Decision Fatigue

One strong reason to simplify: decision fatigue.

The more we have to decide in our life, the stronger the chance we’ll make poor choices.

This article in the New York Times, Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue, gives a good overview of how decision fatigue affects our modern lives.

There’s a reason we find it harder to resist brownies later in the day or make impulse purchases at the end of a day of shopping. Making decisions, even small ones, is mentally tiring and our capacity for decision making is finite.

What to eat for breakfast, what to wear to work, which route to drive, go out for a morning coffee or stay in, all of these choices fatigue our brains.

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. – John Tierney for the NYT

Our recent car purchase was a win for avoiding decision fatigue. We talked over our needs for the car for a long time before we even looked at vehicles. After some online and casual in-person browsing we test drove one car that fit our needs.

Then we bought it.

We avoided going out to a dealership or large car lot that had cars out of our price range.

We made our decision on a relaxed weekend day when we weren’t rushed or too tired.

Buying more car than we planned on wasn’t an option.

It’s nice to book a win once in a while because I know decision fatigue affects me a lot.

It’s one of the reasons I try to stay out of stores unless I have a list. It’s one of the reasons I meal plan and use a grocery delivery service. If I’m tired or hungry or shopping with children in tow, I am much more likely to buy things I don’t need.

One of my projects in the next few months is to build out a good capsule wardrobe. My current wardrobe is a mix of nursing tops and threadbare jeans.

I’ve found that when I want to look at clothing, online or in stores, or try anything on out of my own closet, I can’t do it late in the day.

As described in that NYT’s article, I agonize over decisions and become paralyzed by them. In the end I just chicken out and do/buy nothing.

New plan: do small tasks, like searching for second hand medium weight floral scarves on eBay, first thing in the morning.

How do you avoid decision fatigue?

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  • I used to be incredibly impulsive, but now I find myself taking years to make a decision. I’ve gotten rid of clothes that are falling apart or don’t fit (and will never again fit because they’re so small), and now I can’t seem to buy anything to replace them. I’m down to very few items now, and I look less put together than I’d like. I finally broke down and bought underwear last week after my husband gave me an ultimatum about my pathetic 8 year old cheapos that were threadbare and full of holes.

    • Oh, I’m the same! I would love to have more clothes, but in the last year it seems that I’m just not able to buy any! I reduced my wardrobe to nice minimalist amount of pieces some time ago, and then I put on a bit weight and some clothing have slowly started falling apart, and now I am quite unsatisfied with the rests of my wardrobe. But glad to hear I’m not alone :-) Any tips?

    • Same here, Starr. I think some of my inability to make a decision is from decision fatigue, the other is that I am so aware of all the bad buys I have made in the past.
      I read an e-book, The No Brainer Wardrobe, and it was a great pep talk/ how to about how to dress for your style, figure and budget. I am actually going to read it again before I make any decisions.
      Feeling ready to get a bit of my style back after pregnancy and the postpartum stage(s). And my jeans really are threadbare!!

  • Honestly, jeans and nursing tops sounds like a pretty good capsule wardrobe. You can add a couple of pairs of pants and skirts for summer, plus cardigans for winter, and be good to go.

    I am currently hugely pregnant, so whittled down my pre-maternity wardrobe and packed it away due to an imminent house move, and am finding the capsule wardrobe I currently wear very liberating.

    As I gradually replace clothing over time, I am strongly considering going the jeans and t-shirt only route. Works for Simon Cowell :-) I live in America. There are few occasions for which jeans and t-shirts are not appropriate. By t-shirt I suppose I could also include some sort of knit top of the type usually accepted in most workplaces. I can also add a couple of pairs of pants for when I really need them. Living in the Uk (where I am from) I know you sometimes have to get more dressed up. The pressure is insidious whenever I go back to visit.

    • People here do dress up more than back in very casual Vancouver. I don’t feel the pressure too much but I am feeling some excitement and motivation for dressing with a bit more style. Nothing too adventurous but just taking a little more care, wearing accessories, etc.

  • This is such perfect timing for me! I’m sure a lot of women are refreshing their wardrobes right now too. I needed to take my daughter (5) and I for a summer wardrobe refresher; just a couple pieces. I first went online to search our normal stores to see who had the best deals and to really get a sense of what I wanted before I even walked in the door. We went to only one store and got just a handful of pieces (for me two dresses, a skirt, and two camis). That is everything I need for the summer along with what I have already, which isn’t much!
    My daughter loves to shop but she did so well! We took a load of stuff into the dressing room; she had a blast trying everything on and then we laid everything out on the floor to take a good look. She knew she could only pick two outfits and she did! She already has that disconnect with wanting more stuff, it’s great.
    Thanks for your post!

  • Looking at this from a different angle; I get decision fatigue with what I already own. I think that’s why there’s perpetual clutter on top of the fridge, on the washing machine, etc…. because when I have time to clean I’m too mentally exhausted to figure out what to do with the stuff or where to put it. I have two little boys and a baby, and I’m constantly bombarded with whiny questions and demands all day… major decision fatigue ensues! Lately I’ve thrown perfectly good stuff in the trash because I just can’t deal with it or hassle with finding a new home for it.

