Combatting Decision Fatigue


What milk do you want with your coffee? Which song of the millions at your fingertips do you want to start your day? Which of that growing stack of emails are you going to answer first? Choose this. Now that. Are you sure? And again. Choices, choices, decisions, decisions, all day, every day – and aren’t you feeling tired?

By some estimates, adults today make 2,000 decisions an hour [1]. By others, 35,000 decisions a day [2]. Either way, it’s an overload. And it’s causing decision fatigue.

What is decision fatigue?

Decision fatigue is “the idea that after making many decisions, your ability to make more and more decisions over the course of a day becomes worse,” says Lisa MacLean, MD, psychiatrist and chief wellness officer at Henry Ford Health System. “The more decisions you have to make, the more fatigue you develop and the more difficult it can become” [3].

The immediacy afforded us by the internet and 24-hour news and work cycle, as well as the endless variety of almost identical products available to us at any given moment, means that people today are making more choices than ever before.

By some accounts, the average American supermarket in 1976 carried 9,000 different products. That number is thought to have swelled to 40,000 [4]. If you’re looking to buy some hangers for your clothes, Amazon provides you with over 200,000 options [5]. For the global-manufacturing industry, that’s great. Its output has ballooned 75% since 2007 to $35 trillion [6]. For the average consumer, though, it means endless scrolling trying to decipher marginal differences in the name of getting the best deal. It wears you out.

Decision fatigue in action

In a study described in the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister, researchers analysed 1,100 decisions made by an Israeli parole board. Their decision-making was found to shift enormously throughout the day. Overall, parole was granted roughly a third of the time. But prisoners whose cases were heard early in the morning received parole about 70% of the time, while prisoners appearing late in the afternoon were granted freedom only 10% of the time [7].

This is not to say that the judges were making wrong choices later in the day. Rather, they were defaulting to easy ones.

In their report for Royal Society Open Finance, Quantifying the cost of decision fatigue: suboptimal risk decisions in finance, Tobias Baer and Simone Schnall evaluated the financial implications of making too many decisions. Their findings revealed that people who make a lot of decisions every day will eventually get tired and start defaulting to the easiest choice [8].

Other examples are plentiful. In voting, research shows it’s detrimental to be lower on the ballot paper [9]. In financial institutions, the accuracy of forecasts made by stock market analysts was found to decline as the day wore on [10]. And in healthcare, nurses were found to make less efficient and more expensive clinical decisions the longer they worked without a break [11].

It’s not complicated. For all the complexity of our genetic make-up and the improbable anthropological and technological heights we’ve reached, humans are still basically simple creatures. As the day goes on, we get tired. When we’re tired, we make worse decisions.

Why is it a problem?

Casting the situation in such a simplified light has its drawbacks, though. If this is just part of our humanity, some inherent flaw in our design, then surely there’s no use fighting it? This is merely the human condition playing out.

Except, evidently, this isn’t simply the way of things, as it wasn’t always like this. Yes, fatigue has always been part of our nature and affects our performance, but the specific decision-making aspect has exponentially amplified and worsened, as evidenced by the number of products on the supermarket shelves and the infinite hanger problem. We are wasting precious amounts of our finite energy on trivial decisions. 

A 2021 American Psychological Association survey found that nearly one-third of adults – and nearly half of millennials – are struggling with basic decisions like what to eat or wear [12]. And if such menial, everyday decisions as those feel difficult, how do you think actual consequential ones feel?

How it feels

Naysayers would like to write decision fatigue off as an excuse for lazy workers, particularly those of the millennial and Gen Z generations, who simply don’t have the work ethic of their elder peers. But the impact decision fatigue has on brain function is real and has been measured.

“A person with decision fatigue may feel tired, have brain fog or experience other signs and symptoms of physical or mental fatigue,” explained Dr. MacLean [13]. “The phenomenon is cumulative so that as the person makes more decisions, they may feel worse or more drained as the day progresses.” She added that decision fatigue can also “cause you to simply do nothing, which can cause even more problems.”

As The Washington Post put it, “When decision fatigue kicks in, you may feel like you just don’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with more decisions. This can lead to decisional paralysis or depleted self-control, causing you to avoid making certain choices entirely, to go with the default option or to make ones that aren’t in line with your goals or values” [14].

