Why We Experience Decision Fatigue

Contrast between healthy or unhealthy food for breakfast


H: Are you hungry?

A: I could eat.

H: What are you in the mood for?

A: I don’t know. You?

H: Hmm, maybe Chinese?

A: I could do Chinese. Where should we order?

This is a conversation that my husband, Alex, and I have several times a week. If it’s not about ordering out, it’s about what to put on as background entertainment while we doze off. More often than not, we become either so exhausted or so disgruntled by our indecision that we end up snacking on cheese and chips and falling asleep before we can decide on a movie.

Neither of us is particularly indecisive. So what is it about the clock striking 7 p.m. that stymies us?

Four years ago, I read a profile of President Barack Obama in which he explained that he only wears gray or blue suits. Why? “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing…you need to routinize yourself.” He couched his rationale with research by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister on decision fatigue — a phenomenon which illustrates that the more decisions we have to make throughout the day, the harder it becomes for our brains to make them.

A lot of people wear a fashion uniform as a way of avoiding decision fatigue. Mark Zuckerberg, for one. Steve Jobs used to — remember his black turtleneck and tennis shoes? This isn’t a behavior relegated to the tech crowd, though. When was the last time you saw Karl Lagerfeld not wearing his iconic suit and glasses? And apparently Anna Wintour has had the same hair since age 15 — no word on when her staple sunglasses made their first debut.

Regardless of whether it’s their wardrobe or other parts of their lives that are streamlined, research shows that successful people rely on routine, precisely to avoid decision fatigue.

Here’s why:

Through his experiments, Dr. Baumeister came to a conclusion: our willpower is finite. The more challenging or stressful the day, the more likely we are to break resolutions once we’re given a chance. This is why you’re more likely to “treat” yourself with dessert or an unhealthy meal at the end of a really stressful day. This is also why supermarkets stock checkout counters with all sorts of impulse buys. They’re counting on your decision-making powers being extra weak at the end of an exhausting shopping trip.

Imagine your willpower as fuel, the amount represented in a gauge — the sort you’d see on a car’s dashboard. Now imagine every unpleasant task as a steep uphill course for which you really have to press down on the willpower pedal. Every hill uses up a bit of your willpower until, at the end of the night, you’ll not only find yourself unable to make decisions, but also more likely to make ones that aren’t in your best long-term interest.

Decision fatigue is closely related to a phenomenon called ego depletion, which essentially shows that if you have to force yourself to complete an unpleasant task (or to keep from engaging in a pleasurable activity), you will be less able to exert self-control for the next hurdle.

One of Dr. Baumeister’s experiments does a really great job of illustrating the interplay between exercising willpower and decision-making. Hungry participants entered a room where they were provided a plate of cookies and a plate of radishes. Some participants were given two cookies; others were given two radishes and told not to touch the cookies. After they were done eating, they had to solve a puzzle. The people who had to eat the radishes quit trying to solve the puzzle way before those who got cookies.

Short of having an emergency cookie repository on hand every time we have to make a decision, how can we get a healthy handle on decision fatigue? This is challenging because there are more options than ever before in essentially every conceivable sphere of life, from what to eat to what to do for a living.

Endless choices are taking a toll. Millennials are called the Peter Pan generation because of our inability or perhaps unwillingness to grow up. We’re making commitments to careers, to partners and to children later in life than any other generation thus far. I reached out to Dr. Baumeister for his take on whether millennials are flailing under the pressure of endless choices, and he agreed: “The human mind is not changing as fast as the circumstances it has to deal with. There is [probably] more decision fatigue [today] than ever.”

If that’s the case, are millennials doomed to a life of indecision? According to Dr. Baumeister, there’s hope. “In the absence of team dressing,” he says, “the next best thing is effective habits. Habits take much less willpower and choice, as opposed to ‘authentically’ deciding everything every day.”

So, establish healthy habits and routinize frivolous decisions. But didn’t someone say that variety was the spice of life? By routinizing, are we sucking the fun out of being human? Not necessarily. Apparently, people who practice higher self-control are better at making decisions that play into their long-term goals. They’re also happier than people who give in to temptation easily.

As to where we’re ordering Chinese from tonight — well, in light of all this, I’m looking for a new go-to place. Any ideas?

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Illustration by Jamie Jones for Getty Images.

Helena Bala

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession.

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