The Toll Of Decision Fatigue

Has your brain ever hung up a 'closed' sign and left for the day, unable to make one more decision?
Christi Hegstad June 26th, 2019

This article was originally published by the Business Record.

My son came home from practice recently with a seemingly simple question, one I’ve answered many times before: “What’s for dinner?”

On this particular day, however, that seemingly simple question suddenly became completely unanswerable. I had no idea, and had no idea how to generate an idea. Will we cook something? If so, what? Will we go out? If so, where? Will we heat up leftovers? Call for delivery? Pour bowls of cereal and call it good?

I was completely tapped out, as if my brain had hung up a “closed” sign and left for the day. I simply could not make one more decision.

Have you experienced this? Or perhaps you have noticed the quality of your decisions decreasing as the day goes on. You are not alone; in fact, there is now a body of research around the concept of “decision fatigue” and the toll it can take on us as individuals, professionals, leaders, moms.

And it’s sneaky. “It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue,” writes John Tierney in his thought-provoking New York Times article, “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” “You’re not consciously aware of being tired, but you’re low on mental energy,” the article states. Decision fatigue has been shown to impact everything from our food and exercise choices to whether or not a convict makes parole. The toll it plays can wreak havoc on us personally and professionally.

Fortunately, once we’re aware of decision fatigue, we can work with it. Three starting points:

1. Develop purposeful habits.

Imagine if every time you got in the car, you had to consciously pause and ask yourself whether or not to buckle your seat belt. If you make a number of sales calls per day, you might face that decision 20 times before noon! Purposeful habits allow us to take healthy actions without thinking, reserving our precious mental energy for choices requiring greater thought.

2. Separate the important.

Not all decisions are created equally and therefore needn’t be given the same weight. For example, it probably wouldn’t behoove you to invest the same amount of energy deciding which pajamas to wear to bed as you would on which career path to pursue. Prioritize your life, decide what matters most, then act accordingly.

3. First things first.

There is a reason experts suggest exercising when you wake up in the morning, or advise against checking email first thing. Whenever possible, structure your day so that decisions and actions requiring concentration or creativity take place earlier in the day. Leave less important or more routine actions for later.

Split Rock Lighthouse

Consider what decisions you make on a regular basis that could perhaps be routinized, outsourced, or scheduled for efficiency, then experiment. (Think Steve Jobs with his black turtleneck and blue jeans — one less decision to make each day!) Not only will you free up precious mental space, you will also likely find yourself making stronger decisions more consistently, which can lead to greater confidence, productivity and accomplishment.

If you’re still wondering about my decision regarding dinner, we went with leftovers. Then, the next morning, when my mind felt a bit more fresh and focused, I quickly whipped out a meal plan for the next week. Problem solved, at least temporarily – but feel free to send me your simple menu plans for the next time I have no idea how to answer the question, “What’s for dinner?”

As a certified and award-winning coach, Christi Hegstad, PhD, PCC, helps professionals clarify their vision and achieve it with confidence, purpose, and strong decisions. Connect with her online at or on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @ChristiHegstad.

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