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Decision Fatigue: The Cost of Distraction

decisions decisions

Netflix exhausts and overwhelms me. 

I open it up and am confronted with 45 new titles, in addition to the thousands of titles already in their library. I spend 30 minutes scrolling through my options, only to end up watching an episode of The Office that I’ve already seen three times. 

The problem is not a lack of options, but having too many. Trying to decide between all the titles is too difficult and I end up choosing something familiar. 

If this over abundance of choice was limited to Netflix, it wouldn’t be much of a problem. Unfortunately, it’s not. Every day, we are forced to make hundreds, if not thousands of decisions. The white shirt or the blue one? Answer emails or work on the screenplay? Make dinner at home or go out? 

While each of these decisions may seem inconsequential, they have a cumulative effect. The more decisions you must make, the more you experience decision fatigue, and decision fatigue almost always leads to poor choices. 

However, when you understand what decision fatigue is and how it works, you can structure your activities in such a way that you avoid it altogether and consistently make smart choices. 

what is decision fatigue
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What Is Decision Fatigue? 

In order to make a good decision, you must weigh all the factors involved, decide what’s most important, and then act based on that analysis. Performing these calculations requires mental energy, and your ability to make good decisions declines with the number of decisions you must make. 

Decision fatigue sets in as you make more and more choices. Your ability to weigh all the relevant factors and decide on the best course of action declines and you end up making progressively worse choices. 

A study by the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated the critical role that decision fatigue plays in making choices. In the study, researchers examined 1,112 parole rulings that took place over a 10-month period. They wanted to determine what factors determined whether a judge would grant parole to a criminal. 

You would expect factors like the severity of the crime or behavior in prison to be key determinants in whether a prisoner was granted parole, but that wasn’t the case. 

The researchers discovered that the biggest factor was the time of day. 

The judges were far more likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day and immediately following lunch. Why? Decision fatigue. The judges were freshest at the start of the day and just after coming back from lunch. They could easily weigh all the variables and make the right decision. However, as the morning and afternoon wore on, they became increasingly fatigued and had more difficulty evaluating the cases before them.

The moral of the story? Decision fatigue is a huge factor in decision making, and the most successful people take steps to reduce the number of decisions they must make. 

Mark Zuckerberg wears the same type of gray shirt every day. Steve Jobs could almost always be found wearing a black turtleneck and jeans. During his presidency, Barack Obama limited his outfit choices to either a blue suit or a gray one. 

The fewer decisions you have to make, the more energy you can devote to what really matters. 

Decision Fatigue and Willpower

A key factor in decision fatigue is willpower. 

A large body of research shows that you have a limited supply of willpower, and every decision you make saps a bit of that willpower. As your willpower drains, so does your ability to choose the best thing. In psychological terms, this depletion of willpower is known as “ego depletion”. 

This is why it’s so hard to go to the gym after a hard day at work. Even though you know that you should work out, you used up all your mental energy and willpower making decisions throughout the day. 

The key implication is that when you reduce decision fatigue, you have more willpower available to help you make smart choices. 

(Note: I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there is some debate within the research community over whether ego depletion is an actual phenomenon. If you want to dive deep, you can do so here.)

Decision Fatigue and Distraction

Thanks to our smartphones, the number of decisions we must make every day has exploded. Every time your phone buzzes or dings, you must decide whether to look at the notification or keep working. Scrolling through Facebook or Instagram might seem mindless, but it’s not. You have to constantly decide whether or not you want to like or comment. Every text message forces you to decide whether to respond. 

According to Vox, the average American adult spends a staggering 3 hours and 30 minutes on their phone every day. These are not neutral hours. They are filled with decisions and choices, and each of these decisions erodes a bit of your willpower and increases your decision fatigue. 

Yes, your smartphone can be a wonderful tool. But having it constantly on you can also reduce your ability to think clearly. 

decision fatigue and distraction
Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

You Might Be Experiencing Decision Fatigue If…

You’re most likely to experience decision fatigue when you’re physically, mentally, or emotionally depleted. When you’re in a depleted state, you simply don’t have the necessary energy to make difficult decisions. 

If you’ve been in meetings all day or spent hours working on a mentally arduous project, there’s a good chance your decision making muscles will be worn out. If you’re emotionally worn out due to difficult circumstances, you’re going to have difficulty thinking clearly. Physical exhaustion will also take its toll, draining you mental sharpness. 

There are also specific times of the day when you’re more likely to be gripped by decision fatigue. Just like the parole judges mentioned above, your willpower and decision making ability will probably decline as your day progresses. By the end of the morning and afternoon (assuming you take a lunch break), you’ll most likely be running on fumes. 

If you want to overcome decision fatigue, pay close attention to the rhythms of your day. 

6 ways to prevent decision fatigue
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6 Ways to Protect Yourself From Decision Fatigue

So how can you keep yourself from sinking into the depths of decision fatigue? Here are some relatively simple solutions to put into practice. 

1. Simplify Your Choices

Fewer choices means fewer decisions. Can you… 

  • Simplify your wardrobe by wearing specific outfits on specific days of the week? 
  • Consistently eat certain foods (granola for breakfast, etc.)? 
  • Time block your day so that you know what tasks you’ll be doing at each moment? 

The simpler your life becomes, the less decision fatigue you experience. 

2. Identify Your Priorities

Knowing your priorities keeps you focused on the work that matters most. It prevents you from  having to constantly decide what deserves your attention. You can devote the lion’s share of your energy to working on, rather than sorting through, your task list. 

3. Make Simple Decisions Ahead Of Time

The more things you decide in advance, the less mental energy you need to expend in the moment. Try to make as many simple decisions as possible ahead of time. You can easily plan out things like what you’ll eat the next day (or week), what you’ll wear, when you’ll work out, etc. 

4. Work On Difficult, Important Tasks First

The more difficult a task, the more important it is to work on it when you’re fresh. As the day progresses and your willpower decreases, it will become increasingly difficult to summon the motivation to tackle the challenging items on your to-do list. 

5. Fuel Your Body

This should be obvious but it’s frequently ignored. Decision making requires energy, and in order to function at peak capacity, you need to give your body the energy it needs. Eat consistently and eat healthy. Get adequate sleep at night and don’t hesitate to take power naps. 

6. Eliminate Distractions

As noted above, distractions (especially digital ones) divert your attention and chip away at your mental energy. Eliminating distractions is a great way to protect yourself from decision fatigue. 

With Freedom, you can easily block out distractions, including those time-sucking websites you’re tempted to browse for “just a second”. And the recurring schedule feature can automatically block distractions during set times and days, reducing the need for discipline and willpower.  

Decide Less, Decide Better

When it comes to managing decision fatigue, the goal is not to eliminate decisions altogether. Rather, the goal is to have more energy available for the decisions that really matter. Instead of devoting equal amounts of energy to your Facebook feed and the novel that’s going to launch your writing career, you can focus on the thing that truly will transform your life. 

Eliminate the unnecessary and dedicate yourself to the extraordinary.