Barely anyone talks about decision fatigue...
Do you ever have those moments where you'd like to change your name for an hour of peace?
Finding yourself thinking, please don't send me one more email with a question?
You're tired and another question comes through from someone well intentioned, but getting an answer out seems like such an effort?
Then often the imposter vibes pop in - Surely I should be able to answer this? Why is this so difficult?
(At that point, personally, I'd also feel conflicted as I loved my work, genuinely, yet I'd feel this resistance.)
And this might be whether you're working in a busy professional role, or if you have started your own business.
Here's a nudge to remember that decision fatigue is a thing.... but there are things that can help.
I have experienced this many times, whether in practice as a veterinary surgeon, or more recently, running my own businesses. I'd sometimes be asked a seemingly simple question to make a decision on, and it would feel just... so... hard.
Even sometimes deciding if I wanted a tea or a hot Vimto felt difficult.
Reminder: Making decisions takes energy.
The more decisions we make in a given time period, our ability to make well considered decisions can drop. We are human.
This can happen because decision making requires mental energy, and as we make more decisions, our mental resources become depleted, sometimes leading to 'poorer' judgement, impulsivity, and a tendency to choose the easiest or default option rather than the considered one we might make at full capacity*.
*There's a temptation here to say 'best', but what does 'best' really even mean?
It would make sense that the times that we choose the easiest or default options are for decisions that have less impact longer term, but this often isn't the case if we aren't aware of decision fatigue. This is where the rest of this post might come in.
I wanted to drop in with 5 insights that I've found helpful around decision fatigue, not only as a human but as a coach, with lots of further study in this area...
1. Prioritise and delegate to reduce decision fatigue
Every day our decision making capacity will look different, because we are human. Some days, we might have space for 6 decisions, other days 10, other days 3, sometimes none. I've looked for studies with numbers for you, but actually, it is highly variable per individual and their circumstances on that day.
The research from Baumeister and colleagues in 2011 suggests that decision fatigue tends to increase throughout the day as mental resources become depleted, which may impact the ability to make optimal choices later in the day compared to earlier hours.
It would make sense to consider which decisions will be our priority for the day, and what we might be able to delegate to someone else. We might also come to a point where we really minimise decisions for the rest of the day, and take a break.
Personally, I find that creating systems for my virtual team that they can follow reduces the questions and decisions to make in answering them. Equally, FAQ pages and resources help similarly.
2. Creating routines and plans to reduce decision fatigue
Hear me out if routine gives you the ick, I used to hate routine. It felt restrictive, and another set of boxes to tick, yet actually in it laid my freedom. I know that others really love a routine. You can find ways to make it work for you, especially when we see the value of it in terms of decision fatigue.
Small daily decisions also take away from our overall capacity to make decisions, and this is where routine can come in. Often these are things we can proactively think ahead on, and set our future self up for success by already having made that decision. In many circumstances, when we create a routine, we make a decision once.
Ever had a really busy day and just wandered aimlessly around the supermarket unsure what on earth to buy for dinner? Or finding clothes to wear just feels ovewhelming, even though on the face of it, it's a simple decision? Just me? I'm sure I'm not alone in this.
Examples might include meal planning, outfit selection ahead of time, booking time in for you to recharge or pre-planned workout schedules. This can reduce the number of decisions you need to make, freeing up mental space for more important matters. Of course, sometimes plans change, but adding routine and planning ahead might save us a few decisions on the day.
I think of this as helping future you. Know that sometimes there can be hectic days and you'll get in and have no idea what to eat - have some easy to grab freezer meals as a back up plan.
Routine and planning can also be the case with teams and protocols, where you know immediately what happens in a certain circumstance as there's a guide to follow.
3. Limit your choices to reduce decision fatigue
Slightly cringey example, but a good illustration. Many silicon-valley founders will be seen pretty much wearing the same outfit every day, maybe jeans and a black t-shirt. They publicly will explain they do this so that they save their decision making capacity. I'm not saying you need to do this specifically, but considering where you can reduce the decisions to make can be helpful. They don't pour half of their 'decision making energy fuel cup' deciding on what to wear in the morning.
Simplify your options whenever possible - it can actually pay off dividends, not just for us either.
Have you heard of the Jam study?
The "Jam Study" that was done back in 2000 by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, two psychologists. They set up a grocery store display where they offered people samples of fancy jams. Some days, they had a huge variety of 24 different types of jam, and other days, they only had six options.
Turns out, even though the big display grabbed more attention, people actually bought more jam when there were fewer choices available. It's appeared that having too many options made them freeze up. This idea is what they call "choice overload."
Since then, loads of other studies have looked into choice overload and how it affects everything from what we buy to how we make decisions in healthcare or schools. It's pretty interesting stuff that shows how important it is to keep things simple sometimes.
So, back to putting this into practice....
You might choose to:
Have a short list of your resources of who and what can help with certain topics (not too many on the list)
Create a capsule wardrobe where you have a few set combinations of outfits.
Pre-pack separate travel toiletries so you can grab and go when heading away for work rather than using energy to create more lists again
Batch together similar types of work so you're not constantly switching
Use a meal ordering service, or create staple options that you rotate through
Automate your bills and direct debits
Create file naming systems so that you don't lose energy searching afterwards
Break tasks down into much smaller steps that feel manageable
Find ways to automate things you do regularly
Have templates pre-made or pre-typed for common tasks
Create a short menu of options in certain circumstances
You'll get to know what helps you... everyone is different.
4. Make breaks happen and recharge
Often the time when we need a break the most is the time we find ourselves drawn into everything else going on around us. Just...one...more... thing... Yet, we already established that when we are drained, those later in the day decisions might be less useful.
