Cartoon of an indecisive man in a suit. White arrows point left and right beside him and there are question marks around his head. This symbolises decision fatigue.
Image: © Knut/Stock.adobe.com

What is decision fatigue and how do you avoid it?

10 Nov 2022

No matter where you are in your career, you could be hit with the inability to make strong decisions. We have some tips to help with that.

While technical, hard skills are required for most jobs, some of the key abilities employers will be looking for as we move to a more automated world are soft skills around problem solving and decision making.

However, it is important to recognise the challenges that come with increasing the amount of decisions you have to make.

Decision fatigue is a psychological phenomenon which can see a person’s decision-making abilities worsen as the quantity of these decisions goes up.

The concept is also known as ego depletion and is based on the idea that willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources, almost like running down a battery.

For anyone in a role where decision-making is a key skill they need on a daily basis, decision fatigue could affect the way they work.

Whether making too many decisions in a row leads to a mental block at the end of the day, or too many options in one decision is leaving you paralysed, it’s important to look after your brain throughout your workday to ensure the phenomenon doesn’t catch you out.

Spread out your strategising

If you think of your decision-making abilities as a cup of water that is only refilled at certain times in the day, you will most likely spread out how often you drink from it so that you don’t use it all up too quickly.

This is the exact approach you should take to making decisions. If you’re in a leadership role, try and make sure you’re not making too many big, key decisions in one day. Where possible, break up this work with a task that is a bit easier on your brain.

Make key decisions early in the day

People are often most energised at the start of the work day, and it can be tempting to clear some of the easier tasks during this time.

But you shouldn’t waste the opportunity to capitalise on your peak mental energy in the morning. It’s a good idea to plan for brainstorming and key decision-making early in the day and save the ‘lighter’ tasks for the afternoon.

Take a break before deciding

If you’re faced with a decision that you simply can’t get your head around, it’s time to walk away from the desk.

Make a coffee, go for a quick walk in the fresh air or do something completely different to distract your mind, like doodling. This can both give your mind the rest it needs and it could free your thoughts up to figure out the answer in the background.

Reduce your options

Decision fatigue can come from too many decisions or too many options to choose from. If the latter is happening to you, start by eliminating some of the options.

If you stop trying to focus on the right answer and start with figuring out the definite wrong answers, you will simplify your decision and make it easier to create a pros and cons list for the remaining options.

Hash it out with someone

Brainstorming with another colleague is always a good way to unclog a mental block when you’re trying to figure out the right decision.

Even just explaining the task at hand to someone else can help your brain get a clearer picture of what your objective is, while a second pair of ears can bring diversity of thought.

Have confidence in your final choice

Another aspect to decision fatigue is losing confidence in your ability to make good choices, which could in turn become a self-fulfilling prophecy as you no longer trust your own judgement.

Once you logically make a decision about something, have the confidence to stand by that decision. This doesn’t mean every decision will be right, but it means that you will have faith in your instincts. This enables you to learn from the experience and continue to make strong decisions with confidence.

Reduce external decisions

For anyone in high-level jobs who have to make many decisions every single day, it can feel like there is no let-up on having to choose. The exhaustion from this can lead to you struggling to decide things outside of work too, from what to watch to what to have for dinner.

If you can’t control the number of decisions in your job, consider reducing the daily decisions you have to make outside of work. Have a meal plan for lunches and dinners so you don’t have to spend mental energy figuring out what to cook. Make a loose plan for what you’re going to wear. Decide in advance how you’re going to unwind each evening.

It may seem small but taking these smaller decisions out of your hands can leave you feeling less exhausted from a day of making high-level decisions at work.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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