Decision Fatigue: Why You Make Stupid Choices When Tired

Decision Fatigue: Why You Make Stupid Choices When Tired

I sat down and opened my laptop. Little did I know that the process of booking a hotel would tire the heck out of me.

It was a Thursday and the time of the year where people plan their holiday. My wife and I had decided to take the few days out to enjoy the breeze blowing, the water flowing and the sun shining. Needless to say, my wife had assigned me the job of booking the hotel.

I started looking at different booking sites one after another. “This looks great”, I told myself as I checked a serene hotel with calm interiors. “Wait, the other one has a swimming pool”, my brain tempted me.

2 hours later, when my wife came in to check which one did I pick, I said with drooping shoulders and tired eyes, “well, I am still on it.” I was still where I started – yet to book a hotel. I had checked tens of hotels and had failed to narrow down on one.

When I got off my chair, I hadn’t chosen any hotel. To make that worse, I was as exhausted as a bodybuilder after a 90-minute long intense leg workout.

What just happened? Why did I fail to pick one when I had many splendid choices?

I was under decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue

What is decision fatigue?

Decision fatigue is a phenomenon where we start making poor decisions after making several other decisions. The cause for decision fatigue is our mental energy depletes with every decision made before finally running out altogether. Each day we start with a limited amount of mental energy. When we run short on this energy, our judgment turns flawed.

Have you noticed that you have better self-control in the morning than late evening? It is because in the morning you haven’t made a lot of decisions yet. By the end of the day, you cannot make a good decision because your brain has depleted all its energy making a large number of decisions.

The decisions I am referring to aren’t major like future plans, saving money or changing your career. Even little decisions such as picking the snack for the evening or the brand of cornflakes to buy, consume a little chunk of your mental energy.

You make so many such decisions in a day without your knowledge. At the end of the day, you run out of steam to make good decisions any longer.

The visual below explains how your mental energy and decisions are correlated.

relationship between decision fatigue and mental energy

When you’re high on mental energy, you apply thought and make good decisions. When this energy store runs low, you lose patience and make an impulsive choice. Often, you postpone the decision itself because you do not have the brainpower to process it anymore.

Research on decision fatigue

Several experiments have shown how decision fatigue works.

Judges making decisions in court:

Researchers studied over 1100 decisions made by the judges in court. The cases contained hearings in the morning, afternoon and late evening.

Judge case study

The studies found that a criminal had an 80% chance of a favorable decision in the morning. The percentage dipped as the morning went by. By lunchtime, the number dropped to almost 0.

Soon after lunch, the favorable decisions increased to over 60% again. (This was due to energy gained from lunch which we will talk in detail later). By evening, the number dropped to 0 again.

The results were clear. As the judges made more and more decisions, the chances of them making favorable decisions decreased greatly. It did not matter if the hearing was about a parking ticket, kidnapping or murder. The numbers showed that when the judge ran out of mental energy, he was in no mood to make a favorable decision.

The jam experiment:

The jam experiment

In the year 2000, researchers performed an experiment in a supermarket. They kept a rack of jams out in the open allowing people to sample it before buying. They varied the number of jams placed on two different days and studied the results.

  • Day 1: The rack had 24 varieties of jam
  • Day 2: The rack had 6 varieties of jam

You might expect day 1 to sell more because more options = more purchases. The results, however, were quite the opposite.

The supermarket sold 10 times more jams on day 2 than on day 1.

Researchers observed that buyers would get overwhelmed with the vast array of choices that they would sample a few and move on without buying any. The dilemma of which jam was the best led them to not choose any.

This experiment showed the combined effect of decision fatigue and the paradox of choice.

Examples of decision fatigue in daily life:

You and I experience decision fatigue in our daily life right under our nose. Here are some examples:

1. Ordering food online

Ordering food online

A few years back, ordering food was simple. Not the ease of use, but from a decision making perspective.

We had the contact number of a few nearby restaurants stored on our phone. Anytime we felt lazy to cook, we would dial the number and place our order. For special guests, we would have a handful of expensive restaurants that served delicious food.

Compare that to ordering food today. You have a hundred restaurants to choose from right from your phone. You can filter by cuisine, rating, cost, and whatnot. You have the whole menu listed with pictures where one dish looks yummier than another.

I am not sure about you, but I prefer to let another person order food these days because I hate the effort required to scroll and choose. When I do place the order sometimes, I take much longer than I used to.

Has it happened to you that you start choosing dishes and 10 minutes later, you pull your hair and pass the phone to your friend? “I can’t choose. You pick anything and I’ll eat,” you say. That has happened to me quite a few times.

2. Eating junk in the evening

Eating junk late evening

Most people have no trouble sticking to a healthy breakfast.

I do not mind oatmeal and a bowl of fruits in the morning. I can survive with chicken and veggies in the afternoon. During dinner time, things change a bit. A pizza or a scoop of ice cream seems like a good idea.

You have a higher chance of making a bad eating choice late evening than in the morning. The choice won’t always be overboard like a delicious burger with a double patty and plenty of extra cheese.

More often, you will err in smaller ways such as a small piece of chocolate or a glass of coke.

When you consume extra sugar like this daily, they can turn into a massive roadblock to your weight loss program.

3. Extramarital affairs

Are you surprised that decision fatigue can disturb relationships and marriages? Unfortunately, that’s quite possible.

Studies have shown how people lose their ability to make ethical decisions by the end of the day and give in to the temptation. Carol Dweck, the author of the book Mindset, explains how will power is not infinite.

As you run through your day, you deplete the store of willpower you have. If you’re having trouble with your relationship, you have a higher chance of cheating late evening than morning. This cheating can start in the form of calling and texting before it can lead to dire relationship threatening actions.