The problem can be self-fulfilling. As Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck found in 2011, decision fatigue more negatively affects people who already expect their willpower to be low [15]. In other words, if you expect your performance to drop off by the end of the day, it likely will.

It reaches a point where people don’t just make bad decisions or easy ones, but see no point in making any decision at all. “We can get to this state of, does anything even matter anymore? There’s this almost nihilist point that you reach,” says Dane Jensen, the chief executive of Third Factor, a Toronto-based performance-consulting firm [16].

External factors contribute to this nihilism. Around half of adults said planning for the future felt impossible during the pandemic [17]. For many, the precarious state of today’s geopolitics is also having a negative effect. “It’s hard to make decisions even when the world isn’t throwing you curveball after curveball and freaking you out,” says Dr. Milkman, author of the book How to Change [18].

That theory is backed up by a landmark study published in Science that showed that being in poverty hurts one’s ability to make decisions about school, finances, and life. The impact on impoverished people, for whom the world really is throwing curveball after curveball, was found to impose a mental burden similar to losing 13 IQ points [19].

How to fight decision fatigue

Dr MacLean offers advice for combatting decision fatigue [20]. One way to make fewer decisions, she suggests, is to “streamline your choices.” By making a list before going to the shop, you have saved yourself the energy of deciding in the moment what you want or need.

In a corporate setting, she suggests delegating decisions rather than trying to micromanage. Given Asana’s 2022 Anatomy of Work Special Report found that nearly 7 in 10 executives say burnout has affected their ability to make decisions, this advice is much needed [21]. “By delegating, you also empower people by showing them that you trust them,” Dr MacLean adds.

She also suggests making big decisions in the morning. “Research shows that the best time to make decisions is in the morning…[it] is when we make the most accurate and thoughtful decisions, and we tend to be more cautious and meticulous. We hit a plateau in the afternoon and by evening our decisions may be more impulsive. So, definitely don’t make big decisions when you’re tired or hungry.”

Cutting down on perfectionism, too, can be helpful. If you’ve narrowed down your lunch spot to two or three places, just go to one and enjoy it without thinking whether the others might have been better. This is what Nell Derick Debevoise, author of Going First: Finding the Courage to Lead Purposefully and Inspire Action,calls the “decisions are for suckers” approach [22].

Ms Derick Debevoise suggests avoiding making decisions altogether, at least for one day every now and then. “It is about trusting the natural ebb and flow of life,” she says, “allowing opportunities to present themselves organically, and following intuition and instinct instead of succumbing to the paralysing weight of decision-making.”

Routine, too, is useful for combatting decision fatigue. Rather than having to decide what you’re going to do when 9am comes around, you simply follow your planned daily agenda, be it responding to emails or going for a run. Less important tasks can be tuned to autopilot through the prism of routine, saving mental energy.

“Another idea is to have a handful of go-to outfits planned out to further minimise decisions made,” Dr. MacLean adds. “The bottom line is, look at all the big and little decisions you make every day and think about how you can simplify your life.”

One devotee of such thinking is Barack Obama, who tried to remove extraneous, small decisions from his life so he was in the optimum state for the big ones. During his presidency, Obama would ask for “decision memos” with three check-boxes at the bottom: agree, disagree and let’s discuss. He also only wore grey or blue suits and, during the presidential campaign in 2008, he and his wife made a “no new friends” rule [23].

This approach can sound monotonous. Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking that such discipline and routine will carve away at your creativity. But it’s the exact opposite.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jim Sollisch, a creative director and partner at Marcus Thomas, an advertising agency in Cleveland, Ohio, says that he tries to take away as many choices from his workers as he can. “I want to put them in a box,” he says. “A very small box…People think they hate boxes, but it’s in boxes that the creative process thrives. In a tight box, the will is not drained by too much decision-making. You are free to find the unexpected, to focus on what matters” [24].

“Having data feels like power,” he continues. “Having choices feels like freedom. Sometimes having both is having neither.”

Decision fatigue

In a world that feels determined to force you into a decision a second, you must be active in setting yourself free from that burden. It may not feel like you’re being impaired by the choice between the latte or the cappuccino, the granola bar or the bagel, but you are, just a tiny bit, 35,000 times in a row.

Do yourself a favour. Make the choice to choose less.

More on Decision-Making

Mastering Decisions: The Strategic Edge of Red Teaming in a Biased World

More on Delegation

Why You Should Delegate – And How To Do It Effectively