How many decisions do you think that you made today? Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands? It’s impossible to calculate an answer; a lot of our choices are made subconsciously. You can bet that it’s a lot, though.
What research has proven for sure is that judges are more likely to deny parole at the end of the day, and doctors are more likely to prescribe antibiotics (even antibiotics that aren’t needed) the later in the day it gets to be.
All of the decisions that we make cause a shortage of mental energy – we get tired. When this happens, the brain will start to look for shortcuts. This is when we might do reckless things. We might throw a candy bar in the cart at the checkout after making dozens of decisions at the grocery store, or we might start buying stuff that we don’t even need or want after hours of Black Friday shopping. The more tired we are, the more likely we are to say dumb things that we regret later and to become inexplicably frustrated and outraged over something that would otherwise be a petty annoyance.
Alternatively, this mental fatigue can cause a situation of, “not making a decision is still making a decision.” Have you ever just let the pieces fall where they may because you were just too tired to think about it anymore? Or maybe you’ve made a decision based on someone else’s recommendation and then kicked yourselves later?
The average person spends about four hours a day resisting desire. Urges like those to eat, sleep, play instead of work, have sex, recheck Facebook, or spend money plague us all, whether we recognize it or not. We are better at resisting sleep, sex, and spending; research shows that we are not so good at ignoring the siren call of the television, the Internet, and the urge to relax when working. Momentary decisions (“Should I play around on Pinterest or continue working through this stack of paperwork?”) pile up after a long day of making them repeatedly.
What can you do to deal with this decision fatigue that negatively impacts every single one of us?
- Know when not to trust yourself. If you’re utterly exhausted and overwhelmed, don’t make any big purchases or sign any contracts unless it is necessary. Sleep on it whenever you can.
- Do your shopping, both in-person and online, early in the day…before your mind is bogged down in a long day of making decisions.
- Save mindless, unimportant tasks for later in the day.
- Keep separate “need to do” and “want to do” lists to refer to when you’re too exhausted to even think of what needs to be done or what you might enjoy doing. It’s during situations like this that we generally watch too much HGTV or the like and spend way too much time on youtube.com, and then complain that we don’t have time to get chores done OR have fun.
- Narrow down your choice as much as possible. Do you need a new shirt? Good luck with that. There’s only 100 billion to consider! Oh, you need a white, long-sleeved shirt in size medium that is preferably 100% cotton and costs $35 at the most? Well, there’s a “filter” button for that! Even better, you have a blue shirt that you love – buy the same one in white.
- Minimize distractions – turn off notifications on your phone and computer, turn off the television when you’re trying to do something else, explain (nicely) to others that you need some uninterrupted time to work.
- Be extra kind to yourself if you’re trying to make a lifestyle change. Your brain says, “should I go ahead and eat that cookie?” or “should I go ahead and smoke that cigarette and try to quit again tomorrow?” You need to keep the rest of your life as calm as possible.
- Rip off the band-aid. Just make the decision and don’t look back. Set a timer if you have to – you have 10 minutes to choose a restaurant or an hour to pick where you’re going on vacation this year.
- Simplify – if you have 200 pairs of shoes, it’s going to be way more challenging to choose which ones to wear than if you had five (ok, ten). If you stock your kitchen with ten different flavors of coffee, you will waste minutes of precious time and too much brainpower to hem and haw your way through the merits of cinnamon dolce vs. hazelnut.
- Take a break instead of hitting send on that regrettable email, scheduling yet another meeting that will accomplish nothing, or staring at a blank computer screen for 30 minutes, willing insight to strike. Decide to get up and walk away.
- Science has proven that we are more likely to make poor decisions if our glucose level dips too low. Eat real food regularly, every four hours to be exact, and make it an excellent balanced mix of protein and whole grains with a bit of healthy fat. Think avocado toast and an egg, a salmon burger on a whole wheat bun, or a handful of walnuts and an apple.