A word of advice: if you have to contact your ex, science suggests you do that early in the day.

How to overcome decision fatigue

You now know how your willpower and decision-making ability fluctuates through the day. So you can make an informed decision considering the possible errors you might make. At times, you can refrain from making a big decision at the wrong time to prevent a bad choice.

Here are some steps to avoid decision fatigue:

1. Make the tough decisions in the morning

Have you noticed the comfort you feel in making decisions early in the day? That’s because you’re fresh and energetic.

That’s not the only reason. Because you haven’t made many decisions yet, your mental energy tank is full. That is when you should make all your major decisions because your brain can be thoughtful and wise.

Executives who are aware of decision fatigue, schedule all their important meeting early in the day.

2. Avoid unnecessary decisions

Avoid unnecessary stress due to decisions

Have you never understood why some well-known entrepreneurs wear the same outfit every day? Again, the answer is to avoid decision fatigue.

No matter how small, each decision saps your mental energy. When you open the wardrobe and scratch your head asking yourself what should you wear, you are expending precious mental stamina.

Now, I understand that all of us cannot pull off a Zuckerberg each day by wearing the same grey t-shirt. But at least, do not break your head over what to wear. Pick something that you find and get going. If you repeat the same outfit by chance after a few days, all hell isn’t gonna break loose.

Clothing is one such example causing decision fatigue. When you spend time on many such little decisions, your mental energy takes a hit at a rapid pace. Here are more such examples:

  • Choosing the restaurant to visit for lunch followed by the dish to order
  • Scrolling social media news feed deciding if you should click, like, comment or move on to the post
  • Deciding if you should work on the email notification popup now or later

You might assume you enjoy a relaxed 15 minutes by checking your social media during a break. But you’re doing the opposite. You’re making yourself more exhausted by checking out the pictures and stories of your friends.

Decisions do not come for free. They cost energy, so avoid the unnecessary ones.

3. Automate routine tasks

Automate routine tasks

Instead of making a decision at every step, you can set some on autopilot.

Here are some examples:

If you have trouble picking the outfit for the office, set a schedule. Formals for Monday, collared t-shirt for Tuesday and so on. If that seems predictable, set a schedule every 2 weeks or a month.

If you cannot decide what to cook each day, put up a schedule every week. If you have watched the Big Bang Theory, you can do what Sheldon Cooper does. Sure, the schedule makes food less exciting but if you can cook well, you should sail through anyway.

Identify the little areas where you make small decisions every day and come up with a routine. Every decision you avoid leads to a little piece of mental peace for yourself.

4. Consume some form of sugar

Earlier, I mentioned the case study where the favorable decisions made by judges decreased around noon and shot up again soon after lunch. You might have realized the correlation that had with food.

Research has shown that glucose levels in the body play a significant role in decision making.

Can you work out when you have not eaten for hours together? Yes, you can but your exercise will cause more damage than good. When you’re low on physical energy, your stamina takes a hit. Likewise, when you’re low on glucose, your decision making takes a hit.

What’s the relationship between the two, you ask? Glucose is the chemical that carries energy to the brain and acts as the fuel.

Eating a meal helps in replenishing glucose levels in your bloodstream. That explains the science behind why judges show an increased rate of favorable decisions after food.

As much as possible, avoid making major decisions on an empty stomach.

It is not you, it is the sugar.

You may not always have the opportunity to eat a hefty meal before an important decision. But if your stomach is rumbling, try to sip on lemonade or eat a piece of chocolate. Any form of sugar serves as a quick shot of glucose.

5. Ask if you need to find the perfect option

Don't hunt for a perfect choice

When I was picking a trouser to go along with a shirt, I ransacked many racks to find the right shade and fit. A couple of days later, I was least bothered about how well the outfit fit me or how the shade looked. I even wore completely different pants with the same shirt and no one batted an eye-lid.

Sometimes, you go after the perfect choice when you don’t need to. When you are looking into options, ask yourself questions like:

  • Is there a need to compare 10 different kinds of shampoo before buying one?
  • What difference will a different shade of lipstick make?
  • Do I need to spend hours of effort on choosing the ideal hotel among all my choices?

You and I go on a hunt for the perfect choice just for the heck of it. In most cases, the perfect choice does not even exist. Even when it does, the difference is too subtle to notice. After a short while, the choice does not make a major difference.

Learn to love a good choice instead of waiting for the perfect one.

6. Use a power nap in the afternoon

Take a power nap

In addition to food, sleep also influences your ability to make decisions. If you failed to have a good night’s sleep, your ability for self-control and decisions is hampered.

Scientists have performed tests that revealed that people who took a nap were able to perform a cognitive task better. Because the brain is a complex object with a large number of gray areas, scientists cannot conclude that sleep alone is the primary factor behind improve decisions.

That said, researchers have observed a strong correlation between sleep and decisions.

National Sleep Foundation recommends adults to sleep for at least 7 hours. If you fail to catch enough sleep one night and drowsy yawn kicks in during the afternoon, a short nap can help you replenish your mental energy. Read more on power naps and sleep cycles here.

Though a nap isn’t a solution for repeated lack of sleep, it can help you operate better for a short while.

Conclusion

Your brain follows protocol to perform the magic it does. Humans today do not completely understand the brain, but science is making steady progress on the subject.

Decision fatigue is real and occurs every day. If you were unable to build a good habit or stop a bad habit, decision fatigue could be the culprit.

Unlike other mental biases, the cure for decision fatigue is easy to fix once you’re aware of the science behind it. Using the above 6 tips, you can overcome decision fatigue like a pro.

Eat better, sleep better and decide better.

decision fatigue how to make decisions personal development


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