You open your closet and stare, bewildered, into a sea of clothes. What to wear today? It’s the first small decision of many that will leave you feeling overwhelmed and drained. If this sounds familiar, you may be suffering from decision fatigue, a psychological phenomenon that describes the reduced ability to make judgments due to an overexposure of decision-making.
A recent American Psychological Association study found that, since the pandemic, decision fatigue is on the rise. On the back of a complex and mentally draining few years, people are feeling weary in the face of normal, day-to-day decisions.
Mia, a managing director at Flipswitch Media, has a staff of four and is well-versed in multitasking, but during the pandemic, she says she felt her ability to focus deteriorate. The combination of overwhelm and uncertainty, she says, diminished her capacity for judgement.
“I had a big meeting this week and instead of thinking about what I was going to say, I had no idea what I was going to wear,” she says. “Of all the things to be worried about! I spent the weekend asking my partner, ‘Should I wear these pants?’ ‘Do I usually wear a shirt?’ ‘How long does it take me to get makeup on?’” Mia found her decision crisis extended to home life, too. “Even decisions such as food shopping make me completely freak out,” she says.
Mia learned she wasn’t the only one dealing with decision fatigue; “I’ve got a few friends who are business owners and similarly feeling really overwhelmed.”
Dr Adrian Allen, a clinical psychologist at the Healthy Mind Clinic in Sydney, says decision fatigue is a real concern. “Decision fatigue falls under the umbrella of cognitive psychology and understanding the way we approach thinking and decision making in general,” he says.
“The more decisions we make through the day, the more fatigued we get, and the more the quality of decision-making can degrade as the day wears on,” says Dr Adrian. “It becomes a lot of effort. People feel foggy, as though they need a break. We sense that we need to put in more effort than we’ve got the resources for at that moment.’
Rebecca runs a construction company with her husband in Gippsland, Victoria and noticed she was developing decision fatigue in the third year of the pandemic. “I struggle to make decisions about what to put on our meal plan, what to eat if we get takeaway, where to go on holiday, what to wear if I go out — almost everything,” she says. “I’m certain I frustrate everyone at home and I certainly frustrate myself — sometimes to the point of tears. I have no doubt my husband is tired of hearing
‘I don’t know.’ I feel like I’ve lost my sense of purpose and have such brain fog that I can’t give anything enough thought.”
It can be difficult to differentiate between decision fatigue and anxiety. Both can leave you feeling overwhelmed, drained and frozen in the face of decisions. Exposure to long-term stress and anxiety can lead to decision fatigue, and equally, the fear of making the wrong decision can lead to bouts of anxiety and anxious thinking.
Rebecca was already dealing with anxiety and depression before she felt the decision fatigue creep in. “It was bad for a while there, before I spoke up to my psychologist, she says. “I was living with such indecision that I was missing out on things. I didn’t have a 40th birthday party because I couldn’t decide what to do, who to invite or when to have it. My 11-year-old son, Harry, planned our entire trip away last school holidays because I couldn’t decide where to go, what to do or how
to go about it.”
Dr Adrian works with these issues every day in his practice. “I work with people experiencing difficulties with anxiety, depression, difficulties after trauma, personality concerns, and generally improving how people feel,” he says. “Anxiety is one of those things that can impose on cognitive load.”
Dr Adrian describes cognitive load as being like a tank that can easily become overfilled when we ask the brain to juggle too many different things. “Things that can overflow our tank are needing to make lots of decisions, being under stress, multitasking or just feeling unwell. As that happens, we need to expend more effort to approach the same kind of efficiency required when we’re under less load,” he says.
There are some tools that can help ease decision fatigue and keep your tank from overflowing. Dr Adrian suggests keeping to a routine each day, so there are fewer decisions to make. He also suggests seeing a psychologist. “If you are finding decision fatigue troubling, consulting a psychologist can be helpful to learn practical ways to handle it,’ he says. It can also be helpful to set aside time to plan your week ahead. Sunday evenings, when the house is often quiet, is a great time to sit down and plan out meals, shopping, meeting times and so on.
Mia talked to her psychologist about decision fatigue and learned helpful signs to watch out for, such as becoming stressed. “When your brain is going through stress, it creates new neural pathways and becomes easily overwhelmed, which is where decision fatigue comes in,” she says. Mia says reducing her stress levels has allowed the brain to turn off and go into autopilot, and therefore reduce her decision fatigue.
Rebecca is also working on bringing her stress levels down to give her brain a chance to recover. “I reduced my daily to-do list significantly, so it was very simple: shower, eat healthy foods, hydrate and get adequate sleep. I’m trying to limit myself to a few decisions and focus on my health and wellbeing,” she says.
Sometimes, it’s about asking for help and delegating where you can. If you have family, friends or colleagues who can help ease your load for a while, don’t be afraid to ask. Asking for help can often be accompanied by feelings of guilt (“I should be able to manage this on my own”), but it’s helpful to consider that decision fatigue is your brain calling out for a rest.
Friends and family can also be a good sounding board for decisions. If you’re struggling between a few choices, it’s often worth getting a second or third opinion. Just don’t overload yourself with too many opinions, stick to one of two of your closest friends.
Finally, embrace rest time. Take regular breaks from work away from your screens. If you can feel your focus drifting, work for 20-minute stints, with five-minute breaks in between. Easing your mental load will encourage your focus to return and soon you’ll be making decisions like the capable multi-tasker you are!
Rebecca Whitehead is a freelance journalist and content writer living in Melbourne.