Managing Decision Fatigue

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Shorter Version

Est. Reading Time: 1 Minute

Every morning, you wake up and face dozens of daily tasks, choices, and decisions. There are never-ending to-do lists, personal errands to run, money situations to deal with, food and wardrobe selections, and business or career next steps to consider. So is it any wonder that by late in the day your brain isn’t functioning quite as quickly as it was first thing in the morning?

Decision fatigue refers to “the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making.”  

Think of it like this…

Think of it like this: you just hit the gym, did a super hard workout, and your muscles are starting to shake – you just can’t push them anymore. The same thing happens with your brain. Researchers and social psychologists have termed this “Decision Fatigue.” In short, the more decisions we have to make during the day, the less likely they are to be good ones.

Luckily, there are easy ways to minimize decision fatigue. Maintaining a consistent routine and minimizing the number of decisions you have to make on any given day are the two biggest keys. (Ever wonder why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same hoodie, day in and day out?)

Skip to Actionable Steps

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Longer Version

Est. Reading Time: 3 Minutes

Is decision fatigue a real thing?

According to Psychology Today: “No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price…The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and, eventually, it looks for shortcuts…Today we feel overwhelmed because there are so many choices.”

And decision fatigue can negatively impact almost every area of your life. Like the rest of your body, when your brain gets tired, it looks for ways to conserve energy. This can lead to impulse decisions, or not making a decision at all. It’s at this time when you are most likely to reach for a sugary fix or fast food instead of healthier choices.

You may give in to the temptation of those new shoes and completely blow your budget, fire off a snappy email instead of a thoughtful response, or say yes to things that you really don’t want to do, simply to get the other person to back off.

Marketers and commissioned salespeople have been harnessing the power of decision fatigue for years. It’s why you are constantly being presented with multiple buying options and add-ons, usually escalating in value, because you are most likely to give-in after enough pressure and time. This is something to keep in mind the next time you are making an online purchase, standing at the checkout, or the big one, when deciding on an expensive option on your new car. Interestingly, studies have also shown that judges are more harsh, and quick to rule later in the day, after hearing numerous cases.

Routine routine

Understanding decision fatigue and managing it in your own life can literally determine how successful you will ultimately be. Having a routine is at the top of the list. Routines limit the number of decisions you have to make every day so it increases your odds of doing things that are in your best interest, and most aligned with your overall life vision. Try to automate as much as you can; go to bed and get up at the same time, hit the gym at the same time, and have a consistent healthy breakfast. An effective daily routine at the start and end of your day can be your biggest weapon in combating decision fatigue.

Have a plan

I often talk about the benefits of planning your day the night before. This includes what’s on your to-do list, your appointments, food choices, and your wardrobe. But also consider setting guidelines for yourself in other areas of your life. Automate your finances as much as possible with recurring bill payments. Allocate what you have for saving, investing (I love Stash for $5 a week!), and recreational spending.

Consider your clothes

Remember Mark Zuckerberg and the hoodie? He’s not the only super successful person to limit wardrobe choices. Think back to Steve Jobs. And I love this quote: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” – Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States.

Most of us wear only 20% of our clothes 80% of the time anyway – we have our favs and wear them again and again. But if you don’t like the idea of limiting your wardrobe (not my thing either!) at least lay your clothes out the night before and consider grouping your closet for the different seasons, even packing away off-season items. Remember, this is about developing a routine for the low-level stuff so you have more brain space for the big things.

Actionable Steps


Automate everything

Put whatever you can in your life on autopilot, especially the day to day stuff. Have set routines for meals, clothing, basic finances, and fitness if that’s part of your lifestyle.


Make your most important decisions early

Have a big decision to make? Do that first thing in the day when your mind is sharp, clear, and uncluttered. This is when we make our most thoughtful decisions. Researchers have found that as the day wears on our decisions get riskier.


Eat healthy, eat often

Low blood sugar or an empty stomach are not good partners for well thought out decisions. Being hungry dramatically lowers your impulse control. Have nutritious snacks around and be good to yourself by getting enough to eat when you need it.


Have a process for making big decisions

When you have a difficult or important decision to make, have a process for weighing the pros and cons. A decision matrix is a widely used tool, but even making a list and seeing everything in writing can be a huge help.


Just stop

If it doesn’t feel right or you are really unsure, just stop. Most decisions aren’t life threatening, but can be life altering if it’s a snap decision. Give yourself some breathing room and come back to it with a clear mind.

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About the Author

Hunter Phoenix

Hunter Phoenix

Certified Professional Life Coach

Hunter has an M.A. in Psychology and is a Certified Professional Life Coach. For more than 10 years, she coached clients to find and follow their passion and live their best lives. Hunter has also done youth coaching work with Covenant House, realizing that this is such a challenging and important time in life.
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