Decision fatigue comes from having too many decisions to make, especially in a row. According to some experts, the average American makes 35,000 decisions a day. Nearly 300 of those are just on food! An editor has to make many decisions every hour (I often make thousands of corrections per hour, plus dozens of choices regarding suggestions to make to the author). Decision fatigue is just one reason an editor shouldn’t edit all day every day.
Decision fatigue can be deadly
Medical personnel can make bad decisions that result in permanent injury or death of patients. The chances of that happening increase the later in their shift it is. Judges in court have been shown to make poorer decisions as their day progresses. If you appear in front of a judge at the end of their morning or the end of their afternoon, there is almost zero chance of a decision being in your favor. In his book When, Daniel Pink addresses this and many other things related to the time we do things, and when the best time is to do which things. The “when” you want in these cases is when the doctor or judge is refreshed.
Ways to reduce decision fatigue
Many successful people reduce their clothing to one or two outfits or eat the same thing every day in order to limit the number of decisions they make. Others make certain decisions once and for all (watching movies only on DVD or Netflix, never in theaters, for example).
Just as having to make too many choices can wear a person out, too many options can be overwhelming as well. An American woman who had been overseas for a few years returned to the US for a visit and stayed with a friend of mine. My friend took her to the store. The visitor became so overwhelmed with all of the options that she had to leave the store. She said where she was living, there was one or maybe two options for any given item. Here, she saw nearly 50 options just for toothpaste! She told my friend the type of item she wanted (such as toothpaste, a toothbrush, cheese, and bread), and my friend went back in and made the purchases. Combine too many choices to make and too many options for each decision. That’s a recipe for disaster. Now add in trade-offs.
When the options have both positive and negative elements, that’s called a trade-off. When there are trade-offs, deciding takes a lot of energy. A person who is mentally depleted becomes reluctant to make trade-offs, or else makes terrible decisions.
Dean Spears of Princeton University says decision fatigue caused by the constant need to make financial trade-offs is a major factor in trapping people in poverty.
The poor have to make so many trade-offs that they are left with less mental energy for other activities. A trip to the store causes more decision fatigue in the poor than in others.
Making choices drains precious mental resources, leaving the executive function less capable of carrying out its other activities. Decision fatigue impairs self-regulation. At the core of ADHD and BPD (and possibly other conditions) is a lack of self-regulation. People who have these conditions might benefit greatly from reducing the number of decisions they must make. Better self-regulation improves patient outcomes and quality of life.
Decision fatigue can lead people to avoid decisions entirely. While I don’t recommend decision avoidance, I do recommend reducing the number of decisions you have to make.
As an editor and a homeschooling mom, I experience decision fatigue on a daily basis. Guarding and managing my energy (reducing decision fatigue is part of that) is why I gave myself rules such as these:
- Buy only solid-colored clothing in classic colors and in a certain price range.
- Drink only water, coffee, and diet soda.
- Make no more than three decisions per day regarding friend requests or suggested groups.
- Batch cook every two weeks (I made 16 meals’ worth of breakfast burritos in the time it would take me to make and clean up one meal’s worth).
- Follow the weekly menu (Taco Tuesday is the perfect example).
- Leave the phone on Do Not Disturb mode (family members still ring through), have the message say to email or text me, and never check voicemail.
- Set my Calendly availability to afternoons only.
- Go with Chicago‘s rule unless I have a good reason not to.
How do (or could) you reduce your decision fatigue?
To find out why it’s important to do certain things at certain times (and possibly save your own life), check out Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.