Decision fatigue: how a burden of choices leads to irrational trade-offs

Reading time: 6 minutes

Have you ever felt like you are too tired to make the right choice between several options, especially after a long series of decisions? Decision fatigue can lead to poor choices and irrational trade-offs in decision making. It refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions after a long session of decision making. Too many decisions end up depleting our willpower, to the point that we end up making increasingly poor choices.

In the words of John Tierney: “Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.”

The term “decision fatigue” was originally coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. “Basically, the idea is this,” he explains. “Our ability to force ourself to do difficult things — that is, applying self-control or self-discipline — draws upon a certain limited resource within us. And when we’re forced to make tough decisions, it calls upon that same resource. So when our self-control runs low, we start to make poor choices.”

Decision fatigue - Decision quality vs Decision quantity

Some signs of decision fatigue include impulsivity, procrastination, indecision, and decision avoidance. As often with the mind, recognizing the signs and applying simple coping strategies can do wonders to improve the way we think. How exactly does decision fatigue impact the way we make choices, and is there anything we can do about it?

The impact of decision fatigue

The more decisions we need to make, the worse we are going to be at weighing all the options and making an educated choice. For instance, a study looking at 1,100 parole hearing decisions made by judges in Israel, the most powerful factor in whether or not an individual was granted parole was not their crime or background: it was when the judge hearing the case last took a break. “The work shows the consequences of mental fatigue on really important decisions even among excellent decision-makers,” says Jonathan Levav, who led the study.

Decision fatigue impacts our ability to choose between several options, causes us to make impulse purchases, and can even lead us to avoid decisions entirely:

  1. Impaired ability to make trade-offs. Trade-offs feature several choices that have positive and negative elements. They are a particularly energy-consuming form of decision making. When we are faced with too many trade-offs to consider, we end up mentally depleted, and we make poor choices.
  2. Impulse purchases. When shopping, decisions regarding prices and promotions can produce decision fatigue, depleting our willpower to impulse purchases. This is why snacks are usually displayed near the cash register: by the time they get there, many shoppers have decision fatigue and may grab an item they hadn’t initially intended on buying.
  3. Decision avoidance. Sometimes, our mental energy is so depleted, we completely avoid making a choice. We may as well try to bypass the mental and emotional costs of decision making by selecting the default option when one is available.

Interestingly, poorer people are more prone to decision fatigue. “If a trip to the supermarket induces more decision fatigue in the poor than in the rich — because each purchase requires more mental trade-offs — by the time they reach the cash register, they’ll have less willpower left to resist the Mars bars and Skittles. Not for nothing are these items called impulse purchases,” explains Dean Spears from Princeton University.

How to deal with decision fatigue

The best way to avoid decision fatigue is by mindfully directing your mental energy towards choices that matter, and minimizing low-stakes energy-consuming decisions. Here are three ways to deal with decision fatigue you can start applying today:

  • Reduce your number of daily decisions. Reserve your mental energy for important decisions, and cut down on the number of trivial ones you need to consider each day. For example, famous businessmen and politicians Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and President Barack Obama have been known to reduce their everyday clothing down to a couple of outfits in order to limit the number of decisions they make in a day.
  • Make decisions in advance. If you know you will have to repeatedly make similar decisions throughout the week, consolidate the decision-making process over a specific period of time. For instance, you can prepare all of your meals in advance on Sunday, so you don’t have to decide what to eat every day throughout the week. You could also book activities in advance, plan what you will read in the next few months, or block time in your calendar for work you want to get done.
  • Change your mindset about willpower. Psychologist Carol Dweck found that decision fatigue primarily affects people who believe that willpower runs out quickly. “We find that people get fatigued or depleted after a taxing task only when they believe that willpower is a limited resource, but not when they believe it’s not so limited (…) “If you look over our studies, we get effects that look like overall fatigue. But when you break it down into the people who believe willpower is limited and those who don’t, you have two separate groups. In fact, in some cases, the people who believe that willpower is not so limited actually perform better after a taxing task.”

In addition, remember that you don’t have to make all the decisions in your life on your own! If you feel the signs of decision fatigue and need to make an important choice, ask a colleague, friend, or family member to help you consider the trade-offs so you don’t make a poor decision. You can give them a hand next time they are the ones suffering from decision fatigue.

Many decisions are unavoidable, and it may not be possible to always keep clear of decision fatigue. However, by believing your willpower is not so limited, by managing the number of decisions you have control over, and by asking for help when you have low levels of mental energy, you can drastically reduce the impact of decision fatigue on your life.