Breaks give us a chance to cognitively recharge. This may be that we follow frameworks like the Pomodoro method, or we pre-agree as teams when everyone will get chance to stop during the day. Time and time again research shows that breaks boost productivity. Louder for those at the back.
You know I'll always say this bit too - you matter. Spend time getting to know yourself by raising your consciousness and building your self-relationship. Creating conscious gaps in the day to notice, regulate our nervous system, see how we feel and what we need without judgement, and choose how we are moving forward mindfully and with compassion. This is really powerful.
5. Get to know your decision making limits...
This ties in with the end of the last point too. We are human, and the point at which we hit our decision making limit will likely vary day on day, but let's get to know how we feel when we are heading to this point, and use our wisdom to decide to set a boundary.
This involves reflecting back and also noticing without judgement when we are depleted. Can you draw a line and choose to put things back until tomorrow? Being real here too, I know sometimes we can't shut up shop in the middle of the day, but perhaps you might notice small tweaks to try. We might also notice the signs that we need to take breaks and limit decisions. (On a personal level, I always notice myself going on a hunt for sugar when I hit this point...).
With time, we start to gain wisdom on the steps leading up to these points too, and make compassionate tweaks and changes sooner. Think of it as we notice the re-fuel light coming on the car initially, rather than we kangaroo our way onto the hard shoulder and come to a grinding halt. Eventually, we might proactively plan some stops and fuel up ahead of time.
For complex decisions or those outside your expertise, seek input from mentors, advisors, or professionals. Consulting others can provide valuable perspectives and lighten your decision-making load. Equally, speaking to those we trust will listen can help us in having a sounding board to get clear on our reasoning.
I have seen many people talk about decision making apps too, I haven't used any of them, but it might be up your street. As above though, let's remember the importance of noticing how we feel with compassion, and treating ourselves in the same way we would a dear friend.
You might find it valuable to periodically review your decisions and their outcomes to identify patterns and learn from past experiences. Reflecting on your decision-making process can help refine your approach and notice with curiosity what difference any proactive changes you make create. For example, you might notice that you make the most impactful decisions mid-morning, or that for those this applies to, that during menstruation you are prone to making less useful decisions and you put a hold on big decisions that week where you can.
Finally, remember you are always allowed to say "Can I come back to you on that?"...
I speak to a lot of people who, over the years, have come to believe that they're a 'terrible decision maker'. They say they're indecisive, they are so worried about making the 'wrong' decision, that they don't want to make a decision at all. A kind nudge that our past experiences in decision making don't have to dictate the present ones, let's bring some self compassion, and there is support if needed too. The stories we are often drawn into are based on the past, many times from other people and not ones we'd choose consciously.
It's understandable to feel overwhelmed by the weight of decision-making if it feels like the stakes are high. But remember, being hesitant or uncertain doesn't make anyone a terrible decision-maker. It's a common experience that many of us face at one point or another, and as above, sometimes we also need a break. Take comfort in knowing that it's okay to take your time with some decisions, and asking for help or support is a decision in itself. Your value isn't defined by the decisions you make. What if instead we looked more curiously with a willingness to learn and grow?
Be gentle with yourself as you navigate through uncertainty, and know that you're not alone. Plus, I bet you make many more wonderful decisions than you realise. Sending love.
The wonderful thing about life is that there's often a lesson in each decision we make, and we can always make another one with more wisdom further down the line too.
A personal share on navigating decision fatigue...
Everyone is different, right? But if it helps, here are the things that help me greatly:
I make conscious, curious and compassionate choices about my decision making capacity. I have spent so long building a relationship with myself, rather than buying into all the automatic stuff I never chose, that I have a pretty good insight as to my decision making. I always try to ditch the judgement on this that might automatically come up too. If I notice now is not a time to make decisions, I have learned to gently let go of society's automatic stance on how that might be 'weak' or whatever, because that's BS and even though it felt weird at first, I reaped the benefits. I will always be curious and willing to learn more about what helps me, as a one off, 1 in 400 trillion unique human... just like you.
I plan my week - I know lots of you have my Sunday night week planning PDF. I add in breaks, and leave some flexibility too as life happens. This reduces the overwhelm of running three businesses as I know what I'm working on, why and when. If I was left to my own devices on a Monday morning, with no structure, I'm pretty sure I'd end up down a Tiktok scroll hole for several weeks... I also speak about this in this podcast episode too on Task Management.
I time block and task batch. I have observed that nothing drains my battery more than switching from different tasks and parts of my brain. One minute replying to emails, the next being creative and making social content, then being in problem solving mode. I keep a running brain dump on my Remarkable so I don't use my energy holding onto "don't forget to post that parcel' popping into my mind.
I create myself a menu - not just for food. It's a one page reminder of things that help me to recharge (not too many options, of course), reminders of who can help me, and low energy input tasks that help me gain some momentum if I need it.
Plus..... I love keeping a notebook on my Remarkable called "Parked decisions" - and I come back to them when I have space and capacity. Some decisions I will schedule into my diary then (e.g. which new boiler shall we get?), others I will line up for a call with my own coach to help me explore, some I'll realise I need someone else to help me answer and others I end up crossing off completely.
(What's a Remarkable? I made a post on LinkedIn this week about how I'm finding mine so far, you can read it here. Also, if you're interested you can nab £40 off on this link, and I'd get the same if you went for it.)
Remember, the opposite of imposter is authentic. Let's create time to remember you - the valuable, one off human and find out what works for you.
Let me know what you think....
Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2011). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(4), 1104–1114.
Iyengar, S., & Lepper, M. (2000). When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995–1006.