Last Saturday, I sat down after dinner to buy a phone cover online. Within five minutes of surfing through the options, I felt exhausted and lost my keenness to order one. In that moment, I realised I could be struggling with decision fatigue.
This basically refers to the exhaustion and feeling of being overwhelmed we experience when we have to make many decisions in a relatively short duration of time, or during a day. Not just that, the range of choices available means more effort has to be put in. Our decision fatigue is linked to “The Paradox of Choice”, a term that American psychologist Barry Schwartz talks about.
In his book The Paradox Of Choice: Why More Is Less, he notes: “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”
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On Saturday, I had experienced all this: I had to make many personal and professional decisions through the day, sifting through choices. Cognitively and emotionally, I felt spent; my decision-making ability was sub-optimal.
Decision fatigue can feel invisible and sneaky, so we often don’t even realise we are experiencing it. Think of all those times when seemingly simple decisions like what to wear to work, what to cook or which show to watch over the weekend felt tedious. Clients tell me they often spend large periods of time on Netflix trying to figure out what to watch and eventually end up watching re-runs of their favourite show as they can’t seem to decide.
When we are faced with too many decisions and multiple choices, decision fatigue can show up in two ways. One is to make an impulsive choice, which is not well thought of, while the other is avoidance, or choosing to not make the decision at all. Both these extremes can be dangerous. Impulsive decision-making could be followed by guilt/regret, and avoidance by anxiety and procrastination. But experiencing decision fatigue is part of being human and recognising this may be the first step in dealing with it.
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Decision fatigue ends up impacting our behaviour, actions, even how we show up in interpersonal relationships. It can, then, impact our productivity, self-esteem and overall well-being. Very often, decision fatigue reflects in our inability to regulate our mood, reduced frustration tolerance or the increased irritation that our loved ones end up dealing with.
The good thing is that we can learn how to deal with this. I am more likely to be fatigued at the end of the day, so I often park or postpone some decisions to the next day. With the phone cover decision, I decided to schedule a time for next morning—and it felt so simple. I also find it helpful to make big decisions in the morning, when I am well rested and yet to be overwhelmed. Research seems to indicate this too.
When we are hungry, sleep deprived or physically tired, we need to be mindful, for we are more likely to experience decision fatigue. It helps to begin the day by consciously choosing and prioritising two-three big decisions for the day. Having weekly menus for meals, only three books on the wish list for reading at a time, and even watching, is what I personally find helpful.
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What really works is identifying which decisions can be delegated to others within the family or at the workplace. Delegation, however, involves trusting others and learning to be patient. Learn also when to lean in for others’ perspectives and ask a friend or colleague for advice. Learn to pause if you find yourself getting impatient or impulsive.
Finally, it’s important to remember that decisions require time, energy and need to align with our values. So, learning to trust ourselves and be kind is the key.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.