You've just finished a long day at work, and somehow end up in the supermarket (although you don't remember driving or walking there). It's almost time to feed yourself and/or your family, and you know you need food, but are overwhelmed by all the different options. It gets to the point where you're wandering up and down the aisles aimlessly without the slightest clue what you need or want. No, nothing's wrong with you; you're probably exhausted in general, and on top of everything else, are likely dealing with decision fatigue.
Whether or not you realize it, you're constantly making decisions throughout your day. And they're not all necessarily major decisions, but having to make a series of minor choices can weigh on you, too. Let's take a closer look at decision fatigue, including what causes it to happen, the signs you're dealing with it, and how to manage it.
What is decision fatigue—and what can cause it?
Having to make too many decisions in a row.
Simply put, decision fatigue refers to the mental exhaustion a person experiences after making a lot of decisions. "That means the more decisions you make, the harder it becomes to make additional decisions," says Rashmi Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers "More often than not, it leads to one of two endpoints: You either give up and stop making decisions completely, or you'll make impulsive or irrational choices."
Or being overwhelmed by the options at hand.
In addition to being faced with periods when you're required to make decisions one right after the other, decision fatigue can also set in when you have an abundance of options, explains Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, Calif. and author of Joy From Fear and Date Smart. "Although humans tend to enjoy having a variety of choices, too many choices can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion," says Manly. "For example, having too many options—whether in the grocery store, catalog, or online retailer—can lead to feelings of confusion and dissatisfaction."
Is there a difference between experiencing decision fatigue and indecisiveness?
In short, yes. Decision fatigue is very different from the personality trait of indecisiveness. "While decision fatigue is mental energy depletion that sets in after making a series of decisions in a fixed time, indecisiveness can be a character trait that results from chronic inability to make decisions, usually stemming from low self-confidence," Dr. Parmar explains. "Indecisiveness is usually evident right from the beginning, whereas decision fatigue usually sets in after a series of decisions are made without any issues."
More specifically, a person who tends to be habitually indecisive often fears making the "wrong" decision, Manly explains, noting that their ongoing avoidance of making decisions often leads to routine procrastination. "Although a person who is characteristically indecisive may also suffer from decision fatigue, fearful avoidance is generally at the root of most decision-making issues for the chronically indecisive person," she says. "On the other hand, decision fatigue can affect anyone, even those who tend to be extremely decisive."
The good news, Dr. Parmar says, is that it's possible to recover from both decision fatigue and indecisiveness. "However, decision fatigue can autocorrect itself within a span of a few hours to a few days, whereas indecisiveness can take longer and significantly more effort to recover [from]," she adds.
Is decision fatigue common with any particular mental health conditions?
Yes, but it's also important to remember that decision fatigue can impact anyone, regardless of their mental wellness. Having said that, people who live with conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can find it especially difficult to make decisions, Manly says. "A decision that might be easy for someone in good mental health may be excruciatingly difficult for someone who is struggling with getting out of bed or 'just making it through the day,'" she adds.
But why does this happen? According to Dr. Parmar, conditions like depression or anxiety can cause significant mental strain and impair a person's ability to fully focus on something, which can contribute to decision-making fatigue over time. "A depressed person is often overwhelmed with negative thoughts, low self-esteem and low motivation, which makes decision fatigue set in faster than usual," she explains. "An anxious person tends to worry about every decision they make—even smaller decisions get exaggerated into bigger issues, which induces decision fatigue."
Common Signs of Decision Fatigue
If you're unsure whether you or someone you know is experiencing decision fatigue, here are nine signs to look for, courtesy of Manly and Dr. Paramar:
Inability to think clearly or focus.
Avoidance of decision-making tasks.
Irritability, and a short temper, caused—at least in part—by frustration with themselves.
Feeling overwhelmed and possibly even hopeless.
Spending a lot of time making decisions.
Physical symptoms like fatigue, poor sleep, headaches, upset stomach, etc.
A sense of dissatisfaction with any choice that is ultimately made.
Tips and Strategies for Managing Decision Fatigue
If several of the signs above sound familiar, you may be dealing with decision fatigue and looking for a way to handle it effectively (and ideally, move past it). Manly and Dr. Paramar offer their top coping strategies below.
Limit yourself to making no more than a few (i.e., three or four) big choices per day.
Try to make most of your important decisions in the earlier part of the day when you're relatively charged with mental energy. Schedule important meetings at work in the morning hours to make the most of your time. Leave lighter decisions for the later part of the day.
Try to plan out things a day in advance; that way you will be better prepared when you have an early start the next day.
Take regular breaks in your day to replenish your brain. Make sure you have timely and adequate meals/snacks along with proper hydration throughout the day.
If it feels helpful, ask a supportive friend or partner to weigh in on the most difficult of your choices.
If you're facing a variety of options, narrow down your selections to three options—and don't question yourself. Then evaluate the final three options and pick one.
Avoid questioning your final decision: Simply embrace your selection and move forward.
If you get stuck, draft a simple pros/cons list, which can help facilitate objective and sound decision making.
Prioritize a list of tasks and create deadlines for yourself.
Follow a set routine or a structure. This will help you conserve time, while bringing a sense of consistency in your life. It will also eliminate the need to make decisions for at least some of your routine tasks—like what time you should get up, what food to eat, and when to exercise. Set reminders on your phone if you need to.
Avoid impulsive decision making. Take a break and postpone the decision-making process if you must, rather than making a wrong move that you'll end up regretting later.
There's a good chance that people managing decision fatigue are already pretty stressed. Being able to eliminate some of the anxiety and frustration caused by your inability to make decisions—starting with being able to identify the signs of decision fatigue—can go a long way in terms of your mental well-being.