Why We Experience Decision Fatigue
12.02.16
Contrast between healthy or unhealthy food for breakfast

contradictions-month-man-repeller

H: Are you hungry?

A: I could eat.

H: What are you in the mood for?

A: I don’t know. You?

H: Hmm, maybe Chinese?

A: I could do Chinese. Where should we order?

This is a conversation that my husband, Alex, and I have several times a week. If it’s not about ordering out, it’s about what to put on as background entertainment while we doze off. More often than not, we become either so exhausted or so disgruntled by our indecision that we end up snacking on cheese and chips and falling asleep before we can decide on a movie.

Neither of us is particularly indecisive. So what is it about the clock striking 7 p.m. that stymies us?

Four years ago, I read a profile of President Barack Obama in which he explained that he only wears gray or blue suits. Why? “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing…you need to routinize yourself.” He couched his rationale with research by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister on decision fatigue — a phenomenon which illustrates that the more decisions we have to make throughout the day, the harder it becomes for our brains to make them.

A lot of people wear a fashion uniform as a way of avoiding decision fatigue. Mark Zuckerberg, for one. Steve Jobs used to — remember his black turtleneck and tennis shoes? This isn’t a behavior relegated to the tech crowd, though. When was the last time you saw Karl Lagerfeld not wearing his iconic suit and glasses? And apparently Anna Wintour has had the same hair since age 15 — no word on when her staple sunglasses made their first debut.

Regardless of whether it’s their wardrobe or other parts of their lives that are streamlined, research shows that successful people rely on routine, precisely to avoid decision fatigue.

Here’s why:

Through his experiments, Dr. Baumeister came to a conclusion: our willpower is finite. The more challenging or stressful the day, the more likely we are to break resolutions once we’re given a chance. This is why you’re more likely to “treat” yourself with dessert or an unhealthy meal at the end of a really stressful day. This is also why supermarkets stock checkout counters with all sorts of impulse buys. They’re counting on your decision-making powers being extra weak at the end of an exhausting shopping trip.

Imagine your willpower as fuel, the amount represented in a gauge — the sort you’d see on a car’s dashboard. Now imagine every unpleasant task as a steep uphill course for which you really have to press down on the willpower pedal. Every hill uses up a bit of your willpower until, at the end of the night, you’ll not only find yourself unable to make decisions, but also more likely to make ones that aren’t in your best long-term interest.

Decision fatigue is closely related to a phenomenon called ego depletion, which essentially shows that if you have to force yourself to complete an unpleasant task (or to keep from engaging in a pleasurable activity), you will be less able to exert self-control for the next hurdle.

One of Dr. Baumeister’s experiments does a really great job of illustrating the interplay between exercising willpower and decision-making. Hungry participants entered a room where they were provided a plate of cookies and a plate of radishes. Some participants were given two cookies; others were given two radishes and told not to touch the cookies. After they were done eating, they had to solve a puzzle. The people who had to eat the radishes quit trying to solve the puzzle way before those who got cookies.

Short of having an emergency cookie repository on hand every time we have to make a decision, how can we get a healthy handle on decision fatigue? This is challenging because there are more options than ever before in essentially every conceivable sphere of life, from what to eat to what to do for a living.

Endless choices are taking a toll. Millennials are called the Peter Pan generation because of our inability or perhaps unwillingness to grow up. We’re making commitments to careers, to partners and to children later in life than any other generation thus far. I reached out to Dr. Baumeister for his take on whether millennials are flailing under the pressure of endless choices, and he agreed: “The human mind is not changing as fast as the circumstances it has to deal with. There is [probably] more decision fatigue [today] than ever.”

If that’s the case, are millennials doomed to a life of indecision? According to Dr. Baumeister, there’s hope. “In the absence of team dressing,” he says, “the next best thing is effective habits. Habits take much less willpower and choice, as opposed to ‘authentically’ deciding everything every day.”

So, establish healthy habits and routinize frivolous decisions. But didn’t someone say that variety was the spice of life? By routinizing, are we sucking the fun out of being human? Not necessarily. Apparently, people who practice higher self-control are better at making decisions that play into their long-term goals. They’re also happier than people who give in to temptation easily.

As to where we’re ordering Chinese from tonight — well, in light of all this, I’m looking for a new go-to place. Any ideas?

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Illustration by Jamie Jones for Getty Images.

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  • Irene Laura

    Always the best posts.

    http://www.ontomywardrobe.com/

  • Daeyz

    Such an interesting conversation. I’m not sure if I could control myself to one uniform thought, it really makes you think!

    xx,
    Daeyz

    http://www.daeyz.com

  • Kelsey

    so much yes!!!! I love the idea of wearing a uniform to minimize daily decisions. I’d rather spend the mental space deciding how to be better at my job and life!!

    • Helena

      Right? I’d go around dressed as a brunette version of Margot Tenenbaum.

  • Interesting subject, and I often pick my ‘uniform’ in the morning if I can’t decide on a specific outfit. But that’s the morning, so I’m wondering if the fatigue is really about not knowing one self or caring enough about the outcome of these decisions?

    I recently read this article which state that decision fatigue might only be present if we believe in the theory of it, which I find quite intriguing: https://hbr.org/2016/11/have-we-been-thinking-about-willpower-the-wrong-way-for-30-years

  • Idene Abhari

    I always think about this, but never knew about the scientific research! Enlightening, truly.

  • Allegra

    When I tried out a more restricted diet, in addition to health reasons I loved how it made my life so much simpler at grocery stores, not to mention at cafes and restaurants. Of all the items on the menu, only one or two usually ended up fitting my criteria, and deciding between those was easy and fast.

  • Leliforever

    I recently found out that the bones of my feet are really misplaced ( I’ve lived with them for 23 years and I had no idea!) and was advised to lose some extra weight (I’ve been carrying for ever) to make it easy on them.
    I’m the person that LOVES food ( I also love cooking!). And I’ve hated excercise all my life. Habits are everything. After slowly builting a routine, I’m now 3 months in, I’m down almost 7kgs, run away from pizza last night AND I said no to shopping plans tomorrow because I have my regular TRX morning class. I’m quite proud of myself.

    • Helena

      Habits ARE everything. Now, if only I could make a habit of reminding myself that…

  • Such an interesting read! Time to find me a fashion uniform haha ♥

    Amy // snippetsofamy.co.uk

  • Helena, thanks for your post!I really want to be the one “who practice higher self-control” in order to be “better at making decisions that play into their long-term goals”. But it is not easy when you are an emotional person. So the one way to success is to develop everyday habits and leave a place for the unexpected decision in other matters)

  • Natalie Redman

    It definitely makes sense. You reduce the amount of unnecessary decisions that aren’t so crucial in your life.

    http://www.upyourvlog.com