Decision Fatigue: How Your Brain is (Surprisingly) Tired
Are you that person who can stick to routine no matter what the circumstance?
Who can set the phone down after a crisis call from your sister and then lace up for your afternoon run?
Or wake up after your first night in Paris and knock out the hour of writing you accomplish every morning?
Or receive an offer for free nachos and not cancel the healthy dinner you’d planned for yourself?
If you’re that person, this post is not for you.
I wish this post was not for me. But it is for me. It is so for me that I am the one writing it.
Do you ever spend so much time trying to figure out what to do with your time that the figuring out of things becomes a significant chunk of what you actually do with your time?
Yes, the subtext is that nothing actually ends up getting done. Subtext is great, isn’t it?
I know there are other ways. That’s part of why I frustrate myself; why am I refusing to act on better alternatives?
I could go the Derek Sivers route—apparently he’ll go months at a time for 12 hours a day doing nothing except for eat, sleep, and work on a project (this I learned in a spectacular Tim Ferriss Show interview).
Or I could go the seemingly-common route, compartmentalizing activities to fit in nice little blocks throughout the day.
Perhaps I could do day-longs—one day I work on the book, the next day the blog, the next on one of my other projects.
I have options, folks. I have lots of great technique options. But it seems lately that the one I go with most is the deliberation option.
Part of the problem is that when I bounce around location-wise there are logistical things to deal with: is there a workspace in the new home, how do I get around, do I need to be home at certain times for the animals, etc?
And because I’m a perfectionist I want to be sure I plan out the new living routine just right.
The absolutely idiotic side to that is that I spend so much mental energy trying to allocate my time “efficiently” that I blindly wear down the time clock in the process.
Ah, a lightbulbian interlude…
Do you know why I love writing? It gives us answers.
It’s just occurred to me that I’m suffering from an acute case of Decision Fatigue-itus.
The more decisions we make in a day, the worse we become at making decisions.
You want proofs? Check out this study on decision fatigue. In it, judges who spend the whole day deciding on parole cases are repeatedly less likely to grant freedom to those who petition later in the day.
Turns out we’re not just wrestling with willpower, self-discipline, and basic intelligence.
As the day wears on, we get stupider with every decision.
“It’s not like getting winded or hitting the wall during a marathon. Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. “
What has happened to me lately is that I haven’t noticed my decision queue getting congested.
Before housesitting in Austin, I was living in seclusion in Santa Fe and my day’s biggest decision was “Do I want green or black tea this morning?” (Even that was/is pretty hard.
Then came people and activities and travel. Decisions like, “What should I do with my remaining days? Whom should I see? Where next? Should l I repack? Should I stay in California after my next housesit?” Blahhhh blah.
Look, I know some of you reading this have actual adult/parent/spouse/boss big-deal decisions to make every day. Respect. You exercise that decision-making muscle like a boss and no doubt it is stronger than mine.
Difficult decisions mine often aren’t, but they still take up mental energy.
Being distracted by various geographical migrations (and maybe things like the opposite sex) has left me less mindful of my mental processes.
My therapist has often asked me:
“Are you living the unexamined life?”
Turns out sometimes I am. It’s like I was lifting the decision weights, but not paying attention to form. Like sleepwalking weightlifting.
It’s taken me a few weeks to realize that my decision-making capabilities have become weak (af).
“When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further).”
If I’m not mindful toward the things going into my brain, I end up enfeebled and confused, a caged sugar glider trying to escape grasping human hands.
A Truman-show camera would show me doing lots of reading (digesting other brains to avoid my own), covering miles of Sacramento streets with earbuds in (podcasts & audiobooks, same intent as before), and cooking (I just know what to do already ::hair toss and careless shrug::)
In short: I’ve been putting important things off.
The following shouldn’t sound like a hippie concept: Mental energy is a thing.
In the realm of decision fatigue, mental energy might simply be called ego. There is only so much ego we can work with in a day, and if we let it leak out onto unimportant decisions, we have less of it to devote to important ones.
The real kicker for those of us trying to get things done is that it often doesn’t really matter which project we work on, as long as we are making progress. (This doesn’t apply to deadline projects, but creative endeavor type things).
In my case, I
want need to begin making an income from writing. One voice tells me the quickest way is to finish my travel book, while another cheers on a different/easier book, and still another tells me to focus on this blog.
But you know what The correct path is not mine to know, and it certainly isn’t mine to control.
Now that I’m aware of the decision fatigue nest in my head, I’m going to spend less time deliberating and more time pre-deciding or drawing straws.
One immediate upside to this is that rather than ask myself if I should eat another piece of cheese, I’m just going to do it. (I am a simple woman.)
I’ll choose something to work on, I’ll stop when I feel like stopping (rather than trying to decide whether it’s okay to stop), and then I’ll start with something else. I’ll also designate specific times to check my phone, since that’s a particular issue of mine. (oh—you too?)
Be more like the robot.
By the end of the day , whatever it is I worked on will be that much closer to completion. That’s all, and that is enough.
And look, I just finished a blog post. Now what should I do?!
If you want some ideas on avoiding ego depletion, check out this great Huffpost article with 8 Ways to Combat Decision Fatigue.
Also, if you research this yourself, you might find that lately there have been studies showing difficulty recreating findings on decision fatigue and ego depletion. Usually, I love Slate, but found their headline and content in “Everything is Crumbling” to be melodramatic for an article that turned out to not make any definite claims.
I scoured numerous studies and it seemed to be that the naysayers are just being recalcitrant (that’s an oversimplification, but still). To me it’s obvious that studies on decision fatigue must to factor in how much a person actually cares about the various decisions at stake.
One study tried to measure ego depletion simply by having people do an exercise where they had to decide when to press a certain computer key. No emotional stakes there, so of course they won’t be as worn down as if they were trying to decide which button to press in order to save a mouse’s life or something.
Anyway, the concept of decision fatigue just makes sense, and even if it doesn’t, what could be the harm in being more mindful about the the things we think about?
The best part is that overcoming decision fatigue is relatively easy. Just chill the f— out. What do you think?
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