Have you ever found yourself standing in the cereal aisle, completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices? Or perhaps you've sat at your desk, to-do list in hand, unable to decide where to start? If these scenarios sound familiar, you may be experiencing decision fatigue.
What is Decision Fatigue?
Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision-making. You feel like you are stuck or even “short-circuiting”. It's like running a marathon, but instead of your muscles getting tired, it's your decision-making abilities that wear out. This phenomenon is not just about facing tough choices; it's about the cumulative toll of all your decisions throughout the day, no matter how big or small a decision may appear to be..
How Does Decision Fatigue Happen?
Every day, we are bombarded with decisions, from the moment we decide to snooze the alarm (or not) to choosing what to watch before bed. These decisions, big and small, deplete our mental resources. Why? Because making choices requires energy and self-control, which are finite daily resources. As we use up this energy, our ability to make well-thought-out decisions diminishes, leading to decision fatigue.
Making a decision might seem like a straightforward act that we perform multiple times every day, but it's actually a complex process involving a symphony of cognitive activities. Here's what happens behind the scenes when we make a decision:
Identification of the Decision: The brain recognizes that a choice needs to be made, which often involves the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for executive functions like planning and impulse control.
Information Gathering: Your brain begins to gather and weigh information. This can involve recalling past experiences from memory, perceiving information from our environment, or seeking out new data. The hippocampus plays a crucial role in memory recall, while the sensory cortices are involved in processing current sensory data.
Consideration of Options: We consider the potential options or pathways available to us. This stage often involves the orbitofrontal cortex, which helps evaluate the potential rewards and punishments of different choices.
Weighing the Evidence: The brain weighs the evidence for and against each option. This involves complex neural computations that take place in various parts of the brain, including the integration of emotional signals from the amygdala, which assesses the emotional weight of each option.
Projection of Future Outcomes: The brain projects what the future might look like with each potential decision. This involves the frontal lobe, which is responsible for considering future consequences and making predictions based on past outcomes.
Making the Decision: Once the options have been weighed, the brain commits to a decision. This is often thought to be a function of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in the selection of behavior and actions.
Action: The motor cortex then gets involved to help execute the decision, translating the cognitive decision into physical action, whether it's speaking, moving, or performing another activity.
Feedback and Learning: After the decision is made and the action is taken, the brain looks for feedback to learn from the outcome. This feedback loop involves the striatum and the dopaminergic system, which are critical for learning and adapting future decisions based on past successes or mistakes.
Emotional Response: Finally, there's an emotional response to the decision, which can involve feelings of satisfaction, regret, or reinforcement. The limbic system, including the amygdala, is heavily involved in this emotional processing.
Understanding this complex backstage activity can help us appreciate the mental work that goes into our choices and why it's essential to manage our cognitive load and take care of our brain health.
Who Does Decision Fatigue Happen To?
Everyone is susceptible to decision fatigue. Whether you're a parent juggling family and work, a student planning your future, or a CEO making high-stakes business decisions, you're at risk. It's an equal-opportunity energy drainer, affecting us all regardless of age, profession, or lifestyle.
Why Does Decision Fatigue Happen?
Our brains have a limited capacity for constant decision-making. Throughout the day, as we make more decisions, we start to look for shortcuts. Sometimes, this means acting impulsively instead of taking the time to think through the consequences. Other times, we might do nothing to avoid making a decision altogether. This can lead to poor judgment, procrastination, and stress, which can spiral into more significant mental health concerns if not addressed.
You can see just from what it takes to make a decision earlier in this blog… there is a lot going on in a split second.
Ways to Overcome Decision Fatigue
Here are some strategies to help you manage decision fatigue:
Simplify Your Choices: Reduce the number of decisions you have to make by automating routine tasks. Meal prepping, wardrobe capsules, and scheduled routines can cut down on the daily decision load.
Prioritize Decisions: Tackle important decisions first thing in the morning when your decision-making energy is at its peak. Not everything needs to have an answer at the same time.
Limit Options: Too many options can be overwhelming. Try to narrow down your choices as much as possible.
Take Breaks: Rest and recharge your decision-making batteries with short breaks throughout the day. We can’t run on an empty battery just like our phones or computers can’t, they stop operating when they are depleted… same goes for us.
Practice Self-Care: Ensure you're getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising to keep your mind sharp.
Set Deadlines: Give yourself a specific timeframe to make a decision to prevent endless deliberation. This is not meant to pressure you, but to let yourself know when you want to accomplish this.
How Can a Mental Health Therapist Help?
A mental health therapist can be a lighthouse in the foggy sea of decision fatigue. They can help you:
Understand Your Patterns: Therapists can assist you in identifying decision-making patterns that contribute to fatigue.
Develop Strategies: They can offer personalized strategies to streamline your decision-making process.
Enhance Self-Awareness: Therapy can increase your awareness of when and why decision fatigue hits, helping you to anticipate and prepare for it.
Improve Mental Stamina: Just like a coach helps an athlete build physical endurance, a therapist can help you strengthen your mental stamina for making decisions.
Support Your Journey: Most importantly, a therapist provides support and validation, ensuring you don't have to face the fatigue alone.
Decision fatigue is a real and challenging part of modern life, but it's not insurmountable. With the right tools and support, you can learn to navigate your daily decisions more efficiently and with less stress. It's okay to seek help, and doing so is a decision that may just rejuvenate your decision-making prowess and overall mental health. If you're feeling worn down by the weight of constant choices, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. It could be the best decision you make today.
Looking for a therapist to help with stress when it comes to decision-making? Discover the convenience of online therapy with Better Minds Counseling & Services. We specialize in assisting adults with stress through our virtual mental health solutions. Brittany Webb, LPC CCATP, a certified clinical anxiety treatment expert and licensed professional counselor, is ready to help you relief stress and increase your decision-making abilities! Schedule your free introductory session with her today!
Blog Disclaimer - These posts are not meant to treat, diagnose, or serve as a replacement for therapy. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health emergency, please contact your local crisis center or dial 911. Here are more immediate resources as well.