes to decide on big life choices unless they are very clear."
And when it does come to the bigger decisions, try to adopt a personal philosophy that you can apply to any major choices you need to make. When making any decision, especially when we're getting fatigued, we're more likely to look at solving what's right in front of us, instead of looking at the bigger picture. So the next time you're faced with a big decision you feel overwhelmed about, ask yourself, "How much impact will this decision have on my life, now and in the future?" and figure out what's most important to you from there. "Remember, do not try to aim for perfection when making decisions," Dober notes. "Hindsight can be 20-20 and it is often by making mistakes that we learn and grow."
Dober also recommends leaning on your support systems, such as family or friends, which can be helpful to gather new perspectives. "[Maintain] self-care activities, anything that can help our stress levels while we are feeling fatigued is important," she says. "Give your brain time to rest and to wander by engaging in mindfulness meditations, with either self-guided or guided by online programs."
As important as it might be to avoid making rash or irrational decisions based on short-term objectives, it's equally important to cultivate a personalized gut instinct informed by your patterns and long-term goals, one that you can rely on time and time again.
Wherever we can, we should try to put the joy back into decision-making. Try to find ways to make the simplest, most mundane decisions interesting and exercise your capacity to experiment, be open-minded, and patient. And if you can't, try to enjoy the unique challenge they present. Because as much as it can be nice to reminisce on the times when someone did everything for us and things weren't so overwhelming, life is so much more interesting when we have a say in it.