Decision Fatigue

By Alec C. Tefertiller

Here’s a very interesting article on Decision Fatigue. The idea is that the more decisions you make during the day, the more “mental energy” you use, making it increasingly difficult to make decisions as the day wears on:

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. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.

Interestingly enough, a study by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister at Florida State University (my alma mater — Go Noles!) revealed there is a fairly simple solution to this: food. With a spike in glucose, a decision weary mind has the energy it needs to get back on track, making good decisions.

This news affects me in two ways. As a creative, I make small decisions all day long: red or blue, cut here or cut there, use this word or that word, as well as large decisions, which is necessitated by working on multiple large projects (trying to decide what to work on and when is exhausting). As someone who is trying to lose weight, it’s disheartening to hear that the thing that might give me the willpower I need to resist the cupcakes is, in fact, the cupcake.

The good thing about this research is that it suggests there is a strategy for maintaining mental sharpness over the course of the day. Here’s my strategy:

  • Eat healthy, eat consistently. Breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, and an early dinner consisting of high fiber foods with healthy carbohydrates (veggies and fruits that are low in starches and simple sugars) is essential
  • Schedule accordingly. Begin the day with the most creativity intensive and decision-requiring work. Don’t schedule meetings back to back. Push paperwork and non-critical emails to the end of the day. Don’t make major decisions late in the day.
  • Schedule time for silliness. Take fifteen minute walks to daydream, or doodle, or unplug for awhile to let your mind wonder. Basically, let your brain take a break from making decisions three or four times a day — maybe more on particularly stressful days. While it’s hard to take breaks when there’s a lot going on, it might be the key to making sure stuff gets done.

What’s your strategy?


Photo credit: Alexa Szlávics [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons


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