Decision fatigue when making decisions exhausts us

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Robert Maurer
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There's a good reason Steve Jobs, Angela Merkel, and Barack Obama almost always dressed the same: to avoid decision fatigue. Using the same style every day saved them the trouble of making irrelevant decisions that could exhaust their ability to solve more important problems.

According to a study conducted at Cornell University, they were not wrong. Every day we make an average of 35.000 decisions, of which 226 are related to food. However, the truth is that many times we make these small decisions without being fully aware of them.



Not paying enough attention to small daily decisions can lead us to live on autopilot, but paying too much attention to them leads to decision fatigue, so we are faced with a dilemma that we must solve.

What is decision fatigue?

Our brains are unable to make a clear distinction between important and irrelevant decisions, so both can generate the same worry, stress and doubt. When many unsolved problems pile up, we can suffer from decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue, or cognitive fatigue, is a psychological phenomenon first discovered in people suffering from cognitive deficits due to a neurological problem, trauma, developmental disorder, or brain injury. Psychologists found that when these people faced daily decisions, they tended to tire more than normal people.

They therefore concluded that our "cognitive capacity" is limited, so the more decisions we have to make, the more resources we consume. Therefore, decision fatigue occurs when we experience cognitive and emotional overload after making multiple decisions, so that many of the decisions we make from that point on will not be good.

As a result, we end up suffering a nervous breakdown similar to physical exhaustion which becomes a source of stress, frustration and regret. This is one of the reasons why, at the end of the day, we tend to make worse decisions than in the morning, when our mind is fresher.



Who is most likely to suffer from decision fatigue?

Research has revealed that no one is immune to decision fatigue. This problem has been encountered as much in judges conducting several probation hearings, as in journal editors examining submitted manuscripts and in air traffic control officers.

However, some people have also been found to be more prone to decision fatigue than others:

• Those who adopt avoidant coping strategies they tend to procrastinate, so decisions pile up and are more likely to develop decision fatigue.

• Those who engage in passive behavior after making a decision, so that these are ineffective because they are not put into practice, as a study conducted at the University of Minnesota finds. Hence, decision making becomes a useless process which only serves to consume mental energy without solving practical problems.

• Those who suffer from "psychological myopia", which is the tendency to focus on information directly related to a decision and ignore background data. In this way, people misjudge alternatives, disproportionately weighing potential losses and possible gains, which leads them to continually reconsider their decisions and causes them to become enormously tired.

The unsuspected consequences of decision-making fatigue

People who experience decision fatigue are more likely to develop impulsive behaviors and make rash decisions due to the psychological pressure they suffer. The fact that their reasoning skills are impaired causes them to see things from a distorted perspective and make worse decisions.

A study conducted at the Catholic University of Leuven found that decision-making fatigue can also make us experience situations, problems and conflicts with greater intensity, so daily frustrations and failures are much more irritating than they really are.



Decision fatigue also affects our performance, slowing us down and making us make more mistakes. Finally, psychologists at the University of Minnesota found that this state even reduces our physical stamina, making us more sensitive and decreasing our pain tolerance.

How to fight decision-making fatigue?

1. Learn to distinguish the urgent from the important

Dwight Eisenhower, the general in charge of planning the military operations of the Normandy landings, had to make many difficult decisions. They say his secret was to understand that "what is important is hardly ever urgent and what is urgent is hardly ever important." In practice, it is a question of differentiating really important decisions that require more cognitive resources, from unforeseen events that are urgent but not important. In this way we can divide our cognitive resources as the situation requires.

2. Reduce the number of daily decisions

It's not about living on autopilot, it's about focusing our mental energy on what really matters and can make a difference. One way to do this is to automate the most irrelevant decisions we make every day. Think, for example, of all the small decisions you make all the time and just leave them "programmed" to reserve your energy for bigger decisions. So you don't have to find yourself at the same crossroads several times. Creating practical routines that make you feel good and lighten you is a great strategy for eliminating these decisions.


3. Make important decisions early in the morning

In the morning, we usually have a fresher mind and clearer ideas. Sleep leveled and calmed the emotions of the previous day, and we have not yet dealt with the problems of the new day. Our brain is recharged and ready, so it can evaluate different options more effectively. Furthermore, making decisions as the day begins generates a feeling of efficiency that can accompany us throughout the day and allows us to start feeling lighter.


Optimization yes, cognitive laziness no

Decision fatigue shouldn't become an excuse for not making decisions because we would end up falling victim to procrastination. The line between decision-making optimization and cognitive laziness can be very thin and easy to overcome.

We must keep in mind that routines and habits add value, but homogeneity does not. Following certain routines sends clear signals to our body to prepare us for the next action and saves us a lot of energy.

However, flattening our days leads to affective dullness and apathy, which threaten to empty our life of meaning. Not changing routines that have stopped working or postponing important decisions due to simple fatigue will not make us happier.

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