    • Katie – I think I’m in the same boat as you are! My husband and I are trying to whittle down our existing belongings before our next child arrives this fall. Since we already have an active 10-month-old, full-time jobs and that whole “parental exhaustion” thing going on – it is hard! However, I keep telling myself that every “thing” that I get rid of is getting me closer to my goal of overall minimalism. :)

    • I hit decision fatigue with our stuff when we did our big purge almost three years ago. In the end I gave away or donated a lot of things we could have sold (in big debt at the time so the money would have helped).

      I linked to a blog a few weeks ago where the mom was following Simplicity Parenting’s decluttering guidelines for her kids but struggling. In the end she decided to just declutter the kid’s rooms by throwing all the stuff in her extra bedroom. The kid’s room are in great shape now and she will slowly pick through the stuff that needs to go that she has put in the spare bedroom.

  • Oh. My. Goodness.

    I cannot thank you enough for posting this blog, and the link. I am sitting here at my computer, crying my eyes out. This explains a lot that has been going on with me, and I never understood it.

    Last July, my seemingly healthy father was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer. The doctors gave him 12-18 months. God only gave him 7.

    Since that time, I have felt paralyzed any time I’ve needed to make even the most minor decisions. There is soooo much catching up I have to do … decluttering, organizing, maintaining. Because during the seven months of my father’s illness and the month or so after, my time, mind and heart were very busy elsewhere.

    A grief counselor told me that my inaction and lack of productivity are “normal.” She blames the grieving process, plus some level of trauma from the rapidity and ugliness of our situation. But I’ve been particularly puzzled by my inability to make even minor decisions. And my bizarre recent tendencies to act on impulse … something I typically don’t do.

    This kind of explains some of my problems. I spent the last year making literal life-and-death decisions with my family. Every day, hour and minute seemed critical, and every decision one of life-long impact. Now, in reaction to that extreme situation, I find myself not even wanting to choose toppings for pizza or whether to wash towels or lights first.

    This gave me a new way to look at my situation. Thank you.

    • Hi Lesley, I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing here, particularly the assessment from your grief counselor that this is a normal reaction. Take care, Lesley :)

  • Decision fatigue (on the part of buyers who had been bidding for hours) helped me score a lovely dining table for $25 at the end of an auction today.

  • Thank you for sharing the article and your thought around it!
    I am 44 years old and had a severe burn-out 15 months ago. Doing much better already, but still not fully recovered. My burn-out was due to life-long mental violence. My father. The longer the time to bild up a burn out, the longer the way back.

    I have relized that daily routines help me enormously to minimize stress. I have been adding habits in my daily life in tiny, tiny steps, one in a time over a long time. Having small tasks put as daily, weekly or monthly routines I do not need to make decisions whether it is time to change to sheets in beds, clean the house, do some yoga, take the dog out, check my emails, book hair-cut, uproot in garden and so on and so on. I have a certain time in a day, week or month when I do these and other even smaller tasks. I has helped me a lot at have things running somehow without feeling stressed. The only thing is to keep these habits and do not give up though I sometimes try to explain to myself that maybe I could let it be today.

    Your post made me understand why this works: I do not need to make decisions wheter is time to do something or not. I just do and feel less stressed.

    Thank you!

    • As a mostly stay-at-home mom, a predictable routines and tasks are so important for me and my family. Not having to decide what’s for dinner each day really helps me make better decisions the rest of the day. Thanks for sharing your experience with decision fatigue and how to avoid it. Cheers, Rachel

  • We just have so many choices. We have to choose a telephone services provider, a gas provider, a water provider, an electricity provider. Then schools for our kids, where to shop, where to go on holiday. I think it leaves us profoundly dissatisfied. More worryingly, it’s hard not to have that feeling of “if I’d made decision x instead of decision y, then this wouldn’t be happening now”, and it makes us feel as if everything is our own fault.

    Sometimes I stand in the supermarket, and look at the zillion choices of laundry detergent, and think “I just want a packet of laundry detergent”, but the fact that there’s a whole aisle means I HAVE to make a whole series of choices, even if I don’t want to.

    Thanks for posting.

    • the fact that there’s a whole aisle means I HAVE to make a whole series of choices, even if I don’t want to.

      Yes! We mostly do online ordering and home delivery for groceries here. It helps me in so many ways. Our meals our planned out in the online ordering system, I don’t have to make many choices and I don’t have to walk down an aisle and decide between 30 different brands of toilet paper. Once I have confused myself over what the best deal is there how will I have the energy or will power to resist throwing in an impulse buy bag of Oreos! :)

  • Love it!~ this is great on a day where I am ready to recapture the house after a week of ignoring it! Less is SO MUCH MORE> Toy purge coming, watch out littles!

  • As a stay at home mom I feel this often – by dinner time I just can’t make any more choices or decisions. I think it’s one of the reasons I like to shop at Costco (I am in Canada) so much. The store’s stocking premise is to offer less choice to its customers – there are only 3 choices for laundry soap, two for chocolate chips, one ketchup. It’s much nicer to shop there. I must get back to menu plans – I did them for years when I worked, and they are so handy.

  • Given that I encountered your post immediately after spending 2 HOURS shopping at a craft store for just some basic sewing notions, yes, I can relate. As I was leaving I felt drained and unable to concentrate, and I was thisclose to grabbing some restorative chocolate in the checkout line. In my case, I needed not only a list, but a personal guide to direct me to what I needed and nothing more. Having to walk every aisle when you can’t find something is a great way to up the distraction factor!

  • You should try ‘thred up’ for women’s clothing – some even still have tags on them and you can sort by name brand or price, etc. – much less hectic than a shopping mall.

  • This is such a timely post! Lately i have been really suffering to make decisions of any kind, like what to get rid of, what to keep, what to buy etc. I am also in the process of building a capsule wardrobe buying from ebay (used) and am finding it overwhelming to say the least. I used to just do the skinny jean with a few tops and cardigans to mix and match but have been wanting to go a bit dressier after reading ‘madame chic’ and also that my husband likes me wearing dresses. That was good advice to pick a time when im not already tired (like at the end of the day with my toddler!). Thanks for the great post, always inspiring:)

    • Oh, I also buy preloved from eBay. The thrift stores on our island aren’t great and I am an unusual size. Plus with our proximity to the UK eBay has a lot of great options. I buy the boys shoes and some clothing on eBay. After a few frustrating searches I realized I need to shop by brand to reduce the options. Clarks and Converse (with velcro) for shoes, a mix of Next, GAP and Boden for clothes. I’ll be doing the same for myself and searching by brands that I know fit me. Good luck!

  • I suffer from sensory overload. I use a calendar for almost everything, believe it or not. At one point I even scheduled when I did my laundry, washed my hair, waxed, and even when my kids had a sore throat ( I can easily tell a doc when an illness started, or something happened to the kids). Another step I took to reducing my stress of decision making was to schedule shopping times. In Sept I get the kids four sets of school uniforms and one gym set, two pairs of sneakers, winter outfits, pjs, and new coats if needed. In Christmas and their b-day each gets a dressy outfit. In January they get a new pair of shoes to begin the year. In summer the kids get about 10 outfits and two more pair of shoes. Before buying I check what they have left over or can be passed on. For myself, I’m buying every 2-3 years only if something needs to be replaced. When it comes to cleaning, I tried scheduling, but realize that with four kids its easier to just clean when I see it needs to be clean. For summer vacation I just made a calendar with our ” tentative trips” so I don’t go crazy deciding what to do, and also added in activities to do at home, plus things I want to teach my kids this summer.

  • ADD: I’m still working on menu planning, this is by far the hardest part for me. For dressing in the morning without the hassle of deciding, I make a day of the week when I sit in my bed to put together 7 outfits; during the week, I grab whatever set I feel like wearing that day.
    The beauty its that its already prepared and no thinking is involved every day. I also include the underwear and bra that goes with it. The next week I switch the tops and bottoms to make a different outfit. I do the same for the girls summer outfits, but they really don’t always use the system.

  • I have always agonised over decisions, nothing to do with too much stuff but just that I had to make the RIGHT decision (I am a Libran and I am sure that has a lot to do with it). However, I also firmly believe in gut feeling so a couple of years ago I decided to apply gut feeling to all decisions whether it was what to put on in the morning to what colour to paint the kitchen or what to chose from the menu in a restaurant. It was hard at first, but once you start listening to your inner compass it becomes remarkably easy and I have yet to make a decision I have regretted. Go with the gut and cut out the stress.

  • Thanks for sharing this insight & the link to the article which I actually read entirely without skimming!

  • Great link–loved the article. I was a teacher before being a stay at home mom. Probably will be after again in some way. At first, I hated the idea of providing too much structure for my students. I thought it wasn’t good for thm. I soon learned to become very, very consistent, to use routines and to select and present options to students carefully, I’m in the process of doing the same with my very –ahem–dynamic 4 year-old daughter. The artcle really explains why all that works! Maybe I need a routine.

    I found your blog after doing my morning grocery order online. My husband pointed out that with the online shopping we don’t have the 2 for one offers and so on. But in France as in the States those ‘deals’ are rarely savings once you calculate them. I once saw cans of beans on ‘sale’ 10 for $10–the price for a single can: 99 cents! But with all the confusing info and calculating what’s actually cheaper, the knee-jerk, exhausted reaction is to buy whatever is ‘on sale.’ Online grocery orders seem to be such a great way to handle shopping with willpower–as is having a predictable list and meal plan. Untill they find a way to make online shopping just as treacherous 😉

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