Make Better Decisions By Overcoming Decision Fatigue

Have you ever struggled to find a new TV show to watch? Nowadays, there are plenty of options for us to choose from, you’d think it would be easy. When searching for something new, we’re spoilt for choice where algorithms are set up based on what shows or movies we like, or any new releases added. It’s routine to spent fifteen minutes deciding what to watch while listening to the painful scrolling sound our TV makes scrolling through our options. Quite often we end up watching something we’ve already seen at the expense of our indecisiveness.

The problem isn’t the lack of choices; it’s having too many. I’ve thought about whether an overabundance of choices is only limited to TV streaming services, and unfortunately, they’re not. Every day we’re forced to make hundreds of decisions, some being automatic and others require a little more mental capacity. While each decision we employ may seem inconsequential, they have a cumulative effect on how we perform throughout the day. When we make more decisions, we become prone to consistent decision fatigue, leading to poor choices.  


make good decisions


Decision Fatigue


Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist, defines decision fatigue as the deterioration in our ability to make good decisions after a process of constant decision making. This means that the more choices we’re required to make, the worse our educated decision making will be- resulting in low self-control and minimal willpower. Understanding the psychological principle can help us create improved changes and set us up to reserve our mental energy. It’s important to note that each decision we make puts a dent in our willpower. The more dents we have, the harder it becomes to stay focused, resulting in minimal energy and impaired decision making. When these types of choices are made, we are less focused and control the outcome we seek. To further understand the concept and relate decision fatigue into our own lives, we can look at a couple of examples.


Example 1: The Parole Hearing Analysis


Criminals can receive an unfair trial dependent on the time of the day they show up for their hearing. Researchers from the National Academy of Sciences examined the factors that impact whether or not a judge approves a criminal for parole. The psychologists examined 1,102 judicial rulings over a ten-month period. The rulings were based on whether or not the criminal would be released from prison on parole. It’s easy to assume the decisions made by the judges would fit the crime and not become dependent on what time of day the prisoner has their hearing. But researchers found the complete opposite. Here’s one of the results:

Case 1: The parole hearing took place at 8:50 am and involved an Israeli serving a 30-month jail sentence for fraud. 

Case 2: The parole hearing took place at 3:10 am and involved an Israeli who was currently serving a 16-month jail sentence for assault.

Case 3: The parole hearing took place at 4:25 pm and involved an Israeli serving a 30-month jail sentence for fraud.

Of these three cases, only the first prisoner had been granted parole. Even though cases 1 and 3 had similar sentences, the third prisoner did not receive a favourable hearing. The analysis confirmed that judges ruled favourably from the thousand cases researched and granted parole 65% of the time. For prisoners appearing later in the day, they were less likely to be deemed fair and had only been granted parole 10% of the time. From the research, the judges decisions’ didn’t come from being biased. It came from decision fatigue. 


Example 2: The Decision Making Experiment


In an experiment conducted by post-doctorate Jean Twenge, research was conducted based around the impact of self-control and how decision fatigue played a part when making choices. In the first part of the experiment, Twenge assigned each participant to either make a series of choices between products or report their consumption based on two groups. The groups were as follows:

Choice Condition Group

Participants were given a list of 60 products (pens, pencils, scented candles, magazines etc.) The choice condition group were asked to read the list and choose between two versions of the product (e.g., a blue pen or a red pen, scented candle or unscented).

Non-Choice Condition Group

Participants were given the same list but were instructed to rate the product. They were rated as to the extent to which they have used them in the past.

Results showed there was a higher rating of psychological involvement for the choice condition group than simply rating the products. The participants who made choices among the products resulted being more self-involved in the task than those from the non-choice condition group. Upon the completion of this task, the participants moved immediately into the second experiment. This task would test the hypothesis that making continual decisions depletes our willpower.

In what Twenge called ‘the cold pressor task’, both groups had been asked to submit their non-dominant arm in near-freezing water for as long as possible. This concept of the task was to see how the groups override their usual tendency to recoil and pull their arm out. Twenge predicted that the choice condition group would not be able to overcome this impulse compared to the non-choice condition group. The prediction proved true, as those who made a series of decisions previously were the first to remove their arm from the cold water. From the two tasks, participants who experienced decision fatigue from the initial experiment lacked the willpower to keep their hand in the water for as long as the group who didn’t make any decisions on the products. 


4 Ways To Overcome Decision Fatigue


Making constant decisions wears us down over time. The good news is, we can combat decision fatigue by employing strategies to help us make fewer decisions and commitments so we can focus on what’s essential to us. Here are four ways:

1. Keep a Distance From Life’s Mayhem.

How often are our best decisions made in the shower or over a beer with a friend? When we are in this environment, we are pulling away from the daily demands and using our brain that doesn’t allow us to ‘think’. Our brain then subconsciously presents us with new existing knowledge that we weren’t able to tap into. When stepping away from the urgent demands life throws our way, we improve neural connections, and our decision making is better.

2. Limit Decision Making When Hungry.

When we have an appetite, our body produces a hormone known as ghrelin. It is often called the “hunger hormone”, where it facilitates the sensations of hunger and fullness. Our levels of ghrelin fluctuate during the day, depending on food intake and metabolism. When our ghrelin isn’t regulated, it negatively impacts our impulse control and decision-making. When making important choices, It’s best to make them in a state of focus.

3. Establish a Ritual

The difference between a ritual and a routine lies in the attitude behind the action. Routines are often considered something that has to be done (making the bed, brushing our teeth etc.), whereas rituals have a more meaningful practice and provide a sense of purpose. By establishing a ritual, we can limit the number of decisions we make each day. For example, I sit down to write each morning at 6 am. It’s a meaningful behaviour I perform that has resulted in small improvements over time. Following my writing session, I head to the gym. Two essential parts of my life have already been decided before I go to bed each night. A purposeful ritual is designed to conserve our energy and to make healthy decisions, reducing and managing decision fatigue. 

4. Live Simply 

Whether you’re seeking improved performance, starting a new way of eating, or controlling consumption of any kind, the biggest frustration for most of us is the thought of having to use every ounce of willpower every day. Instead of fighting against it, find a way to simplify your life. Making insignificant decisions pulls precious energy and willpower away from what’s important. For example:

-Making any decisions on what to eat for dinner each evening can be insignificant. Making one decision on the foods to eat for the week puts willpower in the bank.

-Making a decision each day about whether to exercise can be insignificant. Making one decision on the days, you will exercise keeps you making one fewer decision each day. 

What’s remarkable about decision making is the ability to bundle our daily choices into one decision. When this happens, we now have planning, preparation and no dents in our willpower. If we can stay ahead of the game, we can make sound decisions on what’s important and live a more simple life. 


Making Decisions


We make a lot of low impact decisions, so it’s important we review how many decisions we make in a day and look at how many of them we can reduce. Whilst understanding how many we make, we should acknowledge the time and energy these decisions have over us. By doing a self-diagnosis on our choices, we can make the changes needed to focus on the more critical decisions. Making the change can be as simple as knowing what we will do upon waking up in the morning. Making decisions is part of human life and cannot be avoided. Incorporating strategies to manage our decision fatigue, we can identify when we are running low on mental willpower and avoid making decisions that don’t serve our priorities.