In 2016 I returned to London from Kabul, Afghanistan, where I’d worked on a compound that at its longest stretch was about 150 metres. For the year that I had lived there, every day was pretty much the same. I did the same three minute walk to the office, sat at the same desk, ate all my meals in the same canteen, saw the same people, and drank in the same bar. I expected London to be a breath of fresh air: a chance to see new things, explore new places, and meet new people.
Instead I found myself a bit like the guy in The Hurt Locker who is overwhelmed by the array of possible options in the cereal aisle at the supermarket. Rather than enjoying the freedom to choose from sixteen brands of orange juice, I felt paralysed by choice. I often spent a long time struggling to make the right decision, only to feel unsure of what I’d chosen afterwards. I had decision fatigue.
The paradox of choice
This is what the psychologist Barry Schwartz calls ‘The Paradox of Choice‘, the phenomenon whereby more choice leads us to be less happy. It isn’t just about inconsequential things like which granola to buy, but important decisions that have a big bearing on our happiness.
These days we make active decisions about where to live, who to marry, whether and when to have children, and what career to choose. Furthermore, because of the abundance of data available to us to make decisions, we feel like there must be a right answer. In reality, there often isn’t – or taking the time to find it would mean doing nothing else with our lives.
The result: decision fatigue
A large part of why we’re left worse off by these choices is that the act of choosing requires a lot of time and energy. This leaves us suffering from what’s referred to as decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is most commonly associated with a study of Israeli judges deciding whether prisoners would be granted parole.
The study, by Shai Danziger and Liora Avnaim-Pesso of Ben Gurion University, and Johnathan Levav of Columbia University, looked at the factors affecting 1,112 parole decisions. They found that prisoners whose cases were heard early in the morning received parole about 70% of the time. Prisoners appearing late in the afternoon were set free only 10% of the time. In other words, after making lots of decisions, the judges were too tired to give a fair shake to those who were unlucky enough to have later hearings.
Depleting your willpower
A similar study looked at American students, testing their willpower by having them hold their hand in cold water. Those that first did a task making lots of choices couldn’t hold their hand there as long as those in the control group. This suggests that not only do we default to the status quo, as the Israeli judges seemed to be doing – but that making lots of unrelated choices leaves us with less willpower for later challenges.
In this way, willpower functions not like a muscle that we have to train, but like a finite resource we have to budget. And we can choose to spend that budget on important or unimportant things.
Why deciding is hard
It’s no coincidence that ‘decide’ shares a common root with ‘homicide’. Every time we make a decision, it represents a mental ‘killing off’ of options. We thus suffer a loss every time we could – or think we could – have done differently. But this feeling is not the only cost of deciding. The costs fall into three broad categories.
The opportunity cost of decision fatigue
Firstly, deciding takes a lot of time and energy that we could be spending doing other things. In other words, there’s an opportunity cost. For every minute we agonise over which of 1,500 toothbrushes to buy on Amazon, we lose a minute of chilling out watching Netflix. We are also unlikely to have enough energy left to do our most creative, brilliant work if we’re suffering acute decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue harms our mental health
Secondly, all the deciding takes its toll on our mental health. Not only does it suck to be tired all the time, but we’re left with a sort of constant FOMO about all the options we turned down. As well as being a widely-experienced phenomenon, this has been studied. Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University found that when study participants were offered a smaller rather than larger selection of jam from which to choose, they were actually more satisfied with the jam they tasted.
We make worse decisions due to decision fatigue
Thirdly, and most significantly, the tiredness we get from all the deciding means we make worse decisions. Most of us fail to live up to the promise of our best selves not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of a lack of willpower. It’s hard enough to escape biases, resist temptation, and avoid procrastination when we’re rested. But it’s much harder when our energy reserves are running low. And it’s not only the conscious decisions. When we’re tired, our brain is more likely to seek instant gratification, subtly tilting the balance of our lives in the wrong direction without us even knowing it.
The rest of this post will introduce a framework for combating decision fatigue, so that we have more energy, more peace of mind, and are able to make better decisions.
How to beat decision fatigue
No one can remove all decisions from their life. But the following framework will help you prevent it from overwhelming you, so that you can focus on the ones that matter to you. Note: if you prefer, I’ve also written a list of Fifty specific ways to reduce decision fatigue
Some decisions are worth sweating over, but others aren’t. Yet what we think is important will vary from person to person. Most advice on decision fatigue will tell people to wear the same clothes every day, like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Barack Obama. But for people who work in fashion, or those that get a lot of joy from their clothes, this might not be the right option.
Here, I’ve found it helpful to reflect on my values. There are various exercises, such as these, that can help. The important thing is to rank these values, otherwise you’ll have to decide in each situation which is most important to you.
To use the same example of clothing, if on reflection you value uniqueness more than you do efficiency, then it makes sense to pick out exciting clothes every day. You could still choose those clothes the night before, so that you still don’t start the day off with too many decisions. Once you’ve done this reflection, you can make good decisions on the second step.
Most of the advice on reducing decision fatigue falls into this category. Whilst some decisions are only made once in a lifetime, or every few years, many are things we decide on a daily basis, such as what to eat, or when to exercise. It’s easier to reduce these repeatable decisions than the more life-changing ones. We can use several tactics:
If you’ve decided that some decisions aren’t that important to you, you could delegate them to another person, or to a computer. For example, instead of deciding what workout to do every time you go to the gym, you could hire a personal trainer, or use a workout app How Fitbod has simplified my life. Note that often this can lead to better decisions than if you decided yourself. A useful question to keep in mind is: “Am I the right person to make this decision?”. And remember that you can delegate both one off, or regular decisions.
We can also create rules to simplify certain aspects of our life. For example, if you’ve decided that eating varied food isn’t that important, then you might want to eat the same breakfast and lunch every day, and experiment with dinner. I do this by eating Benefits of Huel every day. The trick here is to find where the breaking point of the rule is – do you want this to be something you follow 50% of the time, or 100% of the time? Having a rule that you follow 100% of the time can be easier mentally, but it reduces your flexibility.
This is particularly helpful for decisions that don’t come up every day, but are similar enough to be worth systematising. I have lists for I want to read, so that every time I finish a book, I start with the next one down the list. This is easier than choosing between the infinite options, or putting off the decision.
Schedule in advance
There are whole books written about this aspect of productivity. It relates to decision fatigue in that it stops you having to think about when to do something, which means recalculating its value relative to other things. For example, if I mark in my calendar that I am going to the gym at 3pm, then that’s what I do. I don’t have to constantly re-evaluate my energy levels and other commitments throughout the day, or procrastinate and fail to go at all. This section also leads us nicely on to the next step of the framework.
Every productivity guru seems to have their own version of the perfect morning routine. But a large part of why they are helpful is that they reduce the number of decisions you have to make. If you have to make lots of decisions first thing, that can leave you starting work already feeling frazzled. And if you feel like you’ve already made some bad decisions (like staying in bed instead of working out), then it can feel like your day has already been a failure.
We can also reduce decisions throughout the day by creating habits, which are behaviours we do without thinking. A sub-set of these are ‘if-then’ rules, which trigger a second action every time the first condition is met. For example, you could decide that every time you open your email, you do five mindful breaths before you start working through it. There are whole books written about habits, of course, like the excellent Atomic Habits by James Clear.
We can also apply routine to tasks that seem more complex, even ‘creative’ tasks, like writing this article. Whilst we can’t do these things completely on autopilot, we can set up processes and standard operating procedures to make it easier. For example, each article I write follows a process more or less like this:
- Gather existing notes from Notion
- If necessary, search the internet for further sources, and add to my notes
- Highlight and summarise my notes
- Create a mind map for my ideas
- Create the outline for the article, including sub-headings
- Draft the article
- Edit the article (the next day)
- Send to my editor
- Rework based on the comments (usually a week after the first draft)
- Do final edits and publish (usually a week after the second draft)
- ‘Market’ the article on social media and email
By restructuring decisions, or breaking them down into smaller parts, we can often make them easier, and thus reduce fatigue. Here are a couple of techniques:
A simple way of breaking down decisions is to turn them into a series of simple (usually binary) choices. A good example is choosing between eating options. Especially if you live in a big city, these options can become overwhelming. But if you first decide “eat in or eat out”, then “restaurant or takeaway”, then “expensive or budget”, then “Chinese, Indian, or pizza”, it gets much easier. Another option is to first narrow down a range of options to say, three choices, and then choosing between those.
If the possible options have multiple competing attributes, then decision matrices can be helpful. There are lots of ways of doing this, but it usually involves giving a score to each of a number of attributes, and counting up the scores at the end. Another example is the pro and con list, which you can make more concrete by assigning points for each advantage and disadvantage, and seeing if the score comes out positive or negative. These systems don’t mean you’ll necessarily get the right answer, but they give more structure than trying to examine your intuition.
Budgets are a means of setting an artificial constraint. If we actually stick to them, they can be helpful in reducing the number of decisions we have to make. For example, if you have a monthly budget of £300 for grocery shopping, then you don’t need to question every purchase, as long as it comes in under that figure. But they don’t just have to be about finances. You can use time budgets like the Pomodoro Technique to help you make faster decisions.
Of course, choosing between exciting options can sometimes be fun in itself. But it can also sap the joy out of an experience if you then experience some downside that you didn’t foresee. The downside then becomes your ‘fault’ (for making the wrong choice), rather than the world’s.
I wouldn’t advocate becoming The Dice Man, but for decisions that won’t have long-lasting effects, using some randomness can be a good option. For example, you could try writing down your options and putting them into a hat, then picking out the winner.
Let’s go back to the Israeli judges for a second. Although they were less likely to grant parole late in the morning, they reverted to being almost as generous just after their lunch break. We can’t maintain a perfectly constant level of energy throughout the day. But if you have big decisions to make, then it’s better to make them after you’ve had a break and some food. Whilst we shun procrastination, this also suggests that if you’re tired or hungry, it can make sense to defer some decisions – even to the following day.
This is probably the most overlooked aspect to overcoming decision fatigue, but it’s important. If you’re of the perfectionist bent, then thinking about decisions in terms of ‘satisficing’ i.e. being good enough, can be helpful.
There are too many decisions for us to make optimal choices all the time, and some aspects of the future are inherently unknowable to us. It’s thus better to accept that you made the best decision you could, given the time, energy, and information available to you – even if it doesn’t look like the right decision with hindsight. Similarly, it can be useful to consider in advance: “What’s the worst that could happen if I make the wrong decision?”.
It’s not easy to switch out of mindsets that we’ve carried for most of our lives, and being a perfectionist can give us helpful motivation at times. But once you have made a decision – especially if it’s not one you can go back on – it’s important to allow yourself to be OK with it.
Suggested next steps
I’ll admit that doing the above steps will require more time and energy up front than just going about your usual day. But think of it instead as an investment that will pay dividends well into the future. After all, that’s what a lot of personal growth is about!
To get the most out of it, I’d suggest breaking down this process into a period of a few weeks, focusing on and trying out one part each week. It’s likely you’ll find some of it more useful than others – just take what works for you. And if you want a couple of tips you can try out right now, it’s worth reading my Fifty specific ways to reduce decision fatigue