Decision Fatigue and How to Fight It

5 min readMar 29, 2018

It’s been a long day at work but you’re finally off and you decide to swing by a store on your way home to get some groceries for dinner. You have a list, you’ve done this a thousand times before, and yet somehow having to choose between two types of pasta feels absolutely excruciating.So what’s the deal? Why does buying food become so difficult all of sudden? The answer is predictably a little complicated.

The human mind might be capable of great many things, but its abilities are not unlimited. Recent research shows that when our brains exercise their executive function by making decisions — something all of us do every day — they use a resource with very limited capacity.

And when that resource runs out while performing one mental task, our cognitive strength may be seriously weakened by the time we try to do something else. And it’s not just difficult decisions either! Another study has revealed that the simple act of making a choice may be enough to exhaust our mental strength.

Ever wondered why Steve Jobs only wore his famous turtleneck-and-jeans outfit every single day? That way he could avoid the morning struggle of choosing what to wear and save energy for more important decisions later in the day.

Signs to Look out For

If your job involves any degree of responsibility you’re probably making constant decisions and weighing different options without even noticing. And the more decisions you make throughout the day, the higher your chances of getting burnt out and making really poor choices.

So how can you tell if you’re experiencing decision fatigue? Well, unlike our muscles that get visibly tired after exercising, understanding if you’re actually suffering from decision fatigue takes some steps. Look for these telltale signs if you’re afraid you may be falling prey to this syndrome:

  • Increase in impulsive behavior. If you’re noticing that you find it increasingly hard to resist spending money on useless things, or engage in other forms of impulsive behavior like binge eating, there’s a very real chance you have fallen victim to decision fatigue.
  • Constantly delaying big decisions is on the opposite end from impulsive decisions. Whether it’s making a major purchase, or hiring a new employee — if you’ve been consistently unable to make decisions such as these for weeks or months, you are definitely suffering from decision fatigue.
  • Struggling with small decisions like being unable to decide what color of napkins to buy or what to have for lunch is another dead giveaway for decision fatigue.
  • Becoming a bottleneck at work In any organization things only run smoothly if everyone involved is doing their part. Conversely, if a single employee’s inability to make decisions in a timely manner is creating congestion in an established workflow, it can negatively affect the entire team. If you recognize yourself in that description above, it’s time to do something about your decision fatigue.

Steps to Take

If any of the above “symptoms” ring true, it’s time to take some steps to mitigate the effects of decision fatigue on your life.

Limit your options. Choice is almost always a good thing. But having way too many options to choose from can just as often be detrimental as it can be beneficial.

How do you fight choice overload? By eliminating your options. Take that Steve Jobs example we brought up earlier. That clearly wasn’t a fashion statement. The man made a conscious effort to simplify his wardrobe to save decision-making strength for more important things. We’re not saying you should wear the same outfit every day of the week, but narrowing things down to a few options certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Develop a routine. Don’t waste your mental energy wrestling with the same decisions every single day. Even the smallest choices like oatmeal or sandwich, sneakers or boots, deplete your willpower and hinder your decision-making ability.

Develop routines to avoid having to spend your brain’s precious resources on deciding what to make for breakfast — plan it in advance or just stick to one option every day. Give it some time and your routines will turn into helpful stress-free habits, leaving you with more energy for better decisions.

Make your most important decisions in the morning. In a study conducted by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University, over 1100 parole hearing decisions by Israeli judges were analyzed over the course of a year.

The researchers discovered that the outcome of each hearing seemed to depend almost exclusively on the time of day. Prisoners who appeared in front of the board in the morning received parole 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared later in the day were paroled only 10 percent of the time.

There was nothing malicious about the judges’ behavior, however. They were simply exhausted mentally by the difficult decisions they had to make during the first half of the day, so they became more inclined to take the safer option during the second half, even when that meant hurting someone else.

To avoid situations where your depleted mental energy undermines your ability to make good decisions, do your most pressing tasks early in the day when your brain resources are still fresh.

Learn to accept “good enough”. Resist your perfectionist urges and learn to accept the idea that “good enough” is, well, good enough. Instead of torturing yourself over whether or not turquoise is too tacky for your PowerPoint background, just trust your decision and move on. Constantly second-guessing yourself will only lead you to making more choices, further reducing your limited willpower.

It’s a scientific fact that people who are satisfied with an option that simply meets their criteria feel better about their decisions. Unlike those who agonize over every single option before making a choice, only to end up feeling worse about the outcome.


Like it or not, making decisions is an essential part of our everyday life. Every task you tackle and every (even the most minor) choice you make zap your mental resources, so you need to be aware of what you choose to spend them on. Develop some energy-saving habits and be smart about daily schedule to make sure that you always have enough brain power for your most important decisions.





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