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What Is Decision Fatigue?

Shannon M. Duffy, MFT, LCPC

We make decisions every day whether they appear to be automatic or need a contemplation process to be able to come to a decision. With all the decisions we make they add up and can create and cause fatigue in how we go about making simple to complex decisions. The mental overload of making decisions can feel debilitating and overwhelming which can bring on physical and emotional symptoms from the anxiety and stress of needing to make the “right” decision. The stress of taking away what would be considered a “right” or “wrong” decision to feeling capable of making the “best” decision is the preface of decision fatigue. 

Ways to Combat Decision Fatigue and Make Healthy Choices

The past year during the pandemic added on another layer of complexity to our everyday choices. Many of our daily decisions or choices now require more planning that typically may not have in the past. The decisions that used to not take any effort have been creating challenges. In addition, the unknowns that we all experienced during the pandemic created doubt associated with making decisions with limited information or resources. Where decision fatigue is felt is when we are forced to make major life decisions under pressure. This leads to questioning if a decision needs to be made and what information is needed to feel secure with the decision. When the information keeps changing as it has during the pandemic, we are left feeling insecure about when is the “right” time to a make decision.

Symptoms of decision fatigue mirror anxiety, overthinking, and stress in both emotional and physical components. Our nerves increase with the risk of making certain decisions, the fear of having to make the decision, in addition to the anxiety of the assumptions associated with the consequences of the decisions. Anxiety can intensify and overcomplicate the decision which is where the physical fatigue and burn out is experienced. Overthinking of decisions can add in thoughts of what the decisions say about you and then fear of having to make more fuels continued uncertainty. This process also depletes self-control to where we avoid making decisions overall. In addition, depleting self-control can influence more impulsivity and in turn force making decisions that do not align with our goals. 

Distress from this process impacts your sleep, causing headaches, however, there are ways to turn this process around. There are benefits of making cost-benefit calculations when you can exercise self-control and combat overthinking. It is beneficial to consider your preferences and how they are linked to goals and your core fundamental values. Here are a few strategies to start to incorporate toward making more comfortable decisions. 

  1. Focus on getting consistent sleep will help with willpower and decision-making. We restore energy, repair our immune system, and destress all with good sleep. Ideally, if we need to “sleep on making a decision,” the morning after restorative sleep can provide clarity for decision making.
  2. Letting choices be automatic, when we have decisions and choices that are habits there is less pressure behind making them. Examples like shopping lists or to-do lists and your morning routine. 
  3. Asking for a trusted opinion to weigh out pros and cons or costs and benefits. Many utilize psychotherapy to help with this analysis. 
  4. Understanding the reality of decisions, to focusing on what is needed can lessen the pressure of having to make the “right” decision towards making the “best” decision. 
  5. Patience is a virtue; however, it can help with impulsivity and lessening anxiety by the willingness to absorb more information. 
  6. Check-in with how you are feeling about making decisions and how you feel after making the decisions. This is helpful to note if the symptoms of decision fatigue continue. 
  7. Narrowing down to just two options can aid with those overwhelming feelings. The less complex the decisions are the more comfort we have towards making the “best” decision. 

Decisions can be hard to make, especially, major life choices. Taking a step back to assess what you need to feel comfortable making decisions with staying educated, prioritizing self-care, and trusting your timeline of when to make the decision are valuable skills towards combatting decision fatigue